Luke Walton was introduced as the new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers Tuesday afternoon, and the 36-year-old looked and sounded the part. Despite his relative youth, the son of Hall of Famer Bill Walton knocked his first press conference out of the park, sounding like a polished veteran coach who was born for this job. He absolutely nailed it, hitting all the right notes and instilling confidence that the franchise made the right decision.
Now comes the hard part.
Walton has his work cut out for him. The Lakers just finished the worst season in franchise history, stumbling to a 17-65 record. This year followed two similarly disappointing seasons during which they went a combined 48-116. With Kobe Bryant now retired, Walton and his staff will have to rebuild the Laker brand from scratch.
The former Lakers second-round draft pick will have some nice tools in his bag immediately. On his roster already will be a young core that includes D’Angelo Russell (20 years old), Julius Randle (21), Larry Nance Jr. (23) and Anthony Brown (23). Virtually everyone expects restricted free agent Jordan Clarkson (24) to return, and the Lakers also hold the second and 32nd picks in Thursday night’s 2016 NBA Draft. And that doesn’t even factor in the roughly $63 million in cap space Los Angeles will have at its disposal this summer.
It’s not the worst situation in the world.
The key for Walton will be fostering the same kind of harmony Steve Kerr did with the Golden State Warriors. Walton now has his dream job, and he must ensure his players feel the same way about their spots on the team.
Walton clearly wants to make basketball in Los Angeles fun again. The quote of the press conference came when he said the following:
"“You have to make it fun for them. Basketball is supposed to be a game of joy.”"
That isn’t some hippie BS, he’s absolutely right. When players play like the game is just a job, you get disappointing results. It’s also obvious to fans when guys don’t want to be there and are just showing up to collect paychecks. When players are having fun, when they decide that putting in the work to get better is enjoyable, that is when they take their games to the next level.
For most of the last two years the Golden State Warriors were having fun on the basketball court. They played like a true team and performed at a nearly unheard-of level because they clearly enjoyed what they were doing. It won’t be easy for Walton to duplicate that in Los Angeles, but the fact that he is intent on trying is a step in the right direction.
Walton has a youthful, impressionable roster, and was a long-time player and has coached a championship-winning team. He should be able to command the respect of his young players. He has always had an extremely high basketball IQ and Steve Kerr has called him irreplaceable more than once. There is a reason virtually every team with a coaching vacancy wanted to interview the former Arizona star.
Walton aced his first test as a full-time head coach, now the real work begins. He was born and bred for this moment and this opportunity. Now we’ll see if he can be the heir to the Lakers championship legacy, and if he can follow in the footsteps of John Kundla, Bill Sharman, Paul Westhead, Pat Riley and Phil Jackson.
It won’t be easy, but he certainly started things off on the right foot.