Original Story | www.abcnews.go.com
April 30, 2016
By Romana Shelburne
Most NBA coaching staffs would’ve watched the game at the office and ordered in some dinner. But Steve Kerr has built more than a coaching staff in his two seasons as head coach of the Golden State Warriors. He’s created a family, just as the patriarch of his coaching tree, Lute Olson, did at the University of Arizona. So Kerr invited everyone — his coaches and their families — over to his house in the Berkeley Hills for dinner before they watched Game 6 of the Portland Trail Blazers– Los Angeles Clippers series.
It was a night to laugh and bond and scout the Warriors’ second-round opponent. But mostly it was to be among the last nights this little coaching family Kerr had created would all be together after lead assistant coach Luke Walton agreed to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. That’s how life goes in the NBA. You create something special and the rest of the league wants to steal some of what makes you magic. It was a joyous occasion, and it was bittersweet.
And then it was just so perfectly Luke.
As news leaked that Walton had accepted the Lakers’ job, and the dinner party was about to get started, he was on the side of the road dealing with car trouble. Yes, really. The man’s career just took a quantum leap forward, his family and friends are waiting to celebrate with him, and his car breaks down. When he finally arrived about an hour late, he just smiled and let everyone have a laugh at him. No apologies necessary.
That’s Luke Walton. Last year’s lead assistant coach Alvin Gentry once said of him, “I don’t think I’ve ever met another guy who is so comfortable in his own skin.”
It’s why he connects with so easily with so many people. He’s as comfortable talking to brainy 68-year-old defensive assistant coach Ron Adams as he is with 20-year-old rookie Kevon Looney. Why he can bark at the fiery Draymond Green in one breath and calm the introverted, self-deprecating Andrew Bogut in the next. Ultimately it’s why he chose to take a leap of faith and leave the best team in basketball to take over one of its worst. Almost everyone Walton consulted with told him to wait until the Lakers had more talent and direction before leaving the sweet setup he had in Golden State. His stock would only continue to rise sitting next to Kerr and winning at a historic clip in Golden State. The Lakers were too unsettled, too dysfunctional, too desperate.
Walton didn’t care. He’s comfortable in himself and his abilities. And he wanted the job.
It’s probably the only job he would’ve left Golden State for. Yes, he planned to interview elsewhere for the experience. You never know if one of those jobs would’ve piqued his interest. But being head coach of the Lakers has been his dream ever since Phil Jackson used to let him sit in on coaches meetings when he was a role player for the franchise from 2003-11.
Walton knows how good things can be in L.A. when the Lakers have things rolling. He’s lived that life.
Byron Scott was a former Laker too, of course. However his pedigree — and approach — was from a different era. Walton gives the Lakers both a new narrative and a new vision, one plucked straight from the most forward-thinking organization in the league. Prior to 2015-16, the Lakers’ nascent analytics department predicted the team would win between 20 and 30 games. The team needed outside shooting, to space the floor and better defenders. It was a roster problem as much as a philosophical one. Walton can’t fix all of that himself, but he can embrace the need to evolve.
That vision is what the Lakers have been pitching to free agents the past two summers. The life, the city, the Lakers mystique. It’s been a tough sell to free agents who care more about the talent on the roster, the system and the maximum contract.
One day, the Lakers figured, the right guy would run toward that pitch. Or rather, the right guy wouldn’t need to hear that pitch at all. He’d already believe in what he could make the franchise into.
Turns out the right guy was a 36-year-old assistant coach who never really had much of a vertical jump anyway. As free agents go, Walton is biggest free agent the Lakers have landed in years. He was the hottest coach on the market this offseason, the hottest young assistant coach to come along in years after guiding the Warriors to a 39-4 mark while Kerr missed time due to complications from back surgery.
Convincing a guy like that to leave Golden State, a job he truly loved and intended to stay in for another few seasons, would’ve been a coup for any franchise. But it was especially so for the Lakers, who are still in the beginning of a painful rebuild.
Walton believes that lottery picks D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle have the talent to be future All-Stars, but they’re each just coming off uneven rookie seasons so any projection at this point is just a projection.
The Lakers hit on second-round draft pick Jordan Clarkson two years ago, but he is a restricted free agent. Rookie forward Larry Nance looks like a solid rotation player, too. But again, he’s a rookie.
For the Lakers to doing anything of substance next season, they’ll have to make an impact trade or convince free agents to take the same type of leap of faith Walton just did.
In a lot of ways, the Lakers needed Walton a lot more than he needed them. The franchise has been lurching from coach to coach every 18-24 months since Jackson retired in 2011. There has been little in the way of stability, vision or culture established as the team tried to transition from the Kobe Bryant era by building through the draft.
President of basketball operations Jim Buss has said he’ll step down after next season if he can’t get the franchise headed in “the right direction.” He has never wavered from that timeline, nor has his sister Jeanie Buss, the Lakers president, ever let up in holding him to it.
General manager Mitch Kupchak’s contract runs several years beyond next season, but it’s hard to imagine him continuing in his role if Jim Buss were to step down.
In other words, the Lakers’ new coach had to take the job with the understanding that the men who hired him could both be out after next season. After that, there’s no telling who will be running the show. A new regime could want a new coach, a new system and new vision.
This Game of Thrones is fascinating. The specter of Phil Jackson will loom large all year. The Knicks and Jackson have a mutual out after next season. Jackson is the longtime fiancée of Jeanie Buss. He’s one of Walton’s mentors. By all accounts, he’d prefer to stay in New York and make it work there. He loves the city and the idea of turning around the franchise he won an NBA title with as a player under Red Holtzman in 1973.
If it’s not going well in New York, and it’s not heading in the right direction in L.A., well, you see how the dots connect.
All these were possibilities Walton had to consider and accept before he took the Lakers job.
All of these were risks most candidates would be scared off by.
The timing wasn’t ideal. Nor were the circumstances. The safe move would be to stay right where he was.
But Walton kept coming back to one thing — he really wanted the job. And when he met with Jim Buss and Kupchak in Oakland on Thursday afternoon, they told him they really wanted him as their coach.
Yes, Walton will stay on and finish the playoffs out with the Warriors, just as Gentry did last year after he agreed to become the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Warriors built something golden these past two years. It will continue on, but it will change as players and coaches leave and are replaced. Jackson used to have a sign in his office that said, “Unceasing change turns the wheel of life, and so reality is shown in all its many forms.”
Friday night the Warriors staff had dinner together and enjoyed one of their last nights in this present state.
“I’m not saying this is for Steve, but anybody in life, you don’t ever know what you have,” Walton told me a few months ago, when I asked how Kerr’s health issues had affected him.
“That’s part of the message we give the team every year. Every year is completely different. There’ll be new players next year. There’ll be different coaches. Every year is uniquely special. You have to enjoy and embrace the journey of trying to do what we’re doing instead of just constantly thinking about the end goal. Have fun with each other and embrace what a special time this is.”