The Los Angeles Lakers targeted a top free agent and for the first time in several years, they got their man. No, Luke Walton assuming the coaching position vacated by Byron Scott, but he was widely reported to be the Lakers' top choice, and the meeting quickly led to an agreement.
According to Bill Oram of the LA Daily News, the Lakers met with Walton for nearly six hours on Friday. In Oakland, Lakers front office decision makers Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak did not even bother to hold interviews with any other candidates after speaking with Walton. By Friday night, the news had slipped through the cracks and the organization made an official announcement by issuing a press release to confirm the hire.
Luke Walton had been announced as the next coach of the LA Lakers.
A day later, ESPN's Marc Stein reported that Walton took on a five-year contract with four years guaranteed at between $5 and $6 million per season. For the sake of comparison, Walton's predecessors, Mike D'Antoni and Scott, both received three-year contracts to coach the team. Giving Walton a five-year contract, with four years guaranteed, hinted at the team's faith in their new hire.
Only aged 36, Walton instantly becomes the youngest coach in the NBA after concluding his playing career in 2013.
After joining the league as a player in 2003 via a second-round pick for the Lakers, Walton played for the purple and gold until the 2012 season. After being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2012, the former University of Arizona Wildcat played one more season in Cleveland before calling time on a 10-year NBA career. Incidentally, Walton's final season in Cleveland came under Scott, who was coaching the Cavs at the time.
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In his first season as an assistant coach in the NBA, Walton served on Steve Kerr's staff and helped the Golden State Warriors win the 2015 NBA Championship. To start his second season in Golden State, Walton took over as interim coach as Kerr recovered from complications due to back surgery. Walton led the Warriors to a 24-0 start, which set a new NBA record for the best start to a season ever. When he handed over the reins to Kerr, the Warriors had put together a 39-4 record—second best start to an NBA season in history after 43 games.
During that stretch, Kobe Bryant was asked about Walton's impressive performance on the bench.
"I used to tease him all the time," Bryant said. "I used to tell him he's the next Phil (Jackson) because he was an average player with a messed up back."
Bryant added, "Honestly, he always had a really brilliant mind, understanding flow and tempo and spacing and how to manage a team the right way."
Considering Jackson won 11 titles as a coach, the Lakers hope that Bryant is correct in his comparison. Along with the loose comparisons Bryant made, both Walton and Jackson won two championships as players. Jackson's connection to Walton is far more direct than even Bryant let on.
During the 2009-10 season, Walton's back problems led Jackson to inviting the player to take part in the coaches' meetings and the player would often pick up a clipboard and track stats on the bench. Without much of an argument, one could claim that Jackson launched Walton's coaching career.
When Kerr, who also played under Jackson with the Chicago Bulls, looked to build a coaching staff, he dipped into the Jackson coaching tree and gave Walton a chance. Had Walton not accepted the Lakers' job, the New York Knicks were rumored to be interested in bringing the San Diego native to work directly under Jackson in the Big Apple.
Instead, Walton landed a long term deal with the Lakers. Finally, the team got its top target. While the new coach's ability to connect to the younger NBA players was identified as a strength that fit perfectly with the Lakers' young roster, Walton's arrival adds further fuel to talk of Jackson's potential return to the Lakers in an executive role. If Jackson does manage to make the move from New York to LA, likely, Walton's history with Jackson would allow front office changes to not force coaching changes.
Before going too far down the hypothetical rabbit hole, though, news of Walton's hire should be received as the Lakers targeting a highly coveted assistant coach and getting their man. Regardless of the politics and power struggles that may or not be taking place behind closed doors, Walton is the right man for the team as it moves beyond Bryant and into a new, unknown era of Lakers' basketball.