Luke Walton Back Where It Started

The resurrection project of the Los Angeles Lakers is now in the hands of Luke Walton. Having been given the keys to what used to be a Lamborghini but is now a worn down and used up Porsche, Walton will attempt to reverse the down slide that has engulfed the Lakers in flames. It’s a pretty remarkable coup for Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak who have to worry about job security next summer, given the Jeanie Buss directive to get into the playoffs.

To peel Walton away from Golden State, a job he cherished, a job he loved, people he adored, a dominant team with dynasty written all over them, and to plant him in the middle of a team with maturity issues and a franchise player missing and developmental talent, was a complicated proposition and an easy sell. It took more than magical words and promises and a multi-year contract. It wasn’t X’s and O’s here. It wasn’t rotation and ball movement and leadership that caused Luke Walton to defect from Northern California. It was his Lakers blood under a microscope.

Luke Walton could have taken a job anywhere. Recently, he turned down his former coach Phil Jackson. Many who are perplexed by this and who see the Lakers as dysfunctional and archaic are asking why this job, why this disorganized, pathetic team of immature players who don’t know what they don’t know? It has raised a lot of eyebrows, that’s for sure, but with the Lakers the lines are always blurred between the present and the fable. History is always indulged because history is their birthright. And recently, so is failure.

The question about why, when pared down to the root, is  the Southern California love affair. You always want to come home when home is here. Recently, in a phone survey, 36% of the Los Angeles marketplace said they were Lakers fans, even in this sad year.  9% said they were Clippers fans. Even as the Hollywood sign is the defining landmark to those viewing Southern California from around the world, inside the Southern California boundaries, the Lakers are the mother of all family run operations. That the Lakers had the ability to hire Luke Walton, who is inching closer to title number two, is reflective of their organizational power to those native to this part of the state. But all of it feels transparent, as if you knew it was going to happen all along.

Walton took the job because it was the Lakers, no mystery there. The Lakers have a mystique within their own inner circle.  Even when they are broken, they are still the beloved Lakers, a category most observers simply don’t understand because they look at the Lakers as either a business or an empire or a piece of local history and they don’t consider the institution of the Lakers and their influence in this region.

Luke Walton was born in San Diego. His father, Bill, was a San Diego Clipper at the time of Luke’s birth. The 6-8 power forward attended Arizona and was mentored, taught and nurtured by Lute Olson. The Lakers drafted Walton in the second round in 2003. They chose him and not Mo Williams and Kyle Korver, both of whom are currently active in the playoffs.

The predictions were of a brief Luke Walton career. He wasn’t athletic nor was he dominant in any of the skills he brought to the table. What he was, that Phil Jackson trusted, was smart. He understood the game.

He won two titles with Kobe and Pau and Lamar Odom but in 2010 he inherited the injury complex that plagued his father. He began sitting in coach’s meetings and was mentored by Phil. His career ended in 2013 after nine years of emotional compensation, of being a member of a proud and elite club that delivered two rings to the trophy case. He was an assistant coach in college (Memphis). He worked for the Lakers D-League team before the Warriors came calling. His trial by fire was as an interim coach while Steve Kerr suffered through a back injury and he is credited for incentivizing Draymond Green, a player he is especially close to and who is sad to see him leave. Under Walton, the Warriors won the first 24 games of the season and were 39-4.

The Lakers have a similar power forward, stylistically, to Draymond Green, one who can pass and rebound but Julius Randle is not the scorer that Green is, nor is he the leader. The rest of the roster is a far cry from the skilled players and competitors on the Warriors. This young group has yet to learn how to fight, possession after possession after possession. All too often this season, they just gave up.

The question of Luke Walton, the teacher, will be answered soon enough. D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson need a patient and nurturing educator. There are a lot of immaturity issues that plague this team and how their summer workout goes, if they take Kobe Bryant’s advice and stay together as a group, rather than disperse, will set the tone for how much teaching Walton has to do. All that matters to many here is that Luke Walton is someone we remember. It wasn’t that long ago. His contribution to the Phil Jackson tree that legitimized perfection is the last Lakers great moment. And even as Kobe is gone into his second life, he is not really gone, not now. His teammate Luke, the one he won titles with and for, is next in line, next man up. It is as iconographic a setup as ever there was one.

The fact that Walton comes with riches, that he may have two titles as a coach in his back pocket, albeit as an assistant coach, takes a little bit of the edge off and no one expects a 17 win team to win 40 games, aside from Jeanie Buss. It’s a progression.

It’s a little too early to call the Warriors a dynasty but they do have a special team with the potential to achieve historic things beyond 73 regular season wins. And yet all of what the Warriors are at this moment couldn’t influence Southern California born Luke Walton, Lakers for 9 years Luke Walton, two time NBA player- champion Luke Walton to stay. This one job that was a perfect fit first job made all the sense in the world if you define all things by the beloved clique of Lakers men. It was enough to send Walton’s Oakland career into retirement.

Is it nostalgia for the past, for what happened when Luke was here once upon a time, those ageless years of glory? Perhaps. He’s not a savior though and isn’t selling himself that way. His job is to develop a core and to build within.  Practically though, Walton had to answer the question: when is a job like this going to come around again? Who knows what would happen in five years.

The world has not changed the Lakers and losing has not changed them either, even as this recent failure is a bitter pill to swallow. Still, it is kind of crazy when you consider the particulars and how these former Lakers have a particular love for the organization that seems to override logic. Who would have thought Luke Walton, career 4 points and two rebounds Los Angeles Laker, would lead the organization at this time in their post-Kobe history, even if the cards lined up perfectly.

Only in L.A. does this ending make sense.


photo via llananba