After three seasons, 98 wins and 148 losses, the Los Angeles Lakers and Luke Walton mutually decided to part ways on Friday.
For most of the veterans on the roster, coach turnover is something they’ve grown accustomed to, but for more than half of the players on the Lakers’ roster, they’re losing the only coach they’ve ever had in the NBA.
Josh Hart, who was drafted in Walton’s second year as head coach, told Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times that his time playing under Walton was an enjoyable one.
“I liked playing for him,” Lakers guard Josh Hart said of Walton. “He’s a player’s coach. Lets you kind of play your game, play with passion, so it was fun to play for him. I think he’ll get another job fairly quickly. … I think he did the best job with the cards he was dealt. He’s a professional about it. Did his job with class.”
Hart’s 2017 NBA Draft classmate Kyle Kuzma shared a similar sentiment towards Walton at his exit interview on Wednesday, saying he’s grateful for Walton and the coaching staff for giving him the chance to prove himself as soon as he entered the league.
“The coaching staff means a lot. Those guys put me in the position I am right not, give me the opportunity and this league is all about opportunity and fit. Luke and the rest of the coaching staff really believed in me from day one, letting me be me, coming from college and no one really knew who i was. I played a different style of game. They really helped unlock me and unlock my confidence to a different level,” Kuzma said.
Kuzma also sent out a tweet thanking Walton after it was announced he wouldn’t be with the Lakers going forward:
Want to thank Luke and the rest of the coaching staff for allowing me to be me from day 1 they say opportunity is everything in the league and they gave me that right from the jump. https://t.co/CcvHJRr7TH— kuz (@kylekuzma) April 12, 2019
It wasn’t just the young guys that sung Walton’s praises, though. Veteran point guard Rajon Rondo gave a glowing endorsement for Walton and his ability to lead a locker room during his exit interview.
“I think Luke did a hell of a job, but he had the cards he was dealt. Guys fought every night,” Rondo said. “He has a lot of great tendencies for a young coach that some coaches probably don’t develop their entire life, or their entire career. He was fun, he was a hell of a coach to play for and I just told him in the meeting that I had a great time this year learning from him as well, and the challenges that he gave me this year.”
Rondo even likened Walton to his former head coach Doc Rivers, who the Lakers were rumored to have interest in earlier this season.
Walton undeniably had his flaws as a strategist, which one could argue was enough for the Lakers to let him go, but his ability to motivate players and keep a locker room together is going to make him one of the most coveted free agent coaches in the NBA this summer.
Walton has already garnered interest from the Sacramento Kings, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him emerge as a candidate for the head coaching vacancies in Memphis, where he got his head coaching career started with the University of Memphis, and Cleveland, where he spent two years as a player.
It’s unfortunate that Walton’s coaching career with the organization he spent nearly a decade with as a player didn’t pan out, but he’ll now have the opportunity to start fresh with a team that believes in him.