With the announcement that Luke Walton will become the next Lakers coach, we asked our writers for their thoughts on how Walton will fit with his new team, how the move will impact the Warriors and more. NBA experts Marc Stein, Henry Abbott, Ethan Strauss, J.A. Adande and Amin Elhassan go 5-on-5.
1. Was Walton the best possible hire for the Lakers?
Henry Abbott, ESPN.com: The list of available coaches won’t knock your socks off. But in an environment such as this, the Celtics unearthed Brad Stevens a few years ago. Luke Walton, who is very green in coaching terms, hardly seems like a “shut down the search after one interview” kind of candidate.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com: I think so, especially given the Lakers’ desire for a hire with strong ties to Lakerdom. Walton can grow with a younger roster and will likely lead with more patience than a crotchety veteran coach such as Byron Scott. In fact, the hope is he’s the antidote to Scott’s style of leadership.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: It’s tough to call a coach who doesn’t officially have a victory to his name the “best” choice, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a good fit. Laker fans have loved Luke Walton since he was a rookie and have been clamoring for him since his super-successful stint as the Warriors’ interim coach. Now a franchise that has always reveled in the 1980s gets a coach who was born in the 1980s.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Yes. Young Luke checks every box for the Lakers: on-the-rise coach who can connect with players and if not outright recruit free agents, certainly speak their language.
I think Tom Thibodeau was the other ideal candidate, but the Lakers clearly weren’t prepared to cede to Thibodeau the sort of wide-ranging control he now wields in Minnesota. Mitch Kupchak is known to be a huge Walton fan who, according to league sources, targeted Walton in hopes of forming the GM/coach partnership the Lakers have always preferred. Even Phil Jackson couldn’t get Thibs-style power in L.A. when he was racking up championships.
P.S. Luke’s presence happens to make a return to the Lakers more attractive to Jackson, Walton’s mentor, if Phil indeed parts ways with the Knicks after the 2016-17 season, as many expect.
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: I’ll refer you to my answer in our 5-on-5 from about a week ago. Walton is the best of all worlds: young but experienced, champion as a player and a coach, Laker.
2. Rate the accuracy of the following, from 0 to 10.
Walton benefited from the Warriors’ halo
Walton will import the Warriors’ culture
Walton will import the Warriors’ style of play
Abbott: 10, X and 0. On the first point, without 39-4, it would never play out this way. On the second point, this is a total unknown. Do the Lakers honchos let coaches set the culture? And could Walton? Has he ever hired anyone for anything? To the final point, this Lakers roster simply isn’t built for that. Andre Iguodala is the Warriors’ 11th-best 3-point shooter at 35.1 percent. If he were a Laker, he’d be tied for the best.
Strauss: 8, 8 and 5. Although Walton might have benefited from the Warriors’ halo, it was, initially, a heavy crown to bear. The Golden State job came with an immense amount of pressure, and Walton persevered. It’s easy to chalk that up to the team’s talent level, but other coaches might have botched the situation. Walton remained steadfastly himself, despite his increase in responsibility. In between holding the clipboard, he maintained his rebounding and player workout duties. That was a savvy move.
Adande: 10, 1 and 1. A year ago, Walton wasn’t on the trusty Kevin Arnovitz top coaching candidates list, so yeah, he benefitted from the Warriors’ ascension to the peak of the basketball universe the past 12 months. Much of the Warriors’ culture comes from the players (Steph Curry’s work ethic and easygoing demeanor, Draymond Green‘s fire, etc.),and Steve Kerr has said he has tailored the offense to the roster, so Walton won’t be able to import either of those. But Walton does bring some of the same influences as Kerr (Phil Jackson and Lute Olson),as well as lessons from Kerr himself.
Stein: 6, 3 and 3. The tone of that first sentence sounds like that stuff I always see on Twitter: Any joker could coach the Warriors! Wrong. Luke had a hard job stepping into the shoes of the most important person in the organization not named Steph, Draymond or Klay, and he kept things running beyond smoothly, despite bringing virtually no experience to the job. He’s a special one in his own right and merely posted the best record we’ve ever seen from an interim coach. Buy-in was not guaranteed; he still had to earn it, as nicely as Steve Kerr set him up to do so.
As for the other two points, no coach could “import” such things. The Lakers don’t have the shooters or playmakers to immediately play Golden State’s style, and no amount of dust scooped up from the Warriors’ locker room and sprinkled in the halls of Staples Center creates a culture. Those things have to be built.
Elhassan: 4, 6, 6. Draymond Green said it best when responding to a question about whether he is a product of Steph Curry’s brilliance: Of course he is. Curry is the best player in the league! Similarly, Walton benefitted from being on the best team in the league, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t contribute to that excellence, and it doesn’t mean he’s nothing without them.
Importing the Warriors’ culture and style of play is easier said than done, mainly because neither of those things is divorced from the personnel the Warriors had: smart and selfless players. But if he had his druthers, I’m sure Walton would try.
3. What are jobs 1, 2 and 3 for Walton as Lakers coach?
Abbott: 1. Restore trust in D’Angelo Russell. 2. Perform an exorcism and create an environment of hope for players around the league. 3. Embrace the 3-pointer.
Strauss: Job 1 is to sooth tensions around D’Angelo Russell and get his career on the right path. Job 2 is to incorporate an effective offensive system to replace “watch Kobe dribble.” Job 3 is to recruit free agents.
Adande: First, get some experienced assistants, as Kerr benefited from Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams in his first year. But then Walton must use his own youth as an advantage. The Lakers will be such a young team post-Kobe that a guy still in his mid-30s might be the best at relating to them. Finally, be himself with the media. As much as the Bay Area media likes Kerr, they liked dealing with Luke even better.
Stein: 1. Put together a strong staff that can teach and create an environment in which young players learn and thrive.
2. Take a lead role in the Lakers’ efforts to develop a post-Kobe identity for the franchise. What Portland did this season after losing four starters is a fine example.
3. Try to get some momentum going behind 1 and 2 as quickly as possible, so free agents start to see a real plan to latch onto, as opposed to the pitch L.A. had been forced to make in recent years, one that was too reliant on the club’s rich history and the lure of the Hollywood lifestyle.
Elhassan: Job 1 is reaching out to all players on the roster, even prospective free agents, to explain his overarching vision and set up time after the Warriors’ season is over to meet with them individually.
Job 2 has to be fleshing out a staff. Ideally, Walton will have a nice mix of sage, veteran wisdom and go-getting, youthful exuberance, a mix of ex-players and ex-video coordinators, offensive and defensive minds.
Job 3 is get up to speed with the team’s pre-draft prep, especially if the Lakers end up keeping their pick.
4. Fact or fiction: Walton will help the Lakers attract free agents.
Abbott: He has played with a lot of today’s best players. He has an aura of winning titles in multiple cities. Those are good things. On the other hand, one obstacle for free agents is an ownership family that has rolled through one organizational philosophy after another. Is Walton the foundation of something new and lasting or the latest Buss whim?
Strauss: If the Lakers win, Walton will help. He’s charismatic, and he communicates well with current players. That might be his best attribute as a leader, actually. He exudes a laid-back likability.
Adande: Fiction. Gregg Popovich is the only destination coach at the moment. Los Angeles and the $60 million in cap room that the Lakers can wave at free agents will provide the allure.
Stein: Fiction. He can’t do that on his own. But I never believed there was a hire out there capable of doing so for the Lakers. Kevin Ollie and Derek Fisher can both claim strong relationships with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but I feel safe in suggesting that KD and Russ are going to need to see a lot more than a coach they like to leave Oklahoma City for a team at the bottom of the West. Plenty of people believe Westbrook in particular lusts for a move to the Lakers in the summer of 2017, but the factors that would lure him won’t be found in the coaching box.
Elhassan: Fact, if he can get the young Lakers to embrace the Warriors’ style of play and approach to the game. Beyond that, it gets iffy. While Walton is well-liked by players around the league, free agents will still let money and potential success be their compasses when looking for new homes.
5. How does this development affect the Warriors?
Abbott: I’d trust Ethan and Marc more than me on that, as they’ve seen it all up close. But Golden State has done OK since losing Alvin Gentry to the Pelicans!
Strauss: Theoretically, what they lose in talent, they compensate for with incentives for a new generation. Kerr believes in promoting from within. Younger coaches are further motivated to do good work, with the object lesson that it leads to incredible promotions. Young staffers will likely move up the chain, with Jarron Collins taking up Walton’s mantle, followed by Chris DeMarco, Nick U’Ren and Theo Robertson moving up.
Adande: This puts a little more pressure on Steve Kerr, who still isn’t in the clear, physically. It might have been easier for him to step aside after Walton demonstrated he could run things. But the Warriors also believe in assistant Jarron Collins, who slides up after Walton leaves.
Stein: It’s a definite blow, softened only slightly by the fact that at least it happened quickly, so the uncertainty of Walton’s future won’t serve as a day-to-day distraction in the playoffs. The Warriors are losing the coach best equipped to step in for Kerr if health issues continue to plague the boss, and who knows how many current Warriors staffers Walton will try to take with him? But even so, this is the ultimate tribute to Golden State’s success the past couple seasons. Now they’re being regularly raided like the Spurs.
Elhassan: For the second straight season, the Warriors have lost not only the lead assistant coach but also one of the most player-friendly coaches on the staff. Kerr might come across as happy-go-lucky, but he’s a lot more “bad cop” in his locker room than the outside world probably realizes, and both Gentry and Walton served as the “good cop” counterbalance.
Beyond that, Golden State will need to add another body to the staff. Will everyone take a step to the left (with Jarron Collins ascending to associate head coach status and Chris DeMarco or Bruce Fraser getting a full assistant coach title),or will they add someone from outside the organization?