Luke Walton has long carried the perception among detractors (which constitute somewhere between 95 and 195 percent of Lakers fans) of being Phil Jackson's "pet." The coach has affectionately referred to the small forward as "his son," and in the eyes of the Laker Nation, used Walton's triangular acumen as an excuse for minutes far beyond what would be appropriate -- somewhere in the neighborhood of "none."
But this season, similar to David Stern, the fans didn't have The Zen Master to kick around anymore.
Walton averaged a career-low nine minutes, and unlike last season, when his 29 game appearances and 9.4 nightly minutes were in part due to recurring back problems, Walton was relatively healthy. That he entered 54 games was more about Matt Barnes (and perhaps even Devin Ebanks) getting injured than PJ's desire to play him. All things being equal, the guy was buried in 2011.
The situation didn't sit well with Walton, despite PJ's explanation of a desire to push tempo with the second unit, which obviously isn't Luke's strong suit. Thus, after a season of playing the good soldier, his exit meeting turned into an old fashioned Festivus celebration.
"I felt like I had to get some things off my chest that had been bothering me for most of the season and the postseason. But all in a very respectful way," Walton said. "I told [Jackson] he means the world to me. Just so we can have an open conversation, I had to get some stuff off my chest and tell him how I felt about some things. He gave his opinion on what he thinks I should be doing in the future and he was proud to see me fight my way back through that back injury and get to a place where I could continue to play. And then he left the room and then Mitch and I talked a little bit about the future of the team and that stuff.
"You know, most times exit meetings are about what they want you to do in the summer. What kind of work outs. Where you're gonna be. Who you're gonna be working out with. But obviously with Phil gone and who knows what's gonna happen next season, it wasn't that kind of talk. It was more just about this past season and that type of stuff.
"I respect him too much to hold any anger towards him. He's been unbelievable to me and I told him that. Like I said earlier, it hurt not being able to help my teammates this year. I felt like I could have helped this team succeed and with him retiring and probably going back to Montana, I didn't want to not see him and still have these thoughts of, 'Dang!' It hurt not letting me be a part of this thing down the stretch. I felt like if I could get that off my chest it would just be better for our relationship and the way I feel towards him."
So what to make of this heart to heart?
On one hand, it's great this situation never become a public issue. I'm not saying I expected Luke to "demand a trade" -- a concept every bit as ridiculous as it sounds -- but this could have bled into the locker room, and I never got a hint of that happening. It's also pretty cool to see a coach-player relationship steeped in such mutual respect that permanently unspoken words aren't an option. And it's obviously better when a player is upset about not playing, rather than finding solace in the ability to burn money for kicks.
Having said all that, I have no idea how Walton felt cracking the rotation was an option. He wasn't about to beat out Matt Barnes as the backup small forward. He wasn't about to beat out Lamar Odom as an undersized power forward off the bench. And the scattered minutes Walton did receive -- mostly filling in for Barnes -- were pretty unimpressive. Before Ebanks' injury nixed the possibility, I actually wondered if PJ was on the verge of giving him a shot, rookie status be damned, because Walton just wasn't bringing much to the table.
As for next season, never say never, but I expect Walton's role to remain unchanged, especially if Barnes exercises his player option as widely expected. There is just too much competition ahead of Walton and, over the past two seasons, too few returns when he has been on the floor. The occasional opportunity will present itself, but without a serious uptick in performance, Walton's biggest responsibilities will come during practice and in being a good teammate, like it or not.
Walton also shared some interesting thoughts about the simplistic version of the triangle run this season and gave an endorsement for Brian Shaw as the next coach.