LOS ANGELES—When Los Angeles Lakers Coach Luke Walton walks onto the court where he once played for the start of the regular season, it won’t feel for him like just another game.
“The nerves will be running,” Walton said. “But that’s a good thing. I think that’s a good thing. I imagine walking out there tomorrow night at Staples for Game 1 of the regular season will be pretty emotional.”
The Lakers will host the Houston Rockets at Staples Center on Wednesday evening. While opening the regular season does mark a change, it’s a more minor one than it has been for the Lakers of yore. The games count now, but much like during the exhibition slate, wins and losses won’t be this team’s primary measure of success.
This season isn’t about monitoring the standings or aiming for a playoff run. The 2016-17 Lakers will focus on teaching and improving. For this team, the start of the regular season will be a continuation of their past month of work in some ways. The Lakers’ rebuilding process is still in its earliest stages.
“The message we’re sending our guys is that no matter what is said, even though this is one of the greatest sports organizations in the history of all sports, at this moment in time the only thing that matters is our guys that we have in there, how they play,” Walton said. “Everything that we’re doing is for them. So don’t worry about the rest of it.”
It’s a contrast, at least publicly, to the Lakers’ thinking last season entering Kobe Bryant’s 20th and final year with the organization. Despite going 21-61 the previous season with what was then the worst record in franchise history, the Lakers returned for the 2015-16 season defiantly insistent they could contend for the playoffs. Instead they won only 17 games.
Then Bryant retired and the Lakers couldn’t land any of the league’s top free agents, again. Walton became head coach. He was tasked with improving the organization’s young core, and attacking the task independent of any future aspirations of high-profile additions.
That’s not to say the Lakers are ruling that out.
“We’ve seen that in this organization, we make a deal and things turn around,” Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak said last month. “But we’re not going into the season thinking that’s what we’re going to do.”
That patience is giving Walton time to teach at his own pace.
“They haven’t put any pressure on me as far as (wins and losses are) concerned,” Walton said of the Lakers’ front office. “I think they want to win. They want to win more than we did last year and so do I. I think right now where we’re at, it’s more important that we keep working on the basics and the setup of what’s going to get us through the next two, three, four years.”
The roster includes lottery picks from the past three drafts in Brandon Ingram (second overall in 2016), D’Angelo Russell (second in 2015) and Julius Randle (seventh in 2014) and seven players under age 25, including second-year forward Larry Nance Jr. and third-year guard Jordan Clarkson.
The Lakers made sure the veterans they signed in free agency — Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov and Jose Calderon — were all known for their professionalism. They kept Metta World Peace on the opening day roster in part because of the positive impact the veteran would have on the young Lakers.
“I really believe that these guys want to win,” said Deng, who is entering his 13th NBA season this year. “They’ve been working really, really hard. The best thing about it is it’s really a great group to be around. When you’re around a bunch of kids that are in the gym every day and want to get better, I think there’s no reason that it’s not gonna happen. It’s just, when will it happen.”
After a month of training camp, there is still a lot Walton has left to install and teach his young team. His experience tells him it takes a year or two for players to really understand a system. With such a young team, the learning curve is steep.
Because of that, not a lot will change now. Where practices might get easier for a more veteran team, the Lakers’ practices won’t.
“With a young group like we have, the amount of stuff we still need to get in, I don’t know when that’s officially going to happen,” Walton said. “We’ll probably continue to push it at a good pace at least for a while into the regular season.”
He has no timetable, and sets no deadlines for their growth, he just wants to see it. His players have bought into that idea.
“Patience, faith and trust yourself, trust your grind, trust the hard work,” small forward Nick Young said. “Trust the teammates you have out there.”
Said Clarkson: “This is where it begins.”
©2016 Los Angeles Times
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