Walton Begins Lakers Tenure Doing What He Does Best: Bringing People Together

Kevin DingNBA Senior WriterOctober 27, 2016

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 26:  Luke Walton of the Los Angeles Lakers reacts during the first half against the Houston Rockets at Staples Center on October 26, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Luke Walton gave them the twinkle fingers as his wave, in addition to his usual endearing grin.

The two women closest to his heart swooned.

They already looked angelic up in their seats, both wearing white, smiling down and continuing to clap their hands involuntarily long after he was gone. Walton had just delivered an unexpected victory in his first game as Los Angeles Lakers head coach, and never did a wife and her mother-in-law look more unified than at that moment.

Shoulder to shoulder in the stands behind the Lakers bench late Wednesday night stood Walton's wife, Bre, and his mother, Susie. Much as he was able to bring together these two women, it's quickly becoming clear that Walton has a knack for forging strong bonds in all walks of his life.

The Lakers beat the Houston Rockets 120-114 Wednesday night because Walton performed another delicate operation in relationship building. He slighted a young and talented guy by playing him only six minutes, 38 seconds in the first half (after taking away his starting job in training camp) and still drew a much-needed surge from him at just the right time.

"Everything we're trying to preach right now," Walton said, "is it's not about individuals. It's about us as a team."

Perhaps that's why Jordan Clarkson, the aforementioned talented, young, demoted player, didn't express a sense of I-told-you-so after he scored 12 points and came up with three steals in the fourth quarter.

"You see us, jumping around, having fun, laughing, smiling. It's just great. We're all out there competing; we're really excited about the year. Coach came in here and changed the vibe."

When asked to detail his specific heroics down the stretch, Clarkson said, "It just felt good to win. That's all I can tell you."

There is a groundswell of community and camaraderie with these young Lakers. That sense of shared purpose wasn't possible with Kobe Bryant, whose accomplishments and stardom made him the banner headline every game.

Jordan Clarkson drives on James Harden.
Jordan Clarkson drives on James Harden.Harry How/Getty Images

Every coach in every team sport has to oversee a number of tug-of-war games between the individual and the group, but basketball with its superstar ball dominance is a unique managerial challenge.

Bryant's greatness demanded he pull the rope to himself sometimes, no matter the feelings that might be hurt, no matter if it came off as selfishness rather than working toward the greater good. It's the same game the Rockets are playing by building so much of their identity around James Harden.

Walton has neither that opportunity nor that burden.

The Lakers will be at their best without anyone trying to do too much, which fits Walton's grand goal of fostering gradual individual player development.

But that's a hard sell to players yearning to develop individually as soon as possible—and to fans who want that development to have happened yesterday.

Perhaps it's because they've seen more than their share of shows being stopped by Bryant in the past 20 years, or because they've been beaten down by the frustrations of the past three years, but Lakers fans are liking this team thing.

The energy inside Staples Center on Wednesday night was rare. In some ways it felt like a playoff game, and fans spoiled by past success have rarely wanted a win more, whether in October or April.

They roared in the first quarter simply because rookie Brandon Ingram contested Harden's shot, which banged off the rim. And they were on their feet midway through the fourth quarter—long before Clarkson's finishing flourish and before D'Angelo Russell beat Harden to a ball he had lost with a dive that literally scraped the tiger's nose on Russell's new right-knee tattoo.

The energy was contagious. Nick Young even dove for the same ball Russell had jumped for, an act of Swaggy sacrifice that left Walton joking about not being sure he had really seen it (and prompted Clarkson to promote Young after the game for NBA Defensive Player of the Year).

Of this new Lakers core, Russell is the most ready for every-night, game-long star turns. He dominated the opener early on, owning the game with the same offensive flair and confidence Bryant showed. Russell even crowed about it to the fans from whom he'd never felt this kind of love:

There will be nights when Russell doesn't stop, but you can be sure that more of those nights will come in his future than his present.

For now, he needed the kind of collective effort the Lakers received against the Rockets. Russell's moment became Julius Randle's moment, and Randle's moment became Clarkson's moment. Others pitched in. Timofey Mozgov started nicely, and even Metta World Peace instilled pride from the bench. The depth meant fresher legs under every pair of gold shorts in the fourth quarter when Harden looked like he just got back from his preseason trip to China.

There's a flip side to that youth, however, found in the nervous mistakes young teams often make down the stretch of games. But for a night, that wasn't an issue for L.A.

"It's funny," Walton said. "When you're on a winning team, you find ways to win."

The Lakers are not in any way supposed to be a winning team.

Clarkson is supposed to be out of sync and uncertain from underuse early instead of saving the game in the fourth. Everyone is supposed to hesitate at the moment of truth if the team is structured for everyone to be a role player.

And those things will happen at times in the coming months for the Lakers, perhaps as soon as this week as they embark upon a four-game trip to hostile arenas before a Nov. 4 date with the Golden State Warriors in the next Lakers home game.

For one optimistic night, however, those harsh lessons weren't necessary. And the sooner Walton gets the 2016-17 Lakers' identity established as exactly the team spirit they showed in their opening game, the better we'll know when the rebuilding process is already over.


Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinDing.