Column: Lakers go back to a sweet spot with hiring of Luke Walton
A chant from the past has become a cry for the future.
A smart, selfless benchwarmer with two championship rings as a player has returned to that bench, only this time in the main seat, the beloved working man from the last glorious Lakers era charged with hammering out a new one.
Is this cool, or what? A fan favorite who grew up on the Staples Center floor is coming home to command its sidelines. An average dude who went away to become a coaching star is bringing that star back to town in the hopes he can revitalize with its glow.
Luke Walton is the new coach of the Lakers, and one can already predict what the folks on Figueroa will be saying next season when Lawrence Tanter bellows out his name on opening night.
No, unlike the cries heard during the last two seasons, the two worst seasons in Lakers history, those will definitely not be boos.
In their most sensible coaching hire in the five years since Phil Jackson left town, the Lakers announced Friday they have pulled Walton away from his assistant coaching job with the glittering Golden State Warriors to replace Byron Scott less than a week after Scott’s dismissal.
Surprised it took them that long.
“We’re excited to bring Luke back to Los Angeles, where we feel he’s going to start an outstanding coaching career,” said General Manager Mitch Kupchak in a statement.
Well, that’s not exactly true. Walton actually started his outstanding head coaching career this season while subbing for injured Warriors Coach Steve Kerr. You know what happened next. Under Walton the Warriors won their first 24 games — an NBA record — and wound up going 39-4 until Kerr returned.
“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,” said Kupchak.
All that is absolutely true. You don’t win 91% of your games by simply putting a team in cruise control. Yes, once Kerr showed up, the Warriors went 34-5 en route to an NBA record 73 wins, so Walton was obviously handed greatness. But he knew what to do with greatness. He knew how to handle stars. He was acting like a Lakers coach long before he dreamed he’d be the Lakers coach.
True, Walton is only 36, and he’s only been an NBA assistant for two seasons, and his last Lakers job was running their developmental league team. But he showed during the first three months of this season, he’s ready. And man, are the Lakers ready for him.
It is believed that basketball boss Jim Buss relieved Scott of his duties so suddenly Sunday night — even club President Jeanie Buss said she was caught off guard — because he realized he might lose Walton to another vacancy if he waited much longer. It is also believed that the Lakers hired Walton without even interviewing any other candidate, but who can blame them?
The Lakers need a young leader who can help develop immature Lakers kids like D’Angelo Russell and their probable top-three draft pick from this season. Walton has the basketball smarts to do that. The Lakers also need a credible leader who can attract free agents to an organization that has recently been shunned for being too stuck in the past. Walton has the basketball pedigree to do that.
Walton has the youth and he has the bling, all of which gives him the right to tell someone like Kevin Durant, “If Steph Curry could thrive under me, so can you.”
Once Walton arrives after Golden State’s postseason ends, he will bring the Warriors’ motion style to Staples while adding his own elbow-grease ethic from a career in which he lasted 11 years despite an average of less than five points while playing less than 20 minutes a game.
To all that, he can add a bit of Zen because, yes, he played for Jackson during both of Jackson’s Lakers stints, and, yes, this is where it gets ironic.
By making what appears to be the best hire of his career, Lakers basketball boss Jim Buss could be making it easier for the organization to bring back Jackson to replace him next spring. It is believed Walton is the guy Jackson wanted to hire for his New York Knicks and a guy who Jackson would be delighted to boss again out here, so the front-office transition would be seamless.
However, if the Walton hiring works, and the new rookies work, and a couple of big free agents show up, and the Lakers become some form of the Lakers again, Walton could help Buss save his job just before he promised to give it up.
It’s a roll of the dice, but a smart roll, and timely roll, one that will probably be roundly supported by most, although one notable guy isn’t going to like it.
Yeah, sigh, in a recent interview with KTVK-TV in Phoenix, Bill Walton advised against his son leaving Golden State for anybody.
“Stay where he is head coaching jobs are open for a reason,” Walton said. “What he has right now doesn’t get any better than that. Money cannot buy what they have on the Warriors right now.”
At that point the interviewer asked, “Is he going to listen to you?”
Bill Walton replied, “Did you listen to our dad?”
Glad you didn’t, Luuuuuuuke. Welcome home.
Follow Bill Plaschke on Twitter @BillPlaschke
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