As someone whose lifelong ambience is the sound of a basketball colliding with hardwood, Luke Walton exudes more than enough confidence, wit, and knowledge to succeed as a head coach in the NBA. He can liaise with the most temperamental players, tranquilize media uproars, and implement modern on-court principles in an effective, executable way.
The Los Angeles Lakers have improved under his watch, more than doubling their win total since Byron Scott left; their defense in Walton’s second season was above league average, breaking a four-season streak in which they couldn’t climb out of the bottom five.
But everything changed last week, and it's only a matter of time before we know if it's good or bad news for L.A.'s head coach. LeBron James is there now, leading a matured yet young and critically flawed roster that was ostensibly constructed to dethrone the Golden State Warriors immediately (please stop laughing). Walton is LeBron’s seventh head coach, and with that responsibility comes expectations that rival those of the league’s actual championship contenders. It’s a blessing and a curse.
While finding a way for this roster—which is mostly comprised of greatness, misfits, and hype—to have success on the court, Walton must also propitiate a locker room that’s suddenly more experienced, abrasive, pigheaded, lackadaisical, and brilliant than anything he's seen as a head coach. If the Lakers struggle (which is definitely possible if LeBron doesn’t want to lead the league in minutes as a 34-year-old), Walton will probably be the fall guy. He was not hired by Magic Johnson or Rob Pelinka, two fortunate and delusional decision-makers who don’t have a ton of time on their side. There will be pressure to win right away with a team that was improperly patched together. (The Cleveland Cavaliers needed James's very best to escape the flimsy Eastern Conference, and now he's his team's only All-Star, stuck in a far more competitive bracket.)
The good news for Walton is even if the Lakers don't look right all season long, there aren’t many experienced, unemployed, highly-impressive coaching candidates who make clear sense in Los Angeles. (In an apocalyptic scenario, it’s possible to see Johnson and Pelinka being (temporarily) comfortable with Walton’s assistant Brian Shaw—as the Cavaliers replaced David Blatt with Tyronn Lue—but this type of mid-season change still feels highly unlikely.)
This forces us to turn to coaches who already have jobs but would kill for the historic chance to be in L.A. with LeBron. But nothing is apparent on that front. Almost every head coach in the NBA is either too successful or deeply rooted where he is to move, or not accomplished enough to be an explicit upgrade over Walton.
That said, one name stands out as far more intriguing than all the others, and he just so happens to already work in the same building. Doc Rivers just signed a two-year extension that makes him head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers through 2021. It’s a solid job in a great market with relatively low expectations and the potential to be great sooner than later thanks to Steve Ballmer’s financial readiness, a suddenly competent front office, and all the cap flexibility they have next summer—two max contracts will be possible.
Rivers says all the right things about overseeing the Clippers rebuild—one that, again, may or may not last very long—but he wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to coach arguably the best player who ever lived, with annual championship contention on the table. And even though Rajon Rondo is only on a one-year deal, all four of his All-Star seasons came under Rivers, who was able to establish a comfortably rocky relationship with the mercurial point guard.
If the Clippers can’t “reboot” and instead have to build from the bottom up, Rivers doesn’t make a ton of sense as a long-term option anyway (at least not when compared to someone like, say, Walton). When he left the Boston Celtics for Los Angeles back in 2013, Rivers had three years and $21 million left on his contract. The Celtics agreed to release him from it after the Clippers shipped over a 2015 first-round pick. A similar arrangement would not be impossible here. Rivers can really coach, is widely respected by players around the league, and wouldn’t flinch under the abnormal pressures that accompany a relentless limelight. To boot, imagine him, Magic, and LeBron entering a pitch meeting next summer and not landing whoever’s on the other side of the table, be it Kevin Durant, Rihanna, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, whoever.
But if Rivers is happy where he is and the Lakers want to move on from Walton, the list of qualified applicants isn’t long. Stan Van Gundy, coming off a disastrous run with the Detroit Pistons in which his own personnel decisions drowned out his shrieks from the sideline, is, in my opinion, the best guy out there. It’d be fascinating to see how the Lakers would play under Van Gundy, an expert who could finally get creative with lineups that didn’t rely on the center position.
How about hiring a retread, like Frank Vogel or Jeff Hornacek? Or making a splash with Villanova’s Jay Wright? Would LeBron have any interest in being led by his former Olympics teammate Jason Kidd? What about Monty Williams, who was just hired as Brett Brown’s lead assistant in Philadelphia?
Whenever the Lakers came up while I was in Las Vegas I liked to ask who would be their next head coach, in the event Walton curdles. My favorite response was Mark Jackson, a Klutch client who was reportedly close to becoming head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers before Lue intercepted the job. That would be...messy.
It’s easy to see Walton working out fine. He’s played with and already coached some of the most talented and infuriating players who ever lived (Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Draymond Green, etc.) He’s seen everything up close, from multiple perspectives. It’s harsh to look at his situation and assume it won’t end well, but the people who hired him are gone. And the new regime hasn’t done him any favors by treating LeBron’s decision as a superficial end game.
If the Lakers don’t live up to (somewhat unreasonable) expectations in LeBron’s first season it won’t be Walton’s fault. But he’s employed by an organization that isn’t known for being rational, and with odds already unfairly stacked against him, there’s a good chance potential successors are already eyeing his seat.