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There is no perfect first-time head coaching candidate, as the nature of the business is replete with uncontrollable unknowns, but Luke Walton appears to be the coach the Lakers want and the coach they need, regardless of how closely those two designations coincided.
In the most basic biographical terms, Walton appeals to the Lakers’ traditional desires: familiarity, glamour and splash. He’s a recognizable and handsome face, having grown up in southern California and following in the footsteps of his father, Hall of Famer Bill Walton, to play in the Pac-10 and NBA. He’s a well-respected member of the Lakers family, having spent eight-plus years playing for the franchise, winning titles in 2009 and ‘10. And he happens to be a hot commodity, having guided the defending champion Warriors to a record 24–0 start as interim coach during Steve Kerr’s absence following multiple back surgeries.
The Lakers have been all over the map in recent years, struggling to establish a clear vision following the 2013 death of owner Dr. Jerry Buss, but Walton ticks off the simplest boxes on their checklist: The team’s massive fan base will welcome him back with open arms, he arrives with the glory-days gleam of championship rings and Larry O’Brien trophies, and his hiring is sure to dominate national headlines in a way that, say, “Suns ink Earl Watson” simply never will.
But those goals haven’t always served the Lakers well in the post-Phil Jackson years: Mike Brown got his coaching start in southern California at the University of San Diego, Byron Scott was a former Lakers champion and Mike D’Antoni’s arrival generated tons of attention. After the two worst seasons in franchise history, after the end of Kobe Bryant’s two-decade reign, and after a messy end to the season that saw D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young involved in tabloid drama, the Lakers needed more than the same old, same old.
The Lakers needed an injection of winning. They Lakers needed a fresh face to lead what comes next. And the Lakers needed a new personality after Scott’s failed taskmaster approach.
The 36-year-old Walton, whose hire was announced Friday, brings all three to the table. While his coaching career is brief—one year as a college assistant, one year as a D-League development coach for the Lakers’ affiliate, and two years on Kerr’s bench—there’s obviously been plenty of winning. He started picking Jackson’s brain late during his playing career, pitched in as the Warriors won 67 games and the title in Kerr’s first season, and then put together a 39–4 record this season as Kerr recovered. Although Walton’s official coaching record remains 0–0, with his wins and losses credited to Kerr, he did enough to receive votes for the Coach of the Year award (which ultimately went to Kerr).
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“I’m incredibly happy for Luke,” Kerr said in a statement. “As we witnessed earlier this season, he has all of the intangibles necessary to be an outstanding head coach in this league, including a terrific understanding of the game the ability to communicate with a wide range of people. He’s certainly ready for this opportunity.”
Walton’s youth, energy and playing experience will be key to helping the Lakers manage their post-Bryant transition. If the Lakers’ struggles to land marquee free agents continue this summer, as they very well might, the losses will mount in volume again next year. Keeping a young core focused through long, tough stretches requires a coach with patience, forgiveness and direct, respectful communication. That’s Walton, who approaches the job as a former role player who dealt with the ups-and-downs of injuries and as a young coach who had a front-row seat as players like Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson fully blossomed over the last two years.
Lastly, Walton’s laid-back, surfer-style approach should be a welcome change from Scott’s perpetual scowl and deference to the old school. While his biggest challenge will be asserting and maintaining authority—just like any young, first-timer—Walton can help ensure buy-in by relying on a fun and forward-thinking offense (built on pace, passing, movement and three-pointers). What more could offense-first guards like Russell and Jordan Clarkson want?
There are bound to be major challenges here. Critics will point to former Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry and his struggles this season in New Orleans as evidence that plucking from the champions isn’t a guaranteed formula for success. That’s true: Each situation is unique and Walton is inheriting a roster lacking in talent and experience.
The hiring of Walton looks sensible, in the final analysis, because it works in the short-term (where the Lakers usually focus) and the long-term (where the Lakers will likely need to focus), and because it came together right on schedule, less than a week after Scott was let go. It’s encouraging that the Lakers targeted, and swiftly landed, a candidate who can “win the press conference” and who fits the mold of a coach who can help a rebuilding team get back to its winning ways.