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The Lakers Love Basketball

A month with Luke Walton and the youthful, fast-paced, fun-as-hell Lakers, who are getting along, winning games, and waking up after the Kobe era

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Much of what you need to know about the Lakers — these Lakers, now mercifully absent Kobe’s interminable farewell tour and free of Byron Scott’s suffocating chokehold — unfolded a few nights before Thanksgiving at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Oklahoma City was in town, which is to say Russell Westbrook was in town, which is to say Russell Westbrook was cooking. He flambéed the Lakers defenders and barbecued the box score, to the tune of 34 points, eight boards, and 13 assists, putting the Thunder in position to escape with a tight road win.

With the Lakers down one with seconds remaining, L.A. rookie swingman Brandon Ingram tried to push into the paint, only to have Thunder defenders wall it off. Ingram turned and passed to guard Lou Williams, who was stationed behind the arc. Except, no, that’s not quite right. Ingram passed toward Williams, an important distinction. The ball was intercepted, stolen by an unwitting thief: guard Nick Young.

In what future swag scholars will inarguably hail as the most Swaggy P play that Swaggy P ever gifted us, Young — who was lost and looking for space — wandered across the passing lane at the exact wrong time, snatched the ball out of the air, took somewhere between four and all the steps, and jacked up an impossible off-balance 3. Which went in. (If I can watch only one NBA play ever again, make it that one, and give it to me A Clockwork Orange–style.) The crowd went nuts and the Lakers went nuts and, just to widen smiles from Compton to Calabasas, Young commemorated the event by co-opting D’Angelo Russell’s proprietary “ice in my veins” celebration. Russell, who was on the bench with knee soreness, absolutely loved it.

Afterward, Twitter and Swaggy made the same joke about the improbable game-winner, but Luke Walton told it best. “I think it’s absolute b.s.,” the head coach smirked, “that he doesn’t get a steal on the stat sheet.”

Can you imagine any of that happening a year ago? Can you imagine the Lakers even being in the game? Can you imagine anyone but Kobe taking that shot? Can you imagine Byron Scott laughing and shaking his head along with the rest of us at the inexplicable craziness of it all? Can you imagine Young and Russell embracing the moment and, more importantly given the drama between them, each other? You can’t imagine it, because those Lakers were programmed differently.

Whatever last year’s Lakers were — selfish, boring, toothless, boring, divided, outmoded, boring — this season’s version is the gleeful opposite. Once marginalized, the young players have been empowered. Walton has sent them out in concert to make mistakes and grow and learn and, surprisingly, win. Or at least win more than many of us expected.

“There’s a lot of built-up stuff,” guard Jordan Clarkson said. “Us wanting to win, and getting hammered those two years that I’ve been here, that didn’t feel good. Us winning games, that feels good. It feels a lot better.”

While a brutal early-season schedule recently conspired with a rash of injuries that sidelined Russell, forward Julius Randle, Young, and others for various stretches, we’ve witnessed enough of the Lakers to recognize that, when healthy, they’re putting on a much better performance than they have in quite some time. It was all right there in that Thunder game — a trailer for a movie that lots of people thought would flop but has so far entertained. But that’s all a long way of saying something simple but important, something you already know: The Lakers are fun again.

Luke Walton will hate this part. It can’t be helped. He does not want this story to be about him. He expressed as much through team intermediaries. He would prefer it be about the players. That’s understandable and expected (if cribbed from the humility chapter in the coaching manual). And it is about his players. Very much so. But it is also about him somehow putting the broken Lakers program back together, after it fell a great distance over the last few seasons. Walton won’t like it, but you have to admire the man’s trauma surgery skills.

To dissect why the Lakers are fun again, we must consider what changed and how, all of which leads back Luke. When he signed a five-year deal reportedly worth $25 million, the 36-year-old became the youngest head coach in the league. He also assumed the throne of a dysfunctional kingdom that had lost standing in the greater NBA realm. Under Scott, the Lakers went 38–126, an incongruous and dark chapter in the franchise’s otherwise storybook existence. Various preseason projections and pundits anticipated more gloom, and some around the league wondered why Walton wouldn’t wait for a better opening. (“I thought he was fucking nuts,” was how one NBA executive put it to me.) But if he had any hesitation at all, Walton said it was only about leaving a pretty sweet assistant coach setup in Golden State.

“Being a young coach, I have so much to learn still about this job, but I wasn’t in a rush to leave by any means,” Walton said. “I wasn’t offered any other jobs. We kind of agreed on a deal pretty quickly. There weren’t many places I would have left for.”

Where others thought the gig looked a lot like a rebuild, Walton saw an opportunity that was “too good to pass up,” a chance to return to the organization he knew best and exercise the skills he acquired under Steve Kerr in Golden State, a man he lauds at every opportunity as a mentor and close friend. Walton ripped out the Lakers’ plodding, iso-heavy style and installed an offense that plays fast and moves the ball. It’s proved especially beneficial for Russell and Randle. Russell’s PER has ballooned from 13.2 a year ago to 17.2; Randle’s jumped from 13.9 to 16.2 (this season’s figures current as of Monday). Meanwhile, Clarkson’s productivity is nearly identical to last season’s despite playing fewer minutes per game and adjusting to a reserve role, and Ingram is being phased in as part of the most productive bench in the NBA.

And yet, despite having some of their forward progress slowed over the past week or so, the Lakers remain among the knot of teams clogged near that last Western Conference playoff spot. A season ago, they didn’t secure double-digit victories until February. This season, they reached that milestone in November — with upset victories over the Warriors, Hawks, and Bulls — even though they were underdogs in eight of their first 10 wins. Last season, they were 16th in pace and 29th in offensive rating; this season they’ve climbed to seventh and 15th in those respective categories, per NBA.com. And while the defense still gives Walton fits (they surrender an unsightly 108.4 points per 100 possessions), the Lakers’ new approach is a radical and necessary upgrade that cribs some of the code he helped write in the shadow of Silicon Valley. When he was asked before a late-November L.A.–Golden State clash how much Walton had copied from the Warriors, Kerr laughed and said “pretty much all of it.”

“Not all of it,” Kerr clarified. “But most of what they do mirrors what we do. I took a lot of what we do from Gregg Popovich, from Phil Jackson. You kind of learn from your mentors and go from there. Then the whole league takes bits and pieces from what they see and what they like that might fit their style. And I think the way we play fits perfectly with Luke and his guys. They have young guys who are talented, who can run, so they’re playing up-tempo, they’re moving the ball, they’re fun to watch.”

To hear the players tell it, they’re enjoying it too. After they dispatched the Hawks at home on November 27 (sweeping the season series), center Tarik Black sat at his locker and gushed about how they’re having “a blast” because “we’re not selfish in this locker room.” A few feet away, Clarkson echoed the sentiment, trumpeting the all-for-one, multiple-musketeer ethos they’ve adopted. Five Lakers are averaging north of 12 points per game, but none averages more than 18. Walton also ladles out minutes in a way that keeps many of them nourished but none of them fat; nine Lakers average more than 20 minutes, but no one eats up 30 per game.

It is an interesting ecosystem — which does not mean it is absent the usual food chain concerns. The food chain still exists, it’s just not quite so bloody as in recent memory. Three of the four players with the highest usage rates are also young guys in whom the franchise invested heavily: Russell (20 years old, 28.6 usage rate), Clarkson (24, 24.5), and Randle (22, 21.6). The fourth (and the team leader) is veteran super sub Lou Williams. With Russell and Randle recently sidelined, Ingram saw some spot starts and increased opportunities. All of which is by Walton’s design. The rotations. The minutes. The communication. Especially the communication. It’s an attempt to restore the agency that some younger players had stripped away by the previous administration. (Which does not mean that Walton is immune to the allure of traditional coachspeak. He’s fond of a particular Larry Bird quote, which he’s shared with his players and the media: “Never let winning make you soft. Never let losing make you quit. Never let your teammates down in any situation.” As Rick Astley covers go, it’s pretty great.)

“He definitely puts you in position to hold yourself accountable, hold your teammates accountable,” Russell said. After Walton took the job in April, but while he was still with Golden State during the postseason, he and Russell texted nearly every day about what the Warriors were running and how it might be similar in L.A. “Everyone’s relationship with him is 100 percent,” Russell said. “He gives everyone a voice, an opportunity to speak their mind at any given time. Not a lot of coaches are like that, just in general.”

Where Scott sometimes left Russell or Randle at the end of his bench to atrophy in key situations — only to later, and hilariously, assert that they loved him and he was surprised to be fired — Walton frequently leaves his young guys alone in critical moments to succeed or fail. He contends it’s the best way to learn, something he credits Phil Jackson with teaching him. He also encourages them to speak their minds and even challenge him when they disagree with a decision. Which they’ve done. Which is fine. At present. But what happens when it’s not so constructive? It’s fresh now, the new best-buddies phase. But the deeper you get into a relationship, the more pointed conversations sometimes become. It’s something to monitor, but it’s working well enough to start.

About that: When the Suns were in L.A., Walton looked around midgame for someone to cool off an on-fire Devin Booker. Walton found his man: He gave the assignment to Nick Young.

Here we pause for a quick compulsory aside: Walton put Nick Young in for defense. This Nick Young:

Walton did so because, as he keeps insisting, Young has been one of the team’s better defenders. If turning Young into a willing and even useful option at that end of the floor isn’t an endorsement of Walton, nothing is or ever will be.

But back to that particular decision. It did not go over well with Clarkson. Not at all. He told Walton so right away, right there on the sideline for everyone on the bench and in the stands to witness. As Walton later admitted, “J.C. got upset with me.” Some coaches would take umbrage with that. Some might bristle and interpret it as an affront to their authority.

“The fact that he stood up and told me he wanted it?” Walton asked rhetorically. “I love it. It means they’re taking accountability and ownership for the team. As they should. This is their team.”

It’s precisely the kind of management that has quickly endeared Walton to Clarkson and Co. Instead of an authoritarian style that invariably wears on professional players, he’s opted for something closer to communal. Of course, critics would caution that’s not necessarily positive or productive. Anyone who read Ethan Sherwood Strauss’s Draymond Green piece has internal alarms sounding right now. The athlete-coach relationship, especially when not separated by a significant age gap, is tricky stuff. However fine the line, one exists between cool young dad and pushover who wakes up and finds that his teenagers cracked up the car when he got comfortable and dozed off. Walton isn’t blind to the potential problem. Most of the time, he said, he doesn’t feel old — until he does, until he looks around and sees 19- and 20-year-old faces staring back at him and he recognizes certain things that he termed “immature moments.” But that Phil voice inside his head, it keeps telling him that’s all part of growth, and for now growth is everything.

“It just shows our connection,” Clarkson said about the Booker exchange. “We’re really comfortable with him. We all want to win. He has the same goal in mind. We’re all just clicking. Everyone has a great relationship with him. It’s amazing to have someone that can connect with you and have the confidence to let you come up and say stuff like that to him.”

Clarkson was specifically talking about Walton, though it was hard to hear his words and not consider them a tacit indictment of the man Walton replaced. The juxtaposition of philosophies is obvious and startling enough that one league executive had to laugh. “Luke is Bizarro Byron,” he quipped. (Scott did not respond to various interview requests.)

While amusing, it was a macro evaluation. I wanted something more granular and asked him to identify some details of Walton’s influence as he saw them from a distance. “They share the ball,” the executive immediately replied. Then, after a beat, he added, “And they don’t look like they want to kill each other anymore.”

Do we have to talk about what happened? Again? Yeah, we probably do. Because we can look at how they’ve played and cross-reference that with data and player anecdotes and draw conclusions about Walton’s overarching impact. But at present there is no advanced metric that properly measures interpersonal communication and locker-room chemistry and how it’s changed year over year.

Of course, you don’t really need numbers to know when two dudes have made up after one of those dudes — either knowingly or accidentally — used social media to break up the engagement of the other dude. And you definitely don’t need numbers to know that the second dude really hated the first dude, especially when the second dude threw shade at the first dude on Twitter.

A brief refresher: In March, a video surfaced of Russell asking Young, then engaged to Iggy Azalea, about him being with other women. The internet freaked out. Anonymous team sources crushed Russell. Russell became such a pariah that no one would eat breakfast with him, which must have really sucked because McDonald’s has all-day breakfast now.
Russell apologized. Young tweeted and deleted some jabs. Russell made a pretty funny commercial about it — which Young found not funny at all. And somewhere in there, they made up. Fin.

The somewhere is the thing. Back in September, Young told TMZ that Russell is “good” with him and critics should ease up. It’s possible those remarks were made in self-interest; at the time, no one seemed sure whether Young would make the Lakers roster or get cast into the league discard pile. It’s also possible Young has simply forgiven Russell and moved on. They’ve certainly seemed cordial on the court and in the locker room when media is permitted in.

After Russell scored a game-high 32 points, including seven 3s, in a mid-November win over the Nets, Young wandered over to Russell’s stall. Swaggy was dressed the way you imagine Swaggy would be dressed — like Prince had left him clothes in his will. He was wearing a deep purple jacket that may have been suede or velvet, white T-shirt, tight black leather pants and oval-shaped, tinted glasses. Irony being lost on him, Swaggy set in on Russell and teased him about his outfit — a peanut-butter-colored sweat suit with strategically placed rips and holes and quarter-cut-off sleeves. Young laughed and left. Russell did the same. All good.

Whatever reconciliation occurred, Walton had no part in it. He never talked to them about what happened, though he was prepared to do so if anything flared up. I wanted to ask Young about his relationship with Russell, but right before we were scheduled for a one-on-one, he suffered a calf injury in a blowout loss at New Orleans and canceled. On his end, Russell isn’t directly addressing what happened between them last season. Part of that is owed to Lakers PR handlers who instructed him not to discuss the topic, a disappointing but predictable position. Instead, we chatted about what he called the Lakers’ “new vibe.” Here, again, the conversation funneled back to the Thunder game. While he can’t or won’t revisit the unfortunate flap, he made sure to head-nod in the direction of Young’s “ice in my veins” postgame homage.

“It was cool,” Russell allowed. “He gave me some love at the end of the day. It was cool.”

More than a quarter of the way into the season, the Lakers are certainly ahead of whatever curve you prefer to grade them on. But it is a long campaign, and they’re young, and the injuries are mounting. They would be forgiven if they fell out of the playoff fight and into the tier of teams that don’t yet have the requisite postseason punch. After all, as pleasant as the present has been, they are still about the future.

Walton swore that, coming into the year, he didn’t care about the team’s final record — though he conceded he “definitely would not have guessed” they’d be in their current position considering the difficulty of the early-season schedule. The winning, he added, simply “makes the job more fun.” And there’s that word again. Fun. They use it casually and constantly, and almost to a man.

“The fact that we’re able to win some games while we’re focusing on who we’re trying to become makes coming into work every day a lot more enjoyable,” Walton said.

Even so, he stressed that the staff’s unrelenting message to the players is about the nagging details of the everyday NBA grind and not a possible playoff push. Russell confirmed the memo has been received. He’d like to make the playoffs, certainly. But he swears he’s trying to ignore any external pressure and instead focus on “how we feel about each other.” That might sound like a cliché, but perhaps he was hinting at personal and professional course correction, and not just for him. After a November 30 road win over the Bulls — part of a brutal stretch that featured four games in five nights and a border crossing into Canada — Young bounded onto the bus on his one good leg and declared, “I like that, you all! That’s what I’m talking ’bout!”

It’s been a rapid metamorphosis for the Lakers under Walton. If coaching doesn’t work out for him, the man can always launch a self-help support group for players. David Allen or Tony Robbins, but with basketballs. (So basically Phil 2.0 updated for millennial consumption.) Consider how they break the huddle after timeouts: with the united refrain “I love basketball” — a mantra that began as a bit of a gag before being reverse-engineered into something closer to earnest. Wherever you think that ritual falls on the spectrum between corny and cool, it still tells us something about them. Something simple but important. Something maybe we didn’t know before, but do now.