Luke Walton is still hoping he gets another chance to play in the NBA, but the former Laker and two-time NBA champion is at a career crossroads.
Looking to the future, Walton is straddling two jobs, working as player development coach with the D-Fenders and as a television analyst for Time Warner Cable SportsNet.
While the Lakers have lost 11 of their last 12 games, the team's NBA Development League affiliate has won seven of their last eight, to improve to 10-8 on the season.
"It's been awesome," said Walton in a phone interview with The Times. "I've really enjoyed the opportunity to try out coaching at the professional level."
Walton works under D-Fenders Coach Bob MacKinnon, helping players like Manny Harris, James Southerland and Terrence Williams get a call up to the NBA.
"I'm in charge of the big guys on the team but whenever I see stuff on the court whether they're a big or a wing, or anything, if there's something I notice, I get in their ear and I talk to them," said Walton. "I try to just pass on whatever I've learned over the years that could help them get to the NBA."
Meanwhile on Time Warner Cable, Walton gives his take on the struggling Lakers (14-24).
"The hour postgame show is definitely a lot longer," said Walton. "When they're winning ballgames, it's fun. You're in there with James [Worthy] and Chris [McGee], and you're just having a good time talking about the Lakers playing well."
Of course the Lakers aren't playing well, beset by multiple injuries. Does he think the team can get healthy and recover in time for the playoffs?
"If they were in the Eastern Conference, 100%, but in the West?" Walton said. "The West is pretty competitive. They'd probably have to win seven out of 10 games ... it's going to be very tough for them to get back into the playoff hunt this season."
So, should Kobe Bryant, sidelined with a knee injury after missing the start of the season recovering from Achilles' tendon surgery, sit out the rest of the year to help the Lakers get a better position in the 2014 NBA draft?
"I think that's unreasonable because I know Kobe, and I know how much he thrives to be out there competing," Walton said. "If he feels that he's healthy enough not to hurt himself and healthy enough to be out there playing, he's not going to sit there and wait for next season."
"You're asking one of the greatest players in the history of the game to just sit on the sideline with the idea of getting a higher draft pick," Walton said. "That's asking a lot out of somebody who wants to win as badly as Kobe wants to win."
Walton had a theory about why so many point guards -- both on the Lakers roster (Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, etc.) and around the league (Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo, among others) -- are stymied with injuries.
"The way the game is now, point guards are so good in today's game, so active and so involved with everything ... there's probably a higher risk for them getting hurt just because of how much they do and many minutes they play and how hard they play," Walton said. "It's tough because if you lose your point guard, that makes it hard on everything."
Walton isn't willing to put the blame for the Lakers' slide on Coach Mike D'Antoni.
"I think Mike's done a good job," Walton said. "Before this last losing streak, they were still playing some really good basketball with the major pieces of their team out and constantly having to switch lineups. That's not easy to do. It's not really fair."
Working with MacKinnon and the D-Fenders, Walton understands full well that to succeed, a coach can only adapt to his situation.
"One of our best players and our first pick in the draft was Malcolm Thomas, from San Diego State, and like within the first week he [was called up] after playing two games. He played great," said Walton of Thomas, who was plucked out of the D-League by the San Antonio Spurs.
"That's what you want for these kids is to get that call-up, but as a coach it makes it hard because you're constantly bringing in new players," he said. "We just lost Jamario Moon [to Greece] on the last road trip."
As a coach, Walton is able to pass on some of the lessons he learned as a player under legendary tutelage.
"Everything that coach [Phil] Jackson taught me over the years, in combination with what I learned from Lute Olson at Arizona, would be the ideal coach that I want to be," he said. "Obviously I'm not as nearly a Zen master like Phil is. I still get worked up and rowdy on the sideline on certain plays but overall I try to do my best to stay even-keeled"
Watching the Lakers struggle with injuries fuels Walton's drive for one last NBA run. Walton was originally drafted by the Lakers in 2003 with the 32nd overall pick. After spending almost his entire career with the Lakers, Walton was traded in 2012 to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"I'm still not that far removed from being a player. When you're watching basketball, you want to be out there you want to play," he said. "I work out with my trainer five times a week I practice with the D-League guys and if that opportunity comes, obviously that's my first passion."
"If that opportunity doesn't come then probably at the end of this season I'll close the door on that and just focus 100% on either coaching or broadcasting," he said. "When they're both over at the end of the season, then I'll sit down and kind of reflect on how each one was and kind of make a decision from there."
Meanwhile, the D-Fenders travel to Reno on Friday to play the Bighorns, before hosting the Tulsa 66ers on Saturday.
The D-Fenders have been led by Harris, a 6-foot-5 guard from Michigan, who has earned NBA D-League Performer of the Week honors the last two weeks. Harris scored 42 points on Monday, helping the D-Fenders beat the Maine Red Claws, 120-107.
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