Saturday, November 6, 2010
RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON
The numbers (zero points in six minutes) weren’t memorable in any way except they chronicled the return of Luke Walton to the floor after too long an absence. The guy Phil refers to as his son, missed most of last season with pretzel-back surgery, was iffy for a comeback and then pulled his hammy in exhibition. Walton, the biological son of Big Red, grew up in the road tour that’s known as the NBA with frequent side trips to the deadheads tie-dyed circus. He chose Arizona State over UCLA because of Coach Lute Olson and eventually became the only one of four roundball-crazed brothers to make it to the show, drafted at number 32 in the second round.
Walton wasn’t predicted to play much his rookie season but wound up appearing in 72 games. This was the same year the team was supposed to romp to the Larry O’Brian. Payton and Malone signed up for a pittance in order to make a last run for the ring. Iron man Malone went down with a knee injury however, the team lost to Detroit in the finals and the loss itself was part and parcel of a divisive and acrimonious season that culminated in the wholesale gutting of the team - Walton was one of five remaining players.
The Rudy T era lasted 41 games, Frank Hamblen played substitute teacher and Jackson himself returned improbably, less than a year after the release of a scorched earth book. Role player Luke began to flourish again in the triple post system with above-average court vision and passing skills. He started at the wing in his fourth season and was rewarded with a six-year, $30 million dollar contract. The yearly amount was league average but the length was an anathema to blog critics who instantly saddled "Puke" with ruining any chance of ever signing a marquee free agent. The inconvenient truth is that Kobe, Paul and Andrew take up all of the cap by their lonesomes which limits the team to using its exceptions, Bird rights, veteran’s minimum and of course, the draft. Said logic's never dissuaded Luke-haters who are often the same shrill voices who whine that Phil's only lucked into his rings through his players.
Luke’s game has never regained the highs of his breakout season and he lost minutes and stature to the revolving door of Vlad, Trevor and Ron. Still, he’s a guy Jackson clearly values, referring to him as his conscience on the court. And frankly, if a coach with that many rings wants to say Luke organizes his offense it’s fine by me. If he wanted to say Mike Penberthy organized his offense I’d go along and if he ever wanted to bring back Slava I’d be happy as a shell.
Now in his eighth season, Luke’s a survivor in uncertain health, a guy who arrived his rookie year in an old Coupe de Ville rag top, bought a ribs joint in Manhattan Beach and was used as chief clipboard holder and bottle-washer this past championship season. He may well have coaching in his future but for now he seems determined to get a little more floor burn and a third ring as a player.
With injuries and fatigue affecting the early schedule, Phil Jackson plans on increasing Derrick Caracter's minutes. Sounds a little like Luke's rookie season, doesn't it? With so much recent talk centering on Kobe's knee health, he chose to look ahead optimistically to 2012. Lamar Odom birthday coincides with some spectacular recent play. And Sasha's lack of PT has him considering his options.