The Los Angeles Lakers are at rock bottom but believe they’ve found the coach who can shepherd them back into title contention.
The 36-year-old was the only candidate L.A. actually interviewed, per ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne, which speaks to the NBA’s problematic head coach selection process—something similar to the NFL’s Rooney Rule would be nice—but, nonetheless, it looks like a home run hire.
Walton, who received three votes for Coach of the Year after leading the Warriors to an NBA-record 24-0 start (in Steve Kerr's absence, who was out due to medical reasons), can brush cobwebs off an organization that’s long refused to abandon the defunct philosophy that bred so much success in the past.
In a way, Lady Luck kissed the Lakers once again; the timing of it all couldn’t be more perfect: The most sought-after candidate in years—who just so happens to already have strong ties to L.A.—ascends just as the Lakers can’t plunge any further.
Yes, Walton has minimal experience calling the shots. His all-time record technically stands at 0-0. But he understands the game and knows how to communicate with people.
“Players expect honesty, and as long as we have a relationship and they feel that I'm not trying to get anything over on them, I can be laid-back, and then I can still pull them aside and tell them that they're messing up, that they need to do something better. They respect it, and they respond to it,” Walton told the Bay Area News Group's Diamond Leung when he was Golden State’s interim head coach earlier this year.
“The guys know that...if I see laziness happening or we're not playing at a certain level, it's my job without Steve here to step up. And I'd be cheating them and cheating our team if I didn't say anything.”
Walton already has three rings (two as a player with L.A.) and has been around Hall of Fame basketball minds his entire life, from Lute Olson to Phil Jackson to Kerr.
In this new setting, his natural charisma should engender tranquility among a young Lakers team that never responded to Scott’s harsh ways. Nobody knows for sure how players like D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and (restricted free agent) Jordan Clarkson will react to Walton, but it’s unlikely their new coach will repeatedly throw them under the bus in postgame press conferences or question their physical and mental toughness on a weekly basis.
That change alone could do wonders for the team’s collective psyche. The Warriors didn’t go 73-9 because Kerr chose Walton to sit in his chair. But after he was tossed the keys, Walton didn’t drive the car into a tree, either.
“You see it all the time with an assistant that he's cool and then when he's a head coach he's crazy," Warriors All-Star forward Draymond Green said back in December, per ESPN.com. "You see that all the time. It hasn't been like that at all. That says a lot about him as a person. He's cool.”
There is no ideal temperament in coaching. Everyone is different, and results are all that matter. Some are loud and emotional (Stan Van Gundy, Tom Thibodeau and Doc Rivers). Others are more reserved and cerebral (Brad Stevens and Terry Stotts).
But beyond his persona, how will Walton implement strategy that can help Los Angeles win more games and better resemble what basketball teams in 2016 actually look like?
Talent is an essential ingredient in the NBA, and right now the Lakers have very little of it.
"I knew Luke would be a great coach when I hired him, but there is a huge jump from being a one-year assistant to being a head coach," Kerr said in December, per ESPN.com. "I went through the same jump without even being an assistant. This stuff always comes down to talent. Do you have the talent? We have great talent. That's why we were the champs last year and why we're off to a great start this season.”
Walton won’t turn these Lakers into Warriors just because the system and philosophy reflect those held by his current team. They don’t have Steph Curry’s brilliance, Green’s defensive intangibles or Klay Thompson’s atom-smashing three-point stroke.
But if executed correctly, a modernized style on both ends will make L.A. more attractive to free agents, particularly if noticeable improvement is seen from Russell, Randle and Clarkson.
The most basic change can also be the most difficult one: pass the ball.
The Lakers must trust one another, swapping decent looks for better ones.
Last season, L.A. led the league in possessions that ended in isolation, per NBA.com. A ton of those plays can be attributed to Kobe Bryant, but Randle, Clarkson and Lou Williams (who’s actually extremely efficient creating his own shot) also ranked high across the league.
Iso-ball as a primary plan of attack is out of step with the rest of the NBA and directly contrasts with how the Warriors won their title. Los Angeles averaged 2.98 seconds per touch (highest in the league) versus Golden State’s 2.38 (lowest in the league) this season.
That half second-plus may not seem like a lot, but it often represents the difference between an open shot and one that's contested. L.A. averaged the fewest secondary assists per game last year (3.3), while no team racked up more than the Warriors (9.7), per NBA.com. That goes for potential assists, too.
“You have to attack in waves, and everybody is in sync to where one guy moves and all four other guys react,” Walton told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News earlier this season. “There’s a fine line between how fast you want to play and also playing to a rhythm and a pace that allows you to be successful if the fast break isn’t there.”
Defense will be a steeper climb given L.A.’s current personnel. Zero Lakers can stay in front of their man, let alone comprehend the various responsibilities necessary in any stout unit. But transition defense (a major weakness under Scott) will improve if the offense takes smarter shots and gets everyone involved.
There will be growing pains.
The Lakers probably won’t make the playoffs next season even if they land a max-contract-caliber fish and the first pick. But this hire isn’t about next year's win total. It’s about re-establishing the Lakers as a perennial, respectable powerhouse.
The way they see it, Walton is the first step toward much-greater things. Few disagree.
“Luke is one of these people who was born with an innate understanding of the game of basketball, and he's respected,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers told Leung.
Green echoed the sentiment. “Sometimes you may be thinking something that everybody else may not see. But if you go to Luke and talk to him, he knows exactly what you're talking about. I think it's one of those things that you just can't teach. Like he's that type of basketball smart," he said, per Leung.
Former teammate Metta World Peace told KNBR why becoming a head coach always felt like Walton's true calling. “He would always tell us things to look out for. He was very vocal in the locker room. I’ll be in the game, I’d come to the bench and I’d talk to Luke. Sometimes he would say things like ‘set a better screen’ or maybe slip or cut or sometimes he would say, 'just be yourself.'”
And, of course, none of Walton’s success is a surprise to Bryant, who spoke highly of the ex-Laker earlier this season, per ESPN.com:
I told him he was the next Phil, because he was an average player with a messed-up back. I used to rib him all the time about that, but honestly, he always had a really brilliant mind. He understood flow and tempo and spacing and how to manage a team the right way. So I couldn't be any happier for him. He looks very comfortable in that role.