The Lakers have already received permission to interview Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina, but he is not their only target who is currently assisting a league powerhouse hoping to make a run to the championship. The other, of course, is the Warriors’ Luke Walton and the Lakers have moved quickly to get permission to interview their former 2nd round draft pick as well.
Steve Kerr, who was named the NBA Coach of the Year on Tuesday, revealed before Wednesday night’s series-clinching Game 5 win over the Houston Rockets that the Lakers can meet with Walton as soon as a break in the Warriors’ schedule arises.
“We told Mitch that he’s perfectly welcome to talk to Luke as soon as the series is over and we have a little break,” Kerr said of Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak.
Walton has long been considered the front-runner for the Lakers’ job and the favorite among a large contingent of Lakers’ fans. His combination of youth (he’s only 36), basketball IQ, Lakers’ pedigree, and current position as assistant on a historically great team check many of the right boxes for an organization looking to start anew and rebuild from what has been a horrid run in the last three seasons.
There is a flip side to these strengths, however, and many will be quick to point to these exact traits as question marks regarding his candidacy.
Being only 36, Walton is quite young and does not possess a great deal of coaching experience beyond what he’s earned as Steve Kerr’s assistant. “Lakers’ pedigree” sounds appealing on the surface, but this team just got done winning 38 games in two seasons under a former Showtime guard whose major strength was supposed to be knowing “what it means to be a Laker”.
Further, this is Walton’s first year as Kerr’s lead assistant — a role he filled after Alvin Gentry departed for the Pelicans last summer. Walton did an excellent job standing in for a sidelined Kerr to start the year (Kerr dealt with complications from multiple back surgeries over the summer), but Luke would be the first to tell you much of what he did with the team was continuing the program Kerr established.
Detractors of Walton’s candidacy, then, will be quick to point out we simply do not know a lot about how good a coach Walton is. They will reduce his run as Kerr’s stand-in to taking over the wheel of a car on cruise control and cite his relative inexperience.
I don’t think you can totally dismiss this line of thinking, but believe taking this approach too seriously is a disservice to Walton by not taking into account the path he’s taken to get to where he’s gotten.
Folks have forgotten that Luke was acting as a de facto assistant coach while nursing a bad back under Phil Jackson. Kobe used to actually joke with Luke that his path to coaching would be very similar to Phil’s who, in his playing career, suffered a back injury and got a taste of coaching preparation while playing for Red Holzman.
After his playing career, Walton served as a player development coach for the Lakers D-League affiliate D-Fenders and sat on the staff of the NCAA Memphis Tigers’ team for a year during the NBA’s lockout of 2011. And now he works under Kerr and guided the Warriors to a 39-4 record while Kerr recovered. From a Ken Berger profile of Walton in December:
Kerr, still recovering from complications that arose out of offseason back surgery and condemned him to debilitating headaches, empowered his players and coaches to make decisions. It’s the best compliment a coach can earn, that he created a winning culture that can run without him.
But that doesn’t mean it could’ve run this well with anybody standing on the sideline — or that Walton, 35, has nothing whatsoever to do with it.
“Luke is a genuine guy,” Draymond Green said. “He’s the same guy he was as an assistant coach, and guys respect that. It goes a long way, for sure.”
I am not of the mind just any person could have accomplished what Luke did with the Warriors this year. The Berger profile linked to above talks about the value add of Walton’s calm and steady demeanor, especially in the face of the big moment. There’s no panic in Walton and that aids itself to being able to deliver the type of messaging necessary in the tense moments of games — and, with the Warriors, in their pursuit of history when they were after the all-time consecutive wins streak to start the year.
This demeanor would also serve him well in the face of the Lakers’ current circumstances. A young team needs a steady and deliberate voice to shepherd them forward. They need stability and an understanding that they cannot get too high or low as they look to find their path in the league. They will have moments of doubt that come from the peaks and valleys most every young player experiences in the league. Walton — with his history of player development and in being exposed, front and center, to the habits which make up a historically great team — can be the exact type of guide they need to progress into the players they hope to be.
Yes, there’s a lot we do not fully know about Walton. We don’t know what type of offense he’d run, though assuming some mixture of Triangle and the motion heavy actions the Warriors run would be a good place start. We don’t have a lot of background on what his defensive philosophies are, though I’d guess he would be heavily influenced by what Ron Adams and Steve Kerr have implemented with the Warriors. I think, more than other potential candidates, who Walton would have on his staff as assistants would be very important to his and the team’s success.
In saying all that, however, I would fully endorse Walton were he to end up being the hire. I just see too many positives, the potential to grow with a team, and be the long term solution as head coach to not take a chance on him. Of course, we need to see how this process plays out — there has not even been an interview, nor an offer, and both sides would need to see this as the right fit. Like Messina, though, getting in the room with Walton to pick his brain and feel out what that relationship would look like is a great start. I am anxious to see how this goes.