Lakers anticipate growing pains for Luke Walton, Mitch Kupchak says

ByBaxter Holmes ESPN logo
Friday, May 13, 2016

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Lakers are plenty excited about Luke Walton, but the team's brass believes the Golden State Warriors assistant will need time to adjust to his first NBA head-coaching position, especially as the 36-year-old Walton is set to become the youngest coach in the league while also taking over a rebuilding team that posted a franchise-worst 17-65 record last season.

As such, on Friday, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said that Walton, whom the Lakers agreed to hire last week, will endure "some bumps in the road," but the team believes Walton "is a good bet going forward" and that "we think he's going to get better year to year."

Kupchak spoke at the team's practice facility after Walton signed his contract with the Lakers on Thursday night. According to's Marc Stein, Walton agreed to a five-year deal, with four years guaranteed, worth up to $6 million a year plus incentives.

Kupchak said Walton was the first of several candidates the Lakers were scheduled to interview, but after meeting with Walton last Thursday in Oakland, California, the Lakers canceled their other interviews and soon offered him the position.

An announcement was made the next day that Walton had accepted the job.

Walton won't join the Lakers until the Warriors' postseason run ends. The Warriors are chasing their second consecutive championship, and if they reach that point, Walton won't assume his new post until June.

There were multiple reasons why the Lakers moved so quickly to hire Walton, one of them being that they didn't want to risk losing the hottest free-agent coach on the market to another team that might lure him away.

"With the openings in the NBA at the time, and the openings that we thought might come about, once we finished the interview, we decided quickly that he was our first choice," Kupchak said. "Why wait? Just get it done. And that's what we did."

The illustrious Lakers have typically hired veteran coaches, so choosing Walton marks a change of pace.

"I think the front office will be more involved with the development of a young coach," Kupchak said. "As long as I can remember, we've had veteran coaches here, I guess since Del Harris. Del Harris, Phil Jackson, Rudy Tomjanovich, Mike Brown, Mike D'Antoni, Byron Scott. So this is something new for us and I expect to be more involved day-to-day than we've ever been in terms of the front office and what takes place down in the locker room."

Kupchak listed several reasons for the Lakers to hire Walton, including his coaching inexperience, though Walton retired from playing in the NBA just three years ago. And two years ago, he was a part-time assistant with the Lakers' D-League team, the D-Fenders.

"Believe it or not, the fact that he really doesn't have a lot of head-coaching experience is a positive," Kupchak said. "We get to work with somebody who's learning on the fly. We've had experience with coaches like that in the past. In fact, I think Pat Riley was our last 36-year-old coach. [Riley] did pretty good. But we're happy to have Luke for a lot of different reasons."

Of course, the Lakers know Walton well, since they drafted him. He played nearly nine seasons with the team, winning championships in 2009 and 2010.

But beyond that familiarity, Kupchak said Walton was impressive during a sit-down that lasted close to seven hours and included Jim Buss, the Lakers' part-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations.

"We had a lot of questions," Kupchak said. "Obviously, what kind of offense? What kind of defense? How do you see our team playing? What do you think of our players? What do we need? A lot of 'what-if' scenarios. He was well thought out. He we was prepared. [He] had an offensive and a defensive playbook, and he actually had another pamphlet that he handed out, with his picture on the front of it and his name underneath it. I looked at it and said, 'Really Luke?' And he said, 'Oh, this is something my agent made me do.' "

Kupchak said Walton intends to play an up-tempo, fast-paced style, much like the Warriors. However, Kupchak quickly added, "We don't have the players that Golden State has right now, and in this league, it's a player-oriented league. You're only going to be as good as your players are.

"And that falls on the basketball department to provide him better players going forward. He does like the players we have and he thinks they can play a similar style of basketball that's really prevalent in the NBA right now. It's exciting, it's fun to watch and there's a high skill level."

Walton and the Lakers still need to assemble a coaching staff, and Kupchak said they'd like to hire some of his lead assistants -- those who generally sit next to the head coach on the front of the bench -- "as soon as possible." Kupchak added that they would also consider hiring assistant coaches who have head-coaching experience to help along the young Walton.

Walton posted a 39-4 record as the interim Warriors coach earlier this season, when he filled in for Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who was sidelined with health issues. That brief-but-successful stint impressed the Lakers.

"When you're in that seat as a head coach, everybody's looking at you," Kupchak said. "And that's a big difference between an assistant and a head coach. The good thing with Luke is that he did have 40 games or so experience as a head coach. He knows to manage the clock, timeouts, substitutions, draw plays -- although his body of work is limited to about a half a season. The fact that he actually already has done it is a big plus going forward in his coaching career. He knows what it takes and he knows the decisions and he's familiar with the decisions that have to be made during a game."

One of the best moves the Lakers can make to help Walton is improve a roster that has some promising but ultimately unproven, young players.

The Lakers have a 55.8 percent chance of keeping their top-three protected pick at next week's NBA draft lottery in New York City, and they're projected to have as much as $60 million in salary-cap room to use in free agency this summer.

"There's a timeline between now and July 15th that we're excited about that's going to be challenging," Kupchak said. "We do like our core of young players. There could be a veteran or two or three who weren't on our team this year that we will pursue. We think we have something to work with versus a year ago [when] we had less. And certainly, financially, we have so much more this year than we did a year ago, but a lot of teams, because of the cap going up, are going to have flexibility. So it will be very competitive and challenging, but we do have to provide better players going forward."

Walton replaces former Lakers coach Byron Scott, who has recently stated he was surprised the team parted ways with him last week.

Scott, who won 38 games in two seasons coaching the Lakers, said he believed that he had at least one more season to turn around the rebuilding team.

"It didn't go wrong with Byron and there's no one thing that we can point to," Kupchak said. "And the expression, 'It's a decision to go in another direction' is overused. But I decline to go into great detail.

"Byron did a wonderful job under very adverse circumstances the last two years. I know he wasn't expecting not to coach our team next year and I know he was hoping that he would coach. But that's the business, and when I spoke to Byron we kind of both looked at each other and said we've both been around long enough to know that this happens."

At times, Scott had a contentious relationship with the Lakers' young players last season. While Kupchak said he wasn't yet sure what all the team's players think of Walton, he said he believes they will like Walton.

"I think his generation is closer to the generation of players today," Kupchak said. "So maybe it's a good thing that he can relate, certainly better than I could. And he'll be traveling and in the locker room, on the court, so I think that's a plus. It's not that long ago that he was playing and that's not to say that you have to be a young person who just quit playing basketball to be a head coach in this league or be successful in this league. That's not the case at all. In fact, one of the most successful coaches in this league is older than I am. But I think that will be a plus in this case. And I'm hopeful that Luke can turn it into a tool that not only helps him coach the players on the team but also helps us recruit players."

The past three Lakers coaches have departed before their contracts expired. Does the team take more of a long view with Walton, given his age and inexperience?

"It's different today," Kupchak said. "For 20 years, we had a player on this team and on this court and on my white board and on every box score that we've become dependent upon and very familiar with. Of course, I'm talking about Kobe Bryant. Kobe's retired. So, it's clear that we're entering into a new arena of basketball for the Lakers going forward.

"We do want to begin to win as quickly as possible. But first and foremost, we want to build a strong foundation, we want to make sure that we do this the right way. Whether that's through the draft or through free agency or through the trade market, we do have more assets today than we did a year ago. So there are a lot more possibilities ... and I think Luke is on board to do it the right way, play exciting basketball and provide a product to our fans and our viewers and our supporters that they're proud of."

Related Video