Las Vegas — When Luke Walton found out he’d be coaching LeBron James with the Los Angeles Lakers next season, he was sitting in his backyard on what had previously been a calm Sunday, at least until his phone started buzzing off the hook with messages about James’ decision.
Walton initially didn’t know whether the messages were real or “fake news,” but he soon realized that there was nothing fake about this: He’d be coaching arguably the best player to ever grace a basketball court next season, something he’s “really, really excited about” getting to do.
“I had a gut feeling he was going to come, so I wasn’t shocked, but it was a fun Sunday,” Walton said with his typical knowing smirk.
But coaching the best player in the world isn’t going to be all fun and games. To prepare for his monumental task, Walton has sought out the ear of James’ prior coaches and teammates, including grabbing breakfast with Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue, who told him that despite the natural pressure that comes with coaching James, Walton doesn’t have anything to worry about other than making sure he does his job well.
“He had nothing but great things to say, honestly. He said ‘you’re going to love coaching him. He’s a winner, he works hard, he’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached,’” Walton said, while adding that Lue also spoke to him about Rajon Rondo, who Lue coached with the Boston Celtics, although Walton maintains he was less looking for advice and more just trying to gather information about his newest players.
But while coaching Rondo and the other new additions is obviously something Walton has to plan for, the most scrutinized relationship on the team next season will be the partnership he’s going to have to forge with James.
Walton laughed at how much has been made of whether or not he’s spoken with James yet, asking the existential question of what defines a modern conversation before revealing that he has “texted a bunch” with LeBron, but he knows his new star is also on vacation after an eighth-straight trip to the NBA Finals, and told James that he’ll be be ready to meet up with him “whenever he’s ready.”
That meeting will come at some point in the future, as will training camp, when Walton will face his greatest test yet as a Lakers coach: Melding the principles of the way he wants to play with the best way to use this current roster the Lakers have assembled.
It doesn’t sound like Walton is stressing too much about it.
“I’m looking forward to that,” Walton said. “To me teams are at their best when they take ownership of that team. The best way to do that is to include them in decisions and the way that we’re going to play, and try to use their strengths.
“When everyone is bought in on the same page then it’s easy to hold them accountable, and most of the time they hold themselves accountable too,” Walton continued. “I’m really excited to start working with LeBron, but also the other guys and get our young guys back too.”
As two-way point guard Alex Caruso put it after the Lakers’ summer league win over the New York Knicks, “the Lakers’ motto has been play hard defense, be unselfish, just have a lot of fun and play hard.”
After two years in Los Angeles, it’s become clear those are also Walton’s basic tenets as a coach, and he’s currently thinking of how to best utilize a very different, shooting-bereft but playmaking-filled roster within that construct while also adapting his philosophy as necessary.
“We’ll change some things,” Walton said. “As far as how much, it’s too early to determine, but there are some things you don’t change as far as what builds your culture and who we are as an organization.
“But the style of play changes. You should change it, depending on your personnel,” Walton continued. “So we’ll take a deep dive into all the new guys and see what’s best for the group we have.”
Making that process easier is how much progress those young Lakers have made over the last season, with Walton mentioning specifically how impressed he was with the development Josh Hart has put on full display in Las Vegas summer league. He also thinks his players are excited enough about playing with James that they’ll be able to push themselves to improve alongside him, something he says James will make even simpler.
“Part of what I’m hearing from other coaches is that one of the things that makes LeBron so great is that he picks up every single person he plays with, and he elevates their game,” Walton said. “Obviously it will take time — every new team does when they get together — but that’s part of the fun and joy of the process is getting these pieces to fit.
“I think LeBron will make that easier.”
But Walton also talked up how James won’t have to make everything easier for his teammates anymore, not with all the playmakers the Lakers now have on their roster, something he thinks will make the Lakers far more versatile and tougher to guard.
Still, while Walton might be new to coaching James, he also knows that the best way to do so isn’t by entirely taking the ball out of The King’s clutches. They’ll have to find a balance, but ultimately there are going to do what James’ teams have always done a fair amount.
”We’re going to have the ball in LeBron’s hands a lot,” Walton said, confirming the obvious. “I envision obviously everyone making plays, but he’s going to have the ball a lot during the game.”
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.