After three consecutive franchise-worst seasons, the Los Angeles Lakers hired former longtime reserve player Luke Walton as the team’s new head coach. After starting the season as the Golden State Warriors’ head coach, filling in for Steve Kerr, Walton showed his head coaching prowess.
The 36-year-old led Golden State to a historic 24-0 start; finishing 39-4 overall before Kerr resumed his head coaching duties. Under the NBA’s rules, Walton was not credited with any of his wins or losses. However, his ability to coach shone through and since taking the post, so has his love for the Lakers.
“The fact that I played for the Lakers and I feel part of that family...before I took this job, I watched Lakers games and hoped that they would succeed and win,” Walton said to reporters after his deal to coach the Lakers was announced. “It’s kind of nice to go back and rebuild what we used to have there.”
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Walton was the Lakers’ second-round draft pick (32nd overall) out of the University of Arizona in the 2003 NBA Draft. The 6’8, 235-pound son of Hall of Famer Bill Walton was looking to translate some of his collegiate success – where he was second-team All-American and a two-time first-team all-conference selection in the Pac-10.
However, despite his pedigree and size, Walton never translated his skills into NBA domination. In fact, some people had a feeling that Walton’s basketball IQ – not his skills – were his calling.
“I used to tease him all the time, I told him he was the next Phil [Jackson],” Walton’s former teammate Kobe Bryant said earlier this season.
“He was an average player with a messed up back,” Bryant jokingly added. He also mentioned how Jackson always saw a lot of himself in Walton and how he allowed him to develop as a coach while he was still a player.
But Bryant’s point about Walton having some Phil Jackson-like qualities dates back to that rookie season. Walton appeared in 72 games that year, averaging 10 minutes per game. While it wasn’t a significant workload, it was a lot more playing time than Walton – a player on a team with Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone, and Gary Payton – could have imagined.
SLAM Magazine wrote in its September 2004 issue that Walton “probably shouldn’t have been on the roster at that point [at least not the active one], let alone affecting the outcome.” While he did sit through several of the Lakers’ playoff games that year, he was effective when called upon – despite common sense saying otherwise.
“The same Luke who was a rookie on a team coached by Phil Jackson – and as well know, rooks on Zen Master-coached teams usually pull Darko [Miličić] minutes if they’re lucky.”
In Game Two of the NBA Finals versus the Detroit Pistons, the Lakers were struggling to play efficiently. It wasn’t until Walton came in and impacted both sides of the ball that things changed. Walton contributed seven points, eight rebounds, five assists, and two blocks in the Lakers’ win. While Bryant got the attention for making a huge, game-winning shot, the “Zen Master” spoke highly of Walton.
“I just needed somebody in there that could move the ball ball and had the ability to create things,” Jackson said. “He held his own and was actually the player of the game for us tonight.”
Creating things is a huge part of the head coaching gig. It was also something Walton did as a player. When his playing time increased during the mid-to-late ‘2000s, Walton’s production did, too.
During the 2006-07 season, Walton averaged career highs in points (11.4), rebounds (5.0), assists (4.3), field goal percentage (.474), minutes per game (33.0) and games started (60). Then, when Walton’s role diminished in the following years, he was an integral part of the Lakers’ back-to-back championship-winning teams in 2009 and 2010.
Winning multiple championships as a player put Luke and Bill Walton in exclusive company: the only father-son duo to win multiple NBA championships. They’re the third father-son duo to both win championships, joined by the Guokases [Matt Sr. and Matt Jr.] and the Barrys [Rick and Brent].
Back injuries limited Walton in the final years of his Lakers stint. He finished out his active career with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2013. He dabbled in coaching and broadcasting after retiring but his heart was set on coaching.
So, when the Lakers came calling, his job interview went well, and the position was offered, Walton – despite being a part of a successful Warriors franchise – called the chance “one of those opportunities you can’t pass on.” Warriors' guard Klay Thompson even said that he believes Walton's heart has always been in LA.
While guiding a struggling but youthful team back to prominence will not be easy, Walton’s track record of producing more than people thought possible will help him. It all goes back to that rookie who managed to have an unexpected impact on an NBA Finals game in a huge media market.
“I love stuff like this,” Walton said following his productive Game Two of the 2004 NBA Finals. “I’ve always loved big games. I was just hoping I would get my chance.”