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Thursday, January 14, 2010
Can Luke Walton's return help build on a team-centric win?

By Andy Kamenetzky


Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images
Luke Walton's recent return made a difference against Dallas.



Certain topics are better left untouched unless discussed by a group of people capable of a calm, rational dialogue. Your garden-variety "hot bed" subjects. Politics. Religion. And, as my years spent interacting with Lakers fans has often demonstrated, Luke Walton.

I'm not kidding.

It's often amazing how a Laker fan's dander gets raised over their team's eighth-ish man. Resentments have included paycheck (too high), athleticism (too low), race (too white, which makes him too tempting for media pimpage) and background (too "Bill"). They also found him too much of a pet, specifically Phil Jackson's, which equals immunity from rotation dismissal, despite gradually dwindling stats. That PJ has decreased Walton's run over the years, played him largely off the bench and even buried him to start last season mattered diddly. Walton often remained a whipping boy and I imagine this ain't changing anytime soon.

Except among his teammates.


On a few occasions after Pau Gasol's return from the first hamstring injury, whenever Kobe Bryant fielded questions about what the Lakers were capable of at "full strength," without fail, he'd dismiss the question, reminding they weren't at full strength until Walton --averaging a shade over ten mpg- overcame the pinched nerve in his back shelving him 28 games. I mentioned this at practice, and Bryant didn't miss a beat. "I felt it was unfair for people to say when Pau gets back, we're a full team," insisted Kobe. "It's not right at all, because Luke is a big, big part of what we do."

Need evidence? Kobe cited a key stretch during the fourth quarter of the previous evening's shorthanded win over Dallas. "We ran the offense through him for a stretch of five or six minutes," nodded Bryant of a period when Walton, Lamar Odom, Jordan Farmar, DJ Mbenga and a hobbled Bryant (back spasms) doubled a three point lead. Bodies and the ball moved, reminiscent of the triangle offense at its best. "He really, really had a big impact on what we did last night," praised Bryant, sentiments echoing Jackson's immediately following the win. "It was good to have Luke in there. He had four assists, team leader in assists. He changed the game for us because we had an answer when he was in there and did a good job.”

It's kind of fitting group efforts against Dallas (and in Brian's and my opinion, the second half of the previous night's loss to San Antonio), where the Lakers worked more as a unit than several previous games combined, would coincide with Walton's return. Not that Walton is literally "the reason" for a cooperative mind meld. The circumstances --Pau's latest absence, Kobe's back spasms nixing his "security blanket" skills, quality of road opponent-- played a much bigger role in making the unified front mandatory. For that matter, it's impossible for a guy playing 15 minutes (tops) to be a "cure-all." But I don't think it's entirely coincidence, either. Generally speaking, when Walton's on the court, the ball moves more, players move more and shots are easier manufactured, all of which creates a domino effect in bringing out the Lakers' best.

"When you have good offensive balance, our defense picks up," noted Lamar Odom, another guy who's nothing if not willing to share the rock.

Walton definitely subscribes to the notion of unselfish play snowballing. "The thing you notice about basketball is that everything is contagious," observed the forward. "When the ball gets moving and people know they're gonna get a pass when they're open, that a lot of times leads to them to make an extra pass when someone else has a better shot." Because of how the triangle offense flourishes when everyone moves the rock (as opposed to dumping off to a certain shooting guard and watching like statues), Walton always reminds teammates to keep running the offense and moving, with the promise of being found at the right time. "I tell them, cut hard, I'm gonna throw you the ball if you're open."

It hasn't taken Ron Artest long to notice Walton's ability to back up his word. "He's one of the best passers on the team, if not the best passer."

With Gasol set to return Friday against the Clippers (fingers crossed), that means Odom will resume his role as "Mob Boss." And as el jefe charged with guiding an inconsistent bench unit, Odom has mentioned a need for the largely young reserves to play as a group without concern for individual numbers. It's a directive he won't stop issuing, a goal Walton as facilitator-in-crime can help "tremendously." (When I asked Walton if he felt his presence could help maintain the team-centric roll, he offered a modest, "I hope a lot.") According to Odom, the two share "one-hundred percent" the "same outlook" on the game, and you ask if LO, similar skill sets. "He's a triple-double player."

A bit of hyperbole for a player yet to even record a trip-dub over his career, but Lamar's point is clear. Walton is on the court to do a little of everything, which allows others to do a lot more specific things, a skill set that can go unappreciated. Kobe guessed this is because Walton's not "flashy or whatever," even though the Lakers "know what he's capable of doing," and Mamba may be onto something. I've heard from countless Lakers fans who don't exactly understand what Walton --a player with below average speed, non-existent hops and an often startling propensity for getting blocked-- brings to the table. Without question, Walton's a player of physical limitations and hardly "the key" to a repeat, but when I asked if people don't appreciate his contributions, the often-criticized Odom couldn't hide his amusement.

"Of course, they don't," said LO with a hearty laugh. "Because they don't realize how much I help, (too)."

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