Luke Walton is probably down to his last four games as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, but at least his departure will come with kinder words than some of the players who have been shipped out over the last couple years.
Jeanie Buss was asked about the job Walton has done, and it certainly sounds like she’s still a fan (as transcribed by Dave McNenamin of ESPN):
”I’m not going to give you the answer to that question,” Buss said when asked about the possibility of Walton remaining as coach while she appeared as a guest on the Sports Business Radio Road Show at Loyola Marymount University on Tuesday.
Buss then got into why it is she feels such a personal affinity for Walton. It makes for an interesting look into why she has defended him so staunchly, even while the rest of his support system has crumbled around him:
”There’s a whole other chapter of my life where I was, for 15 years, the significant other of coach Phil Jackson. And Phil used to say, ‘Bill Walton may be Luke’s dad, but Luke is my son.’ ... It was a very Star Wars-y kind of thing,” Walton said. “But Luke has always been someone that, he came to the Lakers as a rookie, the last year of Shaq (Shaquille O’Neal) and Kobe (Bryant). So he kind of bridged two Lakers teams in the Shaq-Kobe era and then in what you would call the Kobe-Pau (Gasol) era.
”And he is somebody I think who doesn’t even realize what a natural he is and that leadership that he has in terms of getting people connecting with people and all ages. And I think he’s done a terrific job.”
It’s tough to say he’s done a terrific job when this is the third consecutive season his offense will finish below league average. Yes, Walton has yet to have been given an ideal situation, but few young coaches get such a thing. The circumstances and expectations under which Walton coached just changed, and he didn’t keep up with them.
Much like a lot of the fan base, Buss points to the Christmas Day victory over the Golden State Warriors as a best-case scenario for what this team could’ve done this season:
”And that’s a challenge for a coach to constantly be changing lineups and it’s hard,” she said. “But we were in a position where things were all going in the right way and we beat Golden State on Christmas Day - which was a great present for me - but then also LeBron (James) got hurt. So it really puts a lot of pressure on the coaching situation in terms of what he’s able to do when he’s shorthanded with players.”
Walton has two years remaining on his contract, the first of which is guaranteed.
”I think he is a hard worker and he is somebody that players gravitate towards and he’s, I think, done an incredible job under a lot of challenging circumstances,” Buss said.
Throughout this season, Walton has had very little (if any) criticism come his way for his work ethic. By all accounts, it’s one of his strong suits. His ability to relate to players has been pointed to as a legitimate asset of his, and wherever he winds up, that’ll once again be a good starting point.
That said, Walton’s deficiencies became pretty obvious over the course of the year. His borderline dogmatic edict to play a deep rotation no matter the circumstances really hurt the Lakers this year, especially as the injuries mounted up. His coaching staff made up of friends and former teammates had only a couple bright spots on it and, given how competitive the NBA is, it was just another move on the margins that held the rest of the team back.
Buss is right to believe that Walton could one day become a good coach. But if that’s going to happen, he’ll have to learn from the mistakes he made during his time as a Laker. It’s too bad Buss will lose someone she believes in so personally, but much like Walton, she and the rest of the Lakers have to learn that the best option isn’t always the closest.