A very long meeting led to a very quick decision last week, one that will have a major impact on the Lakers for foreseeable future.
Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss flew to Oakland to meet with Luke Walton, and after a six or seven hour interview, the Lakers’ brass almost immediately made the choice to offer the 36-year-old a contract to become the next coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
"We're excited to bring Luke back to Los Angeles, where we feel he's going to start an outstanding coaching career," Kupchak said in a press release after the hiring. "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."
In short, the Lakers believe Walton has a terrific mix of basketball knowledge acquired over a lifetime that began with his father, Bill, being one of the best players in the world. It continued as he played in a storied program for Lute Olsen at Arizona, and under Phil Jackson and alongside Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol in the NBA. Walton was an assistant coach first at the University of Memphis, then for L.A.’s D-League squad, the D-Fenders, before joining Steve Kerr in Golden State. This season, Walton led the Warriors to a 39-4 mark when Kerr was sidelined due to complications from a back surgery.
“I’m incredibly happy for Luke,” Kerr said at practice on April 30. “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 and I’m confident he’ll do a great job with the Lakers once our season is complete.”
Walton will become the 26th coach in Lakers history.
“We think he’s a good bet going forward,” Kupchak explained. “He doesn’t have a lot of head coaching experience, but he has coaching experience, and we think he’s going to get better year to year.”
Walton signed his contract on Thursday evening, and Kupchak spent Friday discussing the process, first on SportsCenter and 710 ESPN Radio, and finally at a press conference at the team’s practice facility in El Segundo.
The San Diego native was the first of several interviews the Lakers had set up for the position, and ended up being the last.
“With the openings in the NBA at the time and the openings we felt might come about, once we finished the interview, we decided he was our first choice,” Kupchak said. “Why wait? Let’s get it done."
Walton will be involved as the Lakers fill out his coaching staff over the next few weeks; he and Kupchak text daily, though Kupchak tries to keep it short so Walton can focus on Golden State's playoff run. He’ll be less involved in the Draft, where L.A. currently hold the No. 32 overall pick, and a 56 percent chance of getting a top three selection.
In the meeting with Kupchak and Buss, Walton presented both his offensive and defensive playbooks, discussed the style in which he’d like to play and how he connects with players.
“Luke does intend to play up-tempo, fast-paced basketball very similar to what Golden State does,” said Kupchak.
The GM was quick to mention that L.A. does not “have the players that Golden State does,” that “you’re only as good as your players, and that depends on the basketball (operations) going forward.”
Walton was very high on the talented young players L.A. already have on the roster, including 20-year-old D’Angelo Russell, 21-year-old Julius Randle and 23-year-olds Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. Kupchak thinks Walton, who becomes the youngest coach in the league, has an advantage in reaching those players.
“His generation is closer to the players of today,” Kupchak explained. “It’s a good thing he can relate better than I can. I think that’s a plus. It’s not that long ago that he was playing.”
Kupchak did allow that he’ll likely be more active with Walton than he’s been with past coaches, since the Lakers have had a long run of veteran head men in charge.
“He has a long ways to go,” Kupchak acknowledged. “There are going to be some bumps in the road. It’ll be competitive and challenging, but we do have to provide better players going forward.”
That’s really a big key. The Lakers have all kinds of money available this summer to offer multiple max players if they should so choose, if they feel there are players worth the expense.
“We have the natural advantage of living in a great city with great fans I think will continue to be an advantage,” he said. “Last year or the year before we did not have as much to sell as we do this year. This year I think we have more talent on the court to convince free agents it might be a good place to play.
“Last year we had enough money for one player, this year we have enough for (two max players). That makes a difference. Players do want to go someplace and be competitive, and I don’t think last year or the year before, specifically with Kobe being as close to the end of his career and not knowing what his injury (situation) is.”
One major question about the Lakers has a very definitive answer: Luke Walton is the coach. Now, what players can Kupchak and Co. give him to help hasten the team’s return to prominence?