After parting ways with Byron Scott last Sunday, the Lakers moved quickly and decisively on Friday in naming Luke Walton their next head coach. From the team’s press release:
Earlier today, the Los Angeles Lakers and Luke Walton reached an agreement on a multi-year contract for Walton to become the next Head Coach of the team, it was announced by General Manager Mitch Kupchak. Walton will begin his new duties at the conclusion of the Golden State Warriors season.
“We’re excited to bring Luke back to Los Angeles, where we feel he’s going to start an outstanding coaching career,” said Kupchak. “He’s one of the brightest young coaching minds in the game and we feel fortunate that he’ll be leading the on-court future of our team.”
While it was believed the Lakers were going to perform a thorough search — they received permission to interview Spurs’ assistant Ettore Messina and were reportedly going to interview former Cavs coach David Blatt — Walton was always, clearly, their top choice. They reportedly sent representatives to Oakland to interview Walton and finalized a deal quickly.
As I wrote when it was announced the team received permission to interview Walton, I am firm believer in Walton even though he is not as experienced as some of his counterparts who the team also had interest in. Walton’s combination of youth, basketball IQ, temperament, history with the Lakers, and experience as a key member of the coaching staff on a historically great Warriors team is very appealing. Add to that his background — albeit brief — working in player development in the D-League and in the NCAA lend extra credibility to his career path.
Make no mistake, though, this hire is mostly about Walton’s fantastic rise in the past two seasons as part of Steve Kerr’s staff and his youth making him a viable candidate to be a long term solution as the team’s head man. While the Lakers hope to land some big fish in free agency (more on that in a little while), the core of the team are the team’s young players. In D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr., the Lakers likely see Walton as the best candidate to influence their development and grow with them at the same time.
As far as team building, it’s impossible to truly know how much Walton can impact the team’s pursuits in free agency. Walton’s history as a player and being a great teammate likely carry some cachet, just as it’s likely his ties to the Warriors’ team he’ll continue to help guide in until their season ends carries some meaning. But, in the end, any draw he has will mostly come in his ability to explain his basketball philosophy and how that translates into the success of the player(s) the Lakers hope to land.
The discussion of free agents, though, only hammers home the larger point: the Lakers are not working with a lot of talent now. Which makes the hill Walton and this franchise are climbing a steep one. We still do not know if the team will keep their lottery pick and the whispers of discord highlighted by recent public comments from Jeanie Buss offer a backdrop that isn’t ideal for any organization.
Hiring Walton is a step in the right direction, but there is much more work to do. Walton will be key in all that, of course, and it starts with who he fills out his staff with. The hope is that he’ll be someone who can attract a strong group of assistant coaches who can complement him by bringing experience and the ability to teach the game and advance the team forward. I’ll be very interested in who he brings on and what their pedigrees are. Beyond that, of course, work the front office does to improve the talent base and the work the young players do to round out their games and improve as the future on-court leaders of the team will also be very important for the Lakers to take the positive steps forward in order to become competitive.
Even with these questions, though, now is a time to be excited. The Lakers have hired a bright, young mind to be their next coach. They did what they likely should have done two years ago by stepping out of the box of their normal thought process, not settling for the safe choice and instead taking a chance on a coach who can be around for longer than his first contract. Welcome home, Luke Walton. We’ve been waiting on you.