LOS ANGELES — It's easy to criticize Luke Walton as an NBA head coach. In three seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, he managed just 98 wins against 148 losses.
A slow start to his first year with the Sacramento Kings hasn't helped Walton's case. While the team has begun showing signs of improvement—including in a competitive 99-97 loss to the Lakers on Friday night at Staples Center—any recent success is just a step toward improving both his new franchise and his stature as a coach.
Walton parted ways with the Lakers in April and quickly agreed to take over for former Kings coach Dave Joerger, who was let go despite the team’s surprising ninth-place finish and 39 wins.
One week after he was hired, sports broadcaster Kelli Tennant filed a civil lawsuit against Walton saying he sexually assaulted her in May 2017 while he was still an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors. The Kings and the NBA closed their investigation into the sexual assault allegation in August, though the lawsuit is still pending.
When the season started, Walton and the Kings dropped their first five games, and it initially looked like a disaster. The buzz among various executives passing through Staples Center the first weeks of the season ranged from, "Maybe Walton just isn't a good coach" to, "Letting Joerger go was a mistake."
But Walton has since stabilized his young squad. Despite injuries to Marvin Bagley III (finger) and De'Aaron Fox (ankle), Sacramento has won four of its last six games, including against the Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers. Perhaps Walton was prematurely criticized.
"He has a really young squad in Sacramento. Joerger had them playing really well last year, but that group is going to need some time to adapt to Walton's system," an Eastern Conference executive said. "Plus, they lost Bagley in the first [game of the season]."
Per NBA.com, the Kings' basic team stats don't impress: 26th in points per game (104.8), 27th in rebounds (42.2) and 24th in assists (21.7). The advanced numbers are slightly kinder, at least with the team's 18th-place offensive rating of 106.4 points per 100 possessions. The defensive rating, however, is problematic at 110.5 (22nd overall).
After their win over the Blazers on Tuesday, Walton told reporters, "Guys are starting to understand and really make steps as far as individual defense and team defense."
It's not as if the Kings were locking teams up last year under Joerger; they finished 21st overall with a defensive rating of 110.8. That's on par with the current campaign, but the 2018-19 Kings had a better offensive rating by more than three points (109.6).
Walton was relatively successful in getting the Lakers to play defense last season. The team finished 13th overall (108.9), despite multiple injuries (LeBron James, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, etc.) and a difficult trade deadline that fractured the locker room. Nearly half the team was offered to the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis. Never mind that the Lakers ultimately did trade nearly half the team for Davis, but that was in July after Walton had departed.
Some of the issues in Los Angeles were out of Walton's control, and the same can be said in Sacramento. Walton wasn't even with the team in 2018 when the organization drafted Bagley over Luka Doncic and Trae Young. And he didn't choose to invest heavily in players like Cory Joseph and Trevor Ariza or to overpay Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield.
Walton's run with the Lakers was a difficult one, as he took over a team clearly rebuilding in the post-Kobe Bryant era. He tried to transition the franchise into a contender when James arrived, but the All-Star's midseason groin injury made it a lost cause.
"I think Luke had the right ideas, but sometimes he was too optimistic he was going to be able to implement everything he wanted to do," said an executive who saw some of the Lakers' struggles firsthand. "I think sometimes if you simplify things, you can get results."
"I also think Luke probably sacrificed a lot of wins over the years in order to get his guys to 'play the right way,'" he continued. "He made things more difficult than they should have been at times."
That's not to say Walton was wrong in that ideology, especially when working to develop young players. He may be focusing more on developing the right habits than on getting wins. That could bear fruit in the long run, though the Kings don't exactly have a reputation for being a patient franchise.
Since Walton's last season as a player (2012-13), the Kings have gone through five coaches (Keith Smart, Mike Malone, Tyrone Corbin, George Karl and Joerger). If anything, Sacramento needs stability on the bench, and Walton's four-year contract should afford him the time to do it his way.
If Walton can get this Kings squad to play defense, he may prove the doubters wrong.
There's certainly cause for concern, especially if Sacramento's step backward persists throughout the season. Last year's upstart group remained in the playoff chase until the final few weeks. The Kings were a fun team to watch, but they weren't destined to go far given their deficiencies defensively.
Walton will be measured by how well Sacramento improves on the defensive end. The team's offense needs to get better as well, but sustained success must start by getting stops.
And there's no point in comparing Walton to what Lakers (10-2) coach Frank Vogel is doing with a healthy James plus Davis and a veteran roster. Walton should be judged by what he does with his team in Sacramento over the next few months, not the first couple of weeks.
The Kings are better positioned than the Lakers were when Walton took over, but they're still a young group. It's no surprise the change in coaching staff led to a dip, but Sacramento is still in contention at 4-7.
Walton and the Kings have plenty of time to come together, and Bagley and Fox should return in the coming weeks. The team's recent surge is promising, but if the Kings aren't going to generate as many points under Walton as they did with Joerger, they'll need to make a dramatic improvement defensively if they want to stay competitive in the Western Conference.
Email Eric Pincus at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.
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