When Luke Walton was hired as the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 2016, he inherited a roster that, while lacking a true foundational piece, was nonetheless sprinkled with young, talented players. It was easy to spot the appeal for Walton, a former Laker himself, who got to waltz into one of the most prestigious coaching jobs in the NBA without even a mandate to win immediately—nudging along the development of the youngsters would be just fine in Year 1.
On that front, Walton has for the most part held up his end of the bargain. Holdovers D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. have all progressed to varying degrees, while rookies Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac have both shown flashes of the talent that led the Lakers to draft them in the first place.
Where the Lakers' young core has yet to develop together, though, is on defense. The team currently sits a mere tenth of a point per 100 possessions ahead of the last-place Denver Nuggets in defensive efficiency. On a certain level, that shouldn't be surprising. Youth typically has a reverse correlation with point prevention, and even while giving fairly heavy minutes to (relative) olds like Luol Deng (31), Nick Young (31), Lou Williams (30), and Timofey Mozgov (30), the Lakers still check in with a minutes-weighted age about a year younger than the league average. Their kids factor in heavily, just as they did on the teams that finished 29th (2014-15) and 30th (2015-16) in defensive efficiency under former coach Byron Scott.
Upon arriving in LA, Walton singled out two areas where the team needed to improve immediately. Anyone who watched the Lakers the last two years can likely guess what they are, but Nance specified them anyway: "Transition. Keeping people off the offensive glass. Those were probably his biggest two."
But there has not been much progress in either of those at all this season. The Lakers are still in the bottom ten in defensive rebounding, and they're still getting gashed in transition every night. They're one of only two teams, along with the Phoenix Suns, that have allowed their opponents to score at least 15 fast-break points per game in each of the last three seasons, per NBA.com. They're still 28th in opponents' fast-break scoring after ranking 26th and 29th under Scott.
If Walton is concerned that his team hasn't quite made the improvements he's looking for just yet, he's doing a pretty decent job of hiding it. While the team's progress is not yet evident in the numbers, the coach noted that he's enthused that there have been spurts and even entire games where they've been locked in.
"I think we're getting better defensively," he said. "We've been, I know, statistically bad most of the season. But we've put some good games together. When you're a coach, you literally nitpick every single play. And we're putting together much more of a consistent effort of covering for each other and jumping and getting ball pressure on guards in pick and rolls instead of dying on screens. So, it's been a slower process than I would've liked but we're getting there."
The process, as mentioned, has indeed been slow. The only area of statistical improvement this season has been in forcing turnovers, and that's as much a byproduct of a more athletic roster as it is due to any tweaks made by the staff or actual improvement made by players.
Because there has not been much improvement, there have also been a lot of teachable moments for Walton to bring up in film sessions. "I'm a big fan of showing similar plays but the difference in when we defend it with the energy and the communication that we want to, and when we don't," Walton said. "I'll find examples of both good and bad of the same type of plays, just so we can have a visual of seeing what we're talking about and what we're trying to get to."
He's gotten some help from the vets on his squad, who spend portions of practices and even games imparting acquired wisdom on their younger counterparts. "Metta and Luol, all those guys, they talk to us all the time," Clarkson said, namechecking Metta World Peace and Luol Deng, and gesturing toward Timofey Mozgov.
World Peace, while complimentary of the youngins, knows they have a lot to learn–particularly about what he considers the most important aspect of defense: working together. "Communication is very important," he said. "I always try to tell people when I get chance–team defense is way more important than individual defense. You want to be able to lock up individually, but team defense is way more important. Larry Bird? Great team defender. Individual defense is cool. It's all good for your personal stats, but team defense is way more important."
Deng, meanwhile, focuses on consistency of effort. "Night in and night out, you've got to be the same guy," he said.
That's a focus of Walton's as well. "It can't just be every other time down court. You have to be engaged the entire time you're on the floor," the Lakers coach said. "I think as players grow in this league and become vets, they realize that. They learn to make that just how they play the game. At times, the inconsistency of it can be frustrating, but the guys have done a good job of trying and giving effort. It's just hit and miss a lot."
Nance appears to have taken all this wisdom to heart, synthesizing it into one lesson. "In close games, you can hear everybody on the defensive end yapping, talking, calling out coverages and stuff like that. But, sometimes when it's a dead gym or a game where not everybody has the most energy, sometimes back-to-backs, we can get quiet and stagnant," he said. "It goes back to being more consistent with everything we do."
To Walton's credit, there has been at least one noticeable area of progress for this young team: the Lakers now have a consistent system—a set of rules that governs who should be where, and when, but that also contain enough wiggle room to account for the specific talents on the other team on any given night. "We know exactly what kind of shots we want the other team to take. We know where we want to force them," Nance said. "Each possession, we know what we'd like to get out of it."
That's about as low a bar for measuring progress as you can possibly get in this league, but it's not nothing. The Lakers defense the last few years was an outright disaster, the kind of atrocity that doesn't just get fixed overnight, or even in one off-season. It takes time and work and teaching, and the patience to install a system and let the players learn it until it's perfected. Walton and the Baby Lakers are just taking it one step at a time.
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