Young Lakers coach looks to grow along with youthful roster
POSTED: Jul 11, 2016 6:39 AM ET
Walton On Lakers' Culture
Luke Walton, head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, speaks to the media about the Lakers' culture.
LAS VEGAS — Luuuuuuuke!
Luke Walton had barely stepped from behind the black curtain hanging at one end of Thomas & Mack Arena and into the open when Los Angeles Lakers fans in one section near where L.A. waited to play dragged out his name in adulation and other sections sang along. He got cheered for walking in.
"There'll definitely be some boos at some point," he said, smiling.
Walton had no illusions about taking over as coach of a team that won 17 games, finished last in the Western Conference by six games, last in defensive efficiency, next-to-last in offensive efficiency and 26th in rebounding percentage. There will be days bad enough to leave a mark. But for now, there was the familiar salute that remains from eight-plus seasons as a Lakers forward, two as part of NBA title-winning teams there.
It was Friday night, the first L.A. game of Summer League and the first day on the court of the new era, with Kobe Bryant in retirement, Brandon Ingram in uniform as the second pick in the Draft and Walton finally on the job. It had been weeks of waiting, after all, from being hired April 29 until his commitment to finish the season as the top Warriors assistant ended as Golden State's Finals collapse became complete in Game 7 on June 19, plus however long it took for the numbness to wear off.
The entire road back to Los Angeles had been strange actually, and not just the calendar itself. Walton had all of two seasons as an NBA assistant, one as an NBA D-League player-development coach and part of another as a college assistant before being hired for one of the prestige jobs in sports. Forty-three of the games on the Golden State bench, though, were as interim head coach, after being unexpectedly forced into the role when Steve Kerr took a leave of absence to deal with a medical issue related to back surgery. The Warriors started 24-0, were 39-4 in all in that time, Walton suddenly became the temp who got a second-place and two third-place votes for Coach of the Year, and he turned into the inexperienced guy with a lot of experience.
I know I still have a lot to learn, but I think everybody does, no matter how long you've been doing any job.
– Luke Walton on coaching the Lakers
If someone told him nine months ago he would be coaching the Lakers, Walton would not have believed them. He would have taken it. But he wouldn't have believed them. Yet there he was, walking through the black curtains of Thomas & Mack before their summer-league opener against the Pelicans, about to watch D'Angelo Russell and Ingram, two of the new franchise cornerstones, paired for the first time.
"It was unusual," Walton said of the path that led him from novice on the bench to the chance to be the No. 1 with a franchise and a front office he knows well in an area he loves and had kept his permanent home.
"It happened faster than I would have guessed. I think obviously Steve's health issues and being the interim head coach up there for 40-plus games this year was the main reason the process has sped up and obviously the success we've had up there. I know I still have a lot to learn, but I think everybody does, no matter how long you've been doing any job. I'm excited and I feel like I'm ready for this and I'm looking forward to it."
On the other hand: "He's blown away," Kerr said. "He's 36. That's pretty young."
The age thing is part of the strange as well, how someone who only retired in 2013 is now charged with applying wisdom and control on a roster that has lacked both. The Lakers are on their fourth coach in six seasons, not counting Bernie Bickerstaff's five games as interim in 2012-13, only Byron Scott lasted two full campaigns in that time. Four of the roster pieces have two seasons or less experience.
And the guy who has never been responsible for developing a system, putting it in place, managing a locker room during a losing streak, the guy who is younger than many active players around the league, got the job.
That could be an obvious problem or actually a clear selling point.
Walton is a great communicator anyway with the added weight to his words of being a recent NBA veteran, and maybe being young enough that current players won't need to be anthropologists to locate his statistics chiseled in stone is an advantage in relating with a young group. He has the same strong presence that stood out as mature and grounded while in uniform. He will connect.
Walton won't be a strategy genius by opening night. But he doesn't need to be.
"I think that now that I've been here a couple years, the job is mostly about the culture that you can create," said Kerr, who took over the Warriors without any prior coaching experience. "Obviously talent. You have to have talent. Nobody's going to be successful without enough talent. But if you have talent then where you can make a difference as a coach is mostly the culture you can build. Your personality and how you treat people and the respect level that you gain based on how you treat people is the key to the whole thing. Every coach out there in the league can design a defense, build an offensive system. There's tens of thousands of basketball coaches around the country who can decipher a game film. So it's not about Xs and Os. It's about the culture within an organization. As a coach, to me what that means is how well you build your bond with your owner and your GM. How well you communicate with them. And then how strong is your staff and how well can you get your message across to your team to get them to play the way you want them to play, to gain their respect, to respect them so that in the end there's just a really good working environment. You factor all that stuff in, it's all about the human being. Luke is the human being to do all that. He's got the right stuff."
No one could have imagined his age and resumé becoming an issue so soon, Walton most of all. But here he is, coaching the Lakers, getting cheered for walking in the building, one of the faces of the new start, and trying to hold off the boos.
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