Taking a good look at the film and data to assess Luke Walton’s staff
The Lakers have underperformed the expectations the team and their fans had this season. Luke Walton has been under fire as a result of that. Today, I want to take a look at the performance of Luke and his staff in the ways we should actually be assessing coaching staffs.
I want to start out by saying that I haven’t been of the opinion that the Lakers should fire Luke Walton. In my eyes, their last reasonable chance to do that and have a chance to get a new staff, their principles, and their sets in was during the All-Star Break. We’re likely riding this out with Luke for the rest of the season, upon which time LA will have the chance to terminate his contract and explore other options.
The options they can look at during the offseason will be far wider and better than the jobless options available today. LA can’t go grab an assistant like Ettore Messina from the Spurs or John Beilein and his staff from Michigan today. Any move made now will be from a smaller and worse candidate pool. I’ll save options for who should replace Luke and his staff for later on, once we have a better idea of who will be available. But I will say that I am 100.00% of the opinion that Walton and his staff are among the worst in the NBA and should be replaced this offseason.
That aside, let’s get into it.
Excuses / Confounding Factors
First, let’s get these out of the way.
- No, Luke didn’t hand pick this roster
- No, Luke didn’t injure Lonzo Ball, LeBron James, Josh Hart, etc.
- Luke hasn’t been the one starting trade rumors for seemingly every player on the roster
Those all make his job more difficult, but certainly don’t inhibit us from assessing the performance of Luke Walton and his staff. And I don’t mean with wins and losses.
We are where we are. Luke was dealt a poor hand. But good coaches still make the most of what they’re given. A bad roster isn’t a unique issue. Injuries happen. Over the last two seasons of the Lakers actually trying to win games, they’ve had an average amount of games lost due to injuries, per InStreetClothes. The situation is what it is. So what did they do about it?
Here are the ways I’ll be looking at Luke Walton and his coaching staff today:
- Player development
- Culture & Leadership
- Relations with media and the front office
I won’t be looking at roster construction and trades. I won’t be looking at prospect scouting. Neither of those two things relate to Luke and his staff.
Expectations for Luke Walton
Our expectations for Luke Walton were unrealistic. There is a certain murky culture around coaches and accountability. We know every player and what they do, but almost none of us could rattle off every member of their favorite team’s coaching staff and the roles and responsibilities of each member.
The staffs are fine behind the scenes, but it makes speculation on our end as media or fans much more difficult. The lack of understanding that breeds from this cloudy profession leads to a lot of guessing. We saw that when Luke Walton was hired from the Warriors to take over for the Lakers.
I directly interface with executives every day in my job. In my role I see what they do, I have a decent sense of what they’re responsible for, and I understand how to work with them to help achieve business success. I can even repeat some of the common phrases or outline at a high level our strategies. But if another firm were to hire me, I absolutely could not fulfill the roles and responsibilities of those individuals I work with. I could do my job and give you the human capital knowledge I provide today, because… ya know… that’s what I was doing before. But I couldn’t set up a supply chain or any number of the technical things my co-workers perform on a daily basis, because my roles and responsibilities aren’t their roles and responsibilities, and our KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) are far different.
Hiring Luke Walton, who by all accounts was a player development coach with the Warriors, and expecting him to bring a skill set in Xs and Os that had nothing to do with his job with the Dubs. I’m sure he could recite and draw up several, but that’s a lot different from having the understanding to teach an offense and adapt it in the ways necessitated by today’s highly tactical NBA. I’d guess he could memorize and regurgitate some Xs and Os the way I could with managerial accounting. I can spit it back up, but there’s no way in hell I could teach it to people, or need to take my understanding of the concepts and morph them to changing conditions. No way.
Sure, he can say ball movement is important and generally have the egalitarian strategy down, but that’s about as deep as it’s gotten. The schemes themselves are vastly different. The Warriors run the closest we have in the NBA to a motion offense, with tons of set plays sprinkled in. And the Warriors run probably the most sets and action in the NBA. They use strong and weak side actions to get their players in positions to succeed, constantly pressuring the defense and finding ways to get Steph Curry and Klay Thompson wide open, which is the exact opposite of what every single coach and team playing the Warriors want to allow.
I recently heard Coach Gibson Pyper mention on a podcast that he had about 130 set plays diagrammed from the Dubs and Steve Kerr’s offense. You may know Coach Pyper as @HalfCourtHoops on Twitter, owner of the HalfCourtHoops YouTube page, and the owner of The Basketball Playbook website. On his site, he has a Kerr Warriors playbook breakdown for sale that includes: “Motion Offense Clinic (45 Minutes), Motion Offense Concepts (1 Hour 45 Minutes), Video Playbook (6 Hours), and a PDF Playbook (150 Pages).”
The Lakers’ offense is almost the antithesis of that, with probably less than 30 sets that could be drawn up if you locked scheme fans in a room and forced them to watch Laker film. It was so bad Walton’s first season that when I was diagramming plays for 2K, I watched dozens of games and just could not get to the number of sets they wanted from the Lakers, so I had to fit in a handful of sets from my own playbook. And the magic number they were looking for was 40 plays, not 130.
Coach Pyper doesn’t have a Walton playbook up for sale, and I don’t expect that’ll change. I recently surveyed a handful of scheme experts to see if what I’ve been seeing is what they see, and the Lakers routinely came up as one of the worst teams schematically on offense. I’ll go into the Lakers’ offensive scheme in more detail later, but I wanted to set the stage and say that what Luke has brought to LA from Golden State stops at the high level talking points and general philosophies.
I’ve heard that Luke Walton’s brief stint as acting head coach of the Warriors was the proof needed to say that he would be a great head coaching option. There’s a lot wrong with that. And it doesn’t come down to wins and losses (none of this does). What were his roles and responsibilities, and how would they compare to his duties in LA? If they didn’t align, you’re not learning much from what people would like to consider a Realistic Job Preview (RJP) in HR talk.
- In that stint, Luke didn’t need to design an offense. One was in place. He had to call out sets, but that’s far different from taking a roster and designing 50+ set plays that align with their strengths and mitigate their weaknesses. So the design component wasn’t there. The teaching component wasn’t either. Just because someone can draw up some good Xs and Os doesn’t mean they can teach the concepts and get players to understand, which is vital for execution and adjusting as defensive coverages change. Luke wasn’t challenged in that way.
- Rotations are another area he technically had charge of, but we didn’t see much change. He didn’t need to put together that staff, which is an essential part of head coaching.
- His in-game decision making was fine, but that is something that’s almost never noticed unless it’s horrific. And looking back at those games, his decision making wasn’t anything special. So while not a negative, not burning games down isn’t the thing you point to for justification on hiring a guy.
- Luke’s competencies relating to the media or front office, albeit a smaller part of the job, wasn’t tested.
- Getting buy-in from players not just to work on the drill you’re having them do, but buy into you and your philosophies when times get tough wasn’t something Luke has to experience and test himself with either.
So going into hiring Luke, we had a RJP that didn’t give us much, knowing he did player development, and a career for the Lakers to go off of. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be a good head coach, but it certainly wasn’t enough from the outside to say he’d be a good one. You’d want to carefully vet him as an option and compare with others, which they didn’t do. Luke was the only candidate considered and interviewed. That’s poor HR.
Ideally, you gauge how strong he is with specific areas of coaching (like the ones mentioned above). If you do hire him, you do all you can to put assistants around him that fill his gaps. This isn’t John Beilein or any of the hundreds of current head coaches who have staffs they have histories of working with that they’d bring with them. This was taking one piece of a puzzle and hoping it’d give you the same pretty picture that the full set did in Golden State.
Luke’s assistants are an absolutely paramount part of his hire, as they would be for any assistant who didn’t already have that group together. And with all the influence and money the Lakers do have, and with there being no coaching salary cap, they still compiled a group of assistants with minimal experience. Hell, one of the hires they made came from being a youth volleyball coach to being a Lakers assistant. That was a key miss, and we’ve felt the negative consequences of having people like Jesse Mermuys in positions they aren’t succeeding in.
To summarize, Luke’s position wasn’t competed among a pool of candidates in a way you’d want, the expectations for what he’d bring to the table were off-base, and his assistant staff was put together in a way that is nothing like what you’d expect for the second most valuable NBA franchise (at $3.7B), and we’ve gotten out of the staff what was put into it.
With all of that in mind, most have been very patient with Walton and his staff. It doesn’t hurt that the first season he was on board was one where the Lakers were more incentivized to lose than to win, or the idea that he’s been leading a roster devoid of established talent. The environment was such that real evaluation of Walton’s staff was difficult for most and had tons of excuses readily available. But almost three full seasons into their tenure, it’s time to look at what his staff actually does, not wins and losses, to grade them out.
You would find unhappy people for all 30 teams if you were to ask fans and analysts about how their coaches handle rotations. It’s not a problem unique to the Lakers.
What is a bit different is the degree to which Luke Walton infuriates and confuses those watching the games. Hockey-style lineups, playing Rajon Rondo (who has been horrible for several weeks) for a 17 minute continuous stint vs New Orleans, the lineups put on the court with none of Ingram/LeBron/Kuzma that literally everyone but Luke Walton knows will give up a run. It’s bad, and it’s happening very often.
To get a better sense of the frequency, I asked Laker fans on Twitter just how often they’re left upset and confused about Walton’s rotations. The results weren’t promising…
Laker fans, what percentage of games do you find yourself very upset and confused about Luke's rotations?
— Cranjis McBasketball (@T1m_NBA) February 24, 2019
That’s 1,005 responses, with over 75% of respondents saying that they’re left feeling that way about rotations for at least 60% of games they’ve watched. 45% said at least 80% of games.
Feel free to check out Laker Twitter *checks notes* literally any game to see this expanded upon more. Or look at what Laker Twitter looked like for the past several years. The lack of growth in this area and pervasiveness of the issue is immensely aggravating. I won’t spend much time on it here, but it’s very clearly an issue and one that we’re constantly seeing, and have consistently seen, for almost three full seasons.
To evaluate the team’s coaching staff, you’ll need to know who they are and what they do. Here is some pertinent information in that regard:
Offensive Coordinator: Jesse Mermuys
Defensive Coordinator: Brian Keefe
Offensive Optimization: Dead last among non-rookie active staffs
Defensive Optimization: Dead last among non-rookie active staffs
*Optimization data compares roster talent with roster performance to attempt to gauge how well players are deployed and utilized by the coaching staff. It attempts to look at how much coaches are getting out of the talent they’re given.
If you’d like to see optimization data for every coach since the 2013-14 season, check out our $5/month Data & Tools premium package.
Offense – 13th Percentile Optimization / F Grade
I want to first dispel the narrative that the Lakers can’t run plays because they have LeBron James on their team. LeBron has played 15 full seasons in the NBA in four different stints with teams. For the first seven seasons with Cleveland, he ran plays. For the next four seasons with Miami, he ran plays. That’s 73% of LeBron’s tenure in the NBA going into this season.
It’s the four most recent Cleveland seasons that have bred the idea that LeBron can’t, or won’t, run set plays. Cleveland did, but did have a high percentage of their offense that was primarily based around forcing a switch and then attacking those mismatches with Kyrie, LeBron, or Love, with shooters all around. It was a very legitimate strategy, and one that is very similar to how the Rockets play (and they also mix sets in). They had the personnel to do that. These Lakers do not.
I also want to note that the scheme issues I’ll share today aren’t new this season or suddenly popped up when LeBron was added to the team. These have been consistent every year under Jesse Mermuys. Only a handful of plays at the start of the season, giving LA little chance to be strong offensively. Then a slow morph into an incredibly rudimentary offense that high school and college coaches all over the country would shake their heads at. Every year.
In general, running sets is important because, if actually designed and executed well, they create advantages for the offense through screening actions that get open shots or get players a step on their defender going downhill. You can do this with motion offense as well. It’s the use of “actions,” the screening and purposeful movement of players, that generates the advantage.
What we’ll often see with the Lakers are sets that use one action. One pin down. One flare screen. One AI cut. But the often stop there. 79.1% of the possessions I logged for a handful of games had no more than one action. That’s bad. That’s really really bad. If you only try one attack before devolving into isolation, you’re giving yourself less opportunities to cause a mistake or compromise of the defense.
The following charter further details the percentage of plays with different volumes of action (BLOB/SLOB plays not counted):
Very infrequently will the Lakers get easy buckets from set plays. They do a good job with the couple lob sets they’ll run after timeouts, but there’s not much else in this regard.
To get a better sense for the types of attacks the Lakers run, here’s a breakdown from the 5 games I logged:
|Action Type||Volume Per Game||Execution Rate||Success Rate||Example Action(s)|
|Pick and Roll||48.9||62%||54%||Step up PnR, Double High PnR|
|Handoff||6.3||55%||50%||Dribble Handoff, Flip, Chicago Action|
|Cross Screen||2.3||50%||50%||AI action, Out Screen|
|Down Screen||14.6||47%||41%||Pin down, Staggered Screen|
|Flare Screen||4.3||29%||40%||Hammer flare, Detroit Flare|
|Back Screen||3.4||55%||25%||Rip, UCLA cut, Slice cut|
I logged 32 specific actions the Lakers ran, but grouped them together into these six “action families.” The execution rate shows the percentage of the time LA actually screened and ran off the screens properly. The success rate shows the percentage of the time the action run yielded an advantage over the defense. This also counts creating mismatches, or actions that set up an ensuing action. And on the far right, I listed some specific actions that fall within those families.
I find a couple things interesting about that data. Almost every type of action has a higher execution rate than success rate. Due to poor spacing and lack of other attacking on the defense, it’s a lot easier to stop a Laker pin down or handoff than it might be against other teams through your help defense. We see this a ton with LA’s back screens, where the spacing and location of the passer in relation to the potential lob receiver are so messed up that there’s no chance for the action to actually yield points.
Jesse Mermuys’ offensive scheme has low action volume. It’s the lowest of the 7 teams I’ve tracked, and I’d guess it’s among the lowest in the league. So the design is clearly not strong. Even if executed at normal levels, the poor design leaves the Lakers with a low ceiling for easy offense. Players are left to “make stuff happen,” which is never optimal. It’s fine late clock, but shouldn’t be the go-to offense with 15 seconds left on the clock.
Let’s compare some Laker plays with what we see from other teams. Here’s a simple horns set that gets a SG looking to attack downhill or a 3-point attempt (depending on how the defense plays the handoff), with options to hit a rolling 5-man, hit 4 slipping, or hit 3 coming off the staggered screens for a 3-point look. That stagger removes the chance you’ll see any help defense, making the dribble handoff much more effective. Simple yet solid.
Denver Nuggets – Horns DHO Stagger featured in our latest Plays of the Week.
— FastModel Sports® ?? (@FastModel) February 15, 2019
Here’s a set from the Trail Blazers. No rocket science, but multiple scoring options that work together to help what are already good players look even better with easy shots. This very simple play is also from the horns alignment, and uses a weak side flare screen to look to either remove help on the primary action ball screen, or give you an open 3-pointer if the help defense does come.
Portland Trail Blazers – Horns Fadehttps://t.co/CKYnfaMKyU
— FastModel Sports® ?? (@FastModel) February 9, 2019
And here’s a 76ers set that again gives the offense multiple opportunities to score. The ball screen that low on the court (a “logo” ball screen) prevents any help on the roll man, which LA could murder teams with by finding McGee lobs.
Philadelphia 76ers – Ear Tug 25 Post 1 Bump
Check out the description for more info behind the naming structure.https://t.co/DtInaAIwQc
— FastModel Sports® ?? (@FastModel) February 10, 2019
Now here’s what a Laker play might look like. A single action (a pin down in this case), with nothing setting it up and nothing following it.
Also, as seen in the chart above, the actions work less than half the time, and are executed 56% of the time. Jesse Mermuys and Luke Walton struggle to get their players to set fundamental screens and run the correct ways off of screens. Such a large part of offense is execution, which is about focus and understanding rather than talent. The reads, especially in a rudimentary offense like what LA runs, are fairly easy. Go watch some Virginia, Michigan State, Michigan, Davidson, Tennessee, Purdue, Wisconsin, or Virginia Tech tape if you want to see some of the reads executed well from shooters fading/curling/coming off screens straight.
It’s more about the teaching of concepts and drills to get players to understand how to see what the defense it taking away and react to it in a way that makes their own life easier and make themselves much more likely to get and score on an open shot. The Lakers leave much to be desired when it comes to offensive execution, and the fact that those errors have persisted for three different rosters and for vets and young players alike makes it clear it’s more on the unqualified coaching staff than the players.
But the offensive scheme isn’t all doom and gloom. There are a couple concepts they do use well, such as their step up ball screens in their secondary break, which either get a ball handler going downhill or get a mismatch early in the shot clock. LA executed on those 79% of the time they tried them, so there’s one of the few designed and executed actions the Lakers add value to their offense through. I’d certainly love to see more in terms of secondary breaks, since it’s a great way to attack before the defense is set and there are certain actions that are even more effective in those scenarios, but it’s a start.
Things also tend to go well on the rare occasions that Ingram is used off of handoffs, cross screens, and back screens. I’d love to see more of those types of actions to get him going downhill off of the catch, rather than off of a live dribble (where he’s still less refined).
We have seen some new positive developments post-All-Star Break that aren’t reflected in that data. The Lakers have discovered pin-in screens, and have done a better job finding shooters off these types of flares for shots. They’ve also been much better about making off-ball screeners threats to score if the defense switches, through sealing their man and making themselves a dump-off target.
Moving forward, I don’t expect the Lakers to suddenly make great strides with their offensive scheme, barring some consultants being brought in. They’ve run similar stuff for three years, and the quality of that offense has stayed fairly consistent throughout.
The lowest hanging fruit for improvement, however, would be to implement some freelance motion on post ups and pick and roll plays. Right now everything is stagnant in those scenarios. With some simple principles, players will know where their options are and the team would be creating more pressure with action rather than standing around or using one cut against a set defense. Split cuts on post ups and weak side flare screens on pick and rolls should be very doable, and would make a huge difference in creating extra scoring opportunities that simultaneously remove the help defense dampening the effectiveness of those primary actions LA runs.
In addition, it would behoove the team to have a more organized late-clock offense. Once the shot clock gets to 8 seconds, if someone isn’t currently attacking, get into a go-to action. If LeBron is on the court, maybe it’s a Bron perimeter or mid-post iso. If he’s not, perhaps it’s a pick and roll or a pin down. Something to get the ball in the hands of the right players late in the clock so we don’t need to see Rondo or McGee late-clock iso offense anymore.
Until the Lakers pick it up here, they’ll have a ton of stress on individual players to create plays. An off-day or injury from just one key guy can cause greater issues in that kind of offense. But that failure to put players in positions to succeed and Ingram being put in pick and rolls with stagnant players off-ball or in a plethora of iso situations will instead be viewed as Brandon Ingram just not being good.
Please, Jesse Mermuys. Please.
Side note: It’s fair to wonder what these promising young players would look like if they weren’t operating in what our data considers to be the worst environment for them to shine. We might see what appears to be a large jump in development next season purely from a coaching change and average or better scheme. Our player talent grades, which attempt to remove the impact scheme and environment has, have the comparison between Celtics and Lakers young players much closer than most realize.
Defense – 17th Percentile Optimization / F Grade
Brian Keefe runs the Laker defense. I wouldn’t say the scheme has been anywhere near as poor as the offense, but it’s been pretty vanilla. I’ll routinely see opposing teams use creative tactics to stymie Laker plays (3-man switches, pre-rotating in anticipation of actions, etc.). The Lakers don’t do that. The one creative tactic I’ve noticed LA using under Walton has been when they put a player like Josh Hart on someone like Tarik Black or Draymond Green defensively who can’t usually punish you in that mismatch. That’s great, but you need to have more than that in your bag of tricks in today’s NBA.
When I say LA’s defensive scheme is vanilla, it’s that lack of creativity along with a standard game plan that results in making it quite cookie cutter. The Lakers seemingly go into many of these matchups the way many of us do in 2K, where our defensive coverages are whatever the defauts are and we don’t change them based on who we play (I do, but nobody likes that guy taking 10 minutes to switch things around when you want to play with friends).
This isn’t to say they always do this, but they apply the same game plan a lot more than I’m used to, compared to what my high school and AAU teams did, what the teams do at those levels I’ve consulted with, what the college teams do I watch consistently, and from what I see other NBA teams do. I don’t have any numbers for this, but LA definitely seems to be on the low end of customization in this regard. Many times it works okay, sometimes it’s horrific, and sometimes it’s the perfect strategy. Praising the staff for an amazing game plan when the round peg finally meets the round hole isn’t the approach I’d take.
LA has players with certain limitations, but they do little to work around that and mix up coverages defensively, opponent by opponent. Even in-game, they adjust very slow to opposing teams burning their same screen coverages the same ways over and over again. You can’t win in the playoffs like that. Luke and Brian need to figure this out, or LA will struggle in the postseason defensively more than they have so far during the regular season. And in 2019, there’s virtually nothing teams can do that hasn’t been done before, so it’s just a matter of having the right people on staff with the knowledge and research to understand that rock beats scissors and scissors beats paper.
Overall, I’d say LA is probably a C- strategically and a D tactically on defense. Then comes in execution. Many of LA’s defensive issues come down to veterans not executing and lots of either blown help coverage or over helping. Very fundamental issues, and ones that have seemed to get worse as the year has gone on for the Rondos and McGees of the team.
Part of coaching is getting guys to go out there and play hard. And playing hard isn’t just diving on the floor and boxing out (which LA doesn’t do well at all), but focusing on defensive execution and doing the little things. This is particularly the case on defense. When it comes down to it, there’s little that separates NBA defenses from what we see in college or high school. Icing screens is still not mainstream at those levels, but most of the concepts are the same. At any level, it’s more about executing fundamentals defensively than it is trying to mastermind sets the way it can be on offense. This staff hasn’t been able to get that buy-in from capable players to do those little things, and it hurts them on a daily basis.
One area I’ve heard listed as a pro for Luke Walton and his staff has been player development. In his first year or two, when the team realistically had no chance to be a contender, this was the focus. So how well has he done in this regard?
We’ve recently developed Player Development ratings for coaching staffs at BBall Index. These ratings look at players who played under a coach for year A and year B, then measure the growth in a particular talent area from A -> B against the expected growth in that skill set, which is calculated from our database of player growth from the 2013-14 season until today, and factors in advanced position (Guard/Wing/Big) and age to calculate the expectation.
Here is how Luke Walton’s staff has graded out in each area, with grades listed being a conversion of percentiles against the other coaching staffs since 2013-14.
|One on One||D+|
Overall, Walton’s staff grades out as a D- Offensively, an A Defensively, and an A- Overall. The staffs rating out ahead of Luke’s are led by Rick Carlisle, Brad Stevens, Alvin Gentry, and Fred Hoiberg. Right behind Luke’s staff are those led by Gregg Popovich, J.B. Bickerstaff, and Steve Kerr.
While player development coach turned head coach Luke Walton didn’t bring the scheme we were hoping he would from the Warriors, his staff has developed players fairly well overall, and especially defensively. His staff doesn’t utilize his guys well to optimize that talent, but the talent is certainly growing from year to year.
If you’d like to see player development data for every coach since the 2013-14 season in every category, check out our $5/month Data & Tools premium package.
Culture & Leadership
We’ve now moved to the off-court portion of the analysis. The other area it was expected that Luke would positively impact the Lakers was with his Warriors-like approach to culture. Guys would be having fun, they’d have an egalitarian method of play and playing time rewarded, and the team would play hard behind their player coach of a leader.
Some of that has materialized. Some not as much. The players seem to have fun. Or did earlier in the season. That’s definitely gone down recently, but the locker room does generally seem to fit with what Walton wants.
LA comes to play hard on most days, but they do struggle with playing focused and executing the basics. This piece of it, and particularly the defensive buy-in to basic concepts that just require some focus and a little work, isn’t constantly there.
Luke’s rotations and their relation to play also don’t seem aligned, with players like Julius Randle being seemingly nitpicked and benched while others, like Lance and Rondo this season, consistently not executing and not facing any negative consequences from it. Game to game or in-game, the execution by Luke of the egalitarian component doesn’t quite seem right.
Where Luke has done a decent job, especially under the circumstances, is how little we hear about a fractured locker room. With as many 1-year guys and trade rumors as we’ve had in his three years, it’s impressive how little we hear about times like the voiced displeasure from some of the Laker veterans a couple weeks back.
Relations with Media and the Front Office
The last piece if this breakdown is how Luke relates to the media and front office. I’d say he’s been fine in both areas. He’s by no means become an enemy of the media or created any hostility, and does a good job giving positive answers and deflecting. Lots of coach speak and little substance, for sure. But that’s the norm, not a criticism.
We don’t have much to go off of when it comes to Luke’s relationship with the front office. A big part of that his how 99% of it is behind the scenes. Part of it is that the front office isn’t one that we can assume is acting logically.
LA’s Performance and Playoff Chances
While the Lakers haven’t seen the current roster all healthy at the same time, we did see the pre-trade roster healthy at the start of the season. And that performance may have set expectations higher than they should have.
The Lakers had a 20-14 record before LeBron went down, good for a 48 win pace. In reality, the team was playing much worse. Based on the luck-adjusted data, which will attempt to suss out the variance and randomness that will natural appear in the data (especially at a smaller sample like that), the Lakers with LeBron for that stretch were performing to the level of a team that’d be expected to be 16.9-17.1, on pace for 40.7 wins.
The difference between 48 wins and 41 wins last season would have been the difference between a tie for the 4 seed in the West and the 11 seed. So while LeBron James is undeniably a monster on the court, it’s very possible the Lakers were already a bad team that were just being held together by perhaps the greatest player to ever play the game.
Since that time, the Lakers have played like a 30-52 full-season team according to the luck-adjusted data. They’re going to need to flip a hell of a switch to make it to the playoffs. In the small sample since the All-Star Break, they’ve played like a 43-39 full-season team. Based on BBall Reference playoff odds, it looks like 45 wins makes the playoffs as the eighth seed. That would require them to be winning at a 57-25 full-season pace for the rest of the season, which is what the Warriors’ actual full season record is projected to be on their site. The odds aren’t good at all, and will require a completely different kind of performance from LA we haven’t seen this season.
Tying It All Together
So where does that leave us? Walton seems to do okay to above average with the lesser valued off-the court components. He’s done well with player development, but offensively is lacking quite a bit. And the rotations and scheme are major liabilities.
With the Lakers looking to compete, and do it through adding talent in free agency, the focus should be on strengths in Walton’s staff’s two weakest areas, rotations and scheme.
Those are the problems, but what are the solutions?
LA had a window of time this year where they could have moved on from Walton and given a new staff some time to get their feet under them. That time has passed. But that time will come again this offseason, and that’s when I predict the Lakers will make a move. They have all the information they need on Walton and his staff to reasonably predict future performance. Hiding behind the roster not being fully healthy to say they can’t assess the staff would be a gross misunderstanding of how to conduct performance management.
There was also a time this season to make assistant coach changes, and that window may still be open. Coincidentally, the areas the Lakers need the most growth are ones that can be improved by getting new assistants. That would allow the consistency of having the same head coach to hopefully keep the locker room together. That’s my pipe dream for the rest of this season, but it’s also likely just a dream now that we’ve passed the All-Star Break, which would have afforded LA a chance to install new offense.
I’ll break down coaching options in more detail at a later date, but the candidates like Mark Jackson, Jason Kidd, and Ty Lue don’t look all that appealing once their scheme film and optimization and development data is broken down. The names that will ultimately end up being top contenders are likely ones the Lakers can’t hire today. There’s a reason those candidates don’t have coaching jobs today.
But gun to my head, I’d say the best options available today that would be worth a deeper look are Stan Van Gundy, Jeff Van Gundy (I’m skeptical), and Kevin McHale. Not great compared to the names I’m about to rattle off.
Among the college ranks, John Beilein, Mark Few, Bob McKillop, Bill Self, Tony Bennett, Tom Izzo, Greg Gard, or Jay Wright would all be viable (if interested).
If they were to get fired for some reason Alvin Gentry or Brett Brown are both very good coaches with great data to back up their schemes and leadership.
Even with just adding assistants to the current staff, defensive guru Luke Yaklich or Brad Soderberg would be good options from college and likely attainable if LA were to throw money at them. NBA assistants like Ettore Messina would be worth a look as well. With any assistants, you’d want to do a lot of extra vetting to understand who is responsible for what and what their talent levels are in the core competencies of the job.
The odds are, someone among those 11 head coach options not currently available will have interest during this offseason. I’d take any of them and their staffs over Walton’s staff in a heartbeat, and it has nothing to do with their wins and losses or coach speak in interviews. It’s about what the key components of being a head basketball coach are, and how good each of those candidates is at each of those competencies.