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NBA Sunday: Luke Walton’s Challenge

Luke Walton had it easy with the Warriors. Coaching the Lakers will present a new challenge, writes Moke Hamilton.

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Sure, Luke Walton may be the next Gregg Popovich, but at this point, he isn’t even the next Mike D’Antoni. At least D’Antoni had multiple successful seasons leading Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns. Walton has nothing more than a tiny sample size and people have been talking about him as if he’s Red Auerbach, reincarnated.

Pardon me, but I don’t understand all the hype for a guy who, as an acting head coach, went 39-4 over a 43-game span with a team that had just put together a 67-15 season and went 16-5 en route to winning the 2015 NBA Championship.

To quote the great Mike D’Antoni: “Let’s put him on the Timberwolves and see how great he is!”

Don’t get me wrong, all things considered, Walton is a good hire for the Los Angeles Lakers. His roots and recent success with the franchise will resonate in a way that someone like Tom Thibodeau or Jeff Van Gundy never would. His serving as the understudy to Steve Kerr and the free flowing system that has helped the Warriors go 140-24 over the past two seasons is valuable experience, as well.

But if you haven’t noticed, the Warriors play a system of basketball. They are a well-oiled machine that has synergy and chemistry. Their continuity is undeniable and their success over the past two years hasn’t been because of Luke Walton.

So, in the end, his hiring in Los Angeles shouldn’t necessarily be met with extreme excitement, it should be met with anxious skepticism.

* * * * * *

As Kobe Bryant paraded around the locker room with a pack of ice on his left shoulder, he nearly bumped into me as I was having a conversation with a member of the Lakers public relations staff who had recently relocated from Brooklyn. What I’ll remember most about my January trip to Los Angeles was not Bryant’s performance that night, or his press conference afterward, it was the Lakers’ locker room. It seemed so devoid of spirit. Even after the game, I didn’t see any players interacting or leaving together, which is not normal, even for a losing team.

After several conversations with many people who spend more time around the team than I do, the general consensus is that while everyone in the organization loved Bryant dearly, his year-long retirement tour was a distraction that prevented the younger players from developing and probably cost the Lakers a few losses along the way.

Ever hear of addition by subtraction? The Lakers will likely experience that next season. With the ball being in D’Angelo Russell’s hands more, Jordan Clarkson presumably being re-signed and Julius Randle having had a full season under his belt, there’s almost no way that the Lakers won’t improve upon the franchise-worst 17-65 record that they turned in this season.

Considering that the team finished the season with the second-worst record this season and could find themselves with upwards of $65 million in cap space this summer, via the draft and free agency, the Lakers are likely to be fielding a much more competitive, much more talented team next season.

In other words, with Walton at the helm, there is almost no way that the Lakers don’t show at least some improvement next season, and that probably has some reason to do with why Walton—against his father’s advice—decided to take the job.

Saying “yes” to the Lakers, according to Walton, was an easy decision.

Despite the turmoil surrounding the franchise since the passing of Jerry Buss, the Lakers are still the NBA’s version of the New York Yankees. Los Angeles is right up there with Miami and New York as the most desirable cities in America in which to live and with cap space and a nucleus of young talent there, the Lakers will have no trouble attracting free agents over the coming years. The team has an ownership group that is not renown for pinching pennies and one whose principal has promised to resign if the team doesn’t contend soon.

So yes, taking the Lakers job, for Walton, was a no brainer.

Now, though, and only now, will we actually get to see what kind of coaching chops he has.

* * * * * *

A few weeks ago, when it was apparent to me that the Warriors were going to clock in at 73 or 74 wins, I made the case that Kerr should have been the easy choice for NBA Coach of the Year, despite the fact that he “officially” coached the team for just 39 games this past season.

Notice that word, though: “officially”

What bugged me more than anything about the way that Kerr was discussed this past season was that, in typical 2016 basketball fan fashion, our collective memories proved to be short and logic seemed to be missing from a simple judgment call. The critics would have had you believe that Kerr had quit on the team and wasn’t involved in film sessions or day-to-day judgment. Many acted as though Walton’s success without Kerr was an indictment against Kerr’s system or his brilliance. Instead, to me, it was evidence of it.

If you have a conversation or two with the likes of George Karl, Doug Collins or Mike Fratello, they will tell you that the most difficult part of coaching a team is intimately learning the personnel and finding a system of basketball that best suits them. Pat Riley coached the “Showtime” Lakers to play a certain system of basketball because he believed that it would maximize their talents. He coached the New York Knicks of the 1990s to play a style that was the complete opposite because that is how he believed he could maximize his core of Patrick Ewing and John Starks.

Finding such a system, learning to manage the egos, developing chemistry and controlling the politics are the most difficult aspects of coaching. Most fans believe that teams are full of players who want what’s best for the organization, but the truth of the matter is that every NBA locker room has a few players who are more concerned about themselves and their next contract than they are their team’s win-loss total. And there’s no fault in that, it’s human nature.

It’s easy to be all about the team when you have a five-year contract worth $25 million and you don’t have to be concerned about where your next contract is coming from or how you are going to continue to afford the lifestyle that the NBA life promotes and, in some cases, necessitates.

When you’re that 11th or 12th man on a one-year deal or one whose team option isn’t likely to be picked up, you’ll quickly find that priorities change.

Where Walton was most fortunate was that he inherited a team that literally had none of those concerns. Of all players on their roster, the only contributor whose future seems a bit murky is Harrison Barnes. The thing about Barnes, however, is that both Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green have served as shining examples for him in terms of how to handle himself as a professional — there was zero chance that either would allow any uncertainty about his future to cloud his judgment or his work ethic.

Aside from that, Barnes is a player I’ve had a few interactions with and he seems to be one who sees the bigger picture. Plus, deep down inside, he knows that someone is going to pay him $20 million this summer, be it the Warriors or someone else.

In the end, the point is this:

When we think of what makes a “good” coach, we often think of things that are related to the “Xs and Os,” rotation management and on-court execution. We rarely stop to consider the other, perhaps more important qualities that a head coach must possess.

In the end, an effective head coach has to be a leader, a manager and an authoritative presence. He has to be able to make his team believe in him when they have no reason to believe in themselves and he has to strike the appropriate chords to keep his team motivated and on the same page over the duration of a long and grueling season.

Yes, Walton deserves credit for steering these Warriors to the best start in NBA history (24-0) and for the 39-4 record they compiled in Kerr’s absence.

But let’s be honest. With these Warriors, Walton had it easy.

But today, as he emerged as the first head coaching hire in the post-Kobe Bryant era, for him, the real challenge will now begin.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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