Luke Walton is the type of coach I wish the Lakers had at least considered before hiring Byron Scott. Young, smart, talented, curious, up-and-coming. A coach with upside who could gain experience and grow with a rebuilding franchise.
Obviously that’s not the direction they went.
We don’t know yet exactly what allowed L.A.’s front office to look past a long held belief that coach of the Lakers isn’t a “starter job.” Some combination surely of Walton’s background in purple and gold, his extremely successful dress rehearsal as the interim coach of the Warriors, the buzz around him — for the first time in a while, the Lakers can say they got the guy everyone wanted — and his basketball intelligence. Clearly they believe Walton will do well in meetings with prospective free agents. And his familiarity to Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak clearly expedited the process.
But whether Walton represents a great leap forward in the open-mindedness of Lakers management or just a perfectly packaged Trojan Horse unwittingly unleashing into El Segundo basketball modernity (and an understanding of current circumstances) doesn’t really matter. Walton can simultaneously be a soothing reminder of past success and a fresh jolt forward. Even if the Lakers only hired him because he Knows What It Means To Wear The Purple And Gold, or because they believe he’ll be popular with the fan base, or that snagging him blunts the argument the franchise can’t recruit anyone wanted by anyone else — otherwise known as “all the wrong reasons” — Walton is still a very strong hire. He still fits where the Lakers are right now.
That it reportedly only required one interview will make some fans squeamish, but again, management knew Walton going in, and knew as well he’d be a prime candidate for other coaching vacancies this offseason. If you want a guy, don’t let him talk to the competition. You never know what can happen.
(If a lack of due diligence still bothers you, try applying three of the 17 interviews they did with Byron to Luke, and you’ll feel better.)
I don’t know if Walton will be a great NBA head coach. Nobody does. But he’s as good a bet as you’ll find among the guys without a long track record. High end basketball minds, from Steve Kerr to Phil Jackson, believe in his talent. Kobe Bryant pegged him as a coach a long time ago. The good news is Walton doesn’t really need to be great right away. For the next couple of seasons, he can develop his skills on a roster unlikely to be playing for major stakes (save the future of Jim Buss, I suppose, but that’s more a Jim/Jeanie problem). Meanwhile, he still provides a sense of optimism and a fresh start. Of the possibility the Lakers could build a new culture, led by someone who could, if all goes well, be around for a long time.
I’m obviously projecting, because there’s a lot of distance between Friday’s news and such a rosy outcome. The roster is still very thin, potential notwithstanding. The front office is still a massive question mark, though hiring a coach that however talented needs development speaks well of Buss and Kupchak. (At exit interviews, Kupchak said despite uncertainty created by the Jim Buss Timeline, which by definition clouds his future as well, he wouldn’t recommend short term fixes potentially compromising the team’s long term health. Bringing in Walton backs that up. So credit to both of them.) That Walton is popular enough with the fan base to blunt early growing pains can’t hurt, buying him and his players a little time.
There are still plenty of other questions to answer, including how Walton will approach things philosophically, how advanced he is with X’s and O’s, who he’ll surround himself with on the bench, and if/how this impacts all the Phil-to-L.A. chatter (a longer discussion for another day, but just as a reminder … it’s a bad idea). It could be a while before even the most basic of those are answered, since we won’t see much of him until the Warriors are done.
But regardless, the Lakers did a good thing on Friday, and are significantly better off now than they were at the end of the year.