Luke Walton briefly daydreamed about taking a little time away from the game after parting ways with the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday. Five minutes later, Kings general manager Vlade Divac called with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The Kings followed a whirlwind weekend with a Monday afternoon news conference at Golden 1 Center to introduce Walton as the team’s new head coach. Walton said he’s excited about the opportunity and eager to start working with a promising young team.
“It’s a great group that Vlade’s put together here,” Walton said. “I’m very excited about getting to know these guys and getting to coach them; very excited about the fact that they’ve got this beautiful arena and practice facility; and, obviously, Sacramento has always had one of the best crowds in the NBA as far as the support they get and the type of atmosphere they have at their games, so it’s a very exciting time for my family and I.”
Divac welcomed Walton and his family to Sacramento and repeatedly mentioned that he and Walton share a vision for the game.
“Our soul for basketball is very, very same,” Divac said. “... (He) sees basketball the same way I do.”
Appointing Walton as head coach was the latest in a series of swift and decisive moves Divac made after the Kings suffered a season-ending loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday. The Kings finished 39-43, posting their best record since 2005-06 but failing to reach the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season.
The next morning, Divac agreed to a four-year contract extension and quickly fired coach Dave Joerger and assistant general manager Brandon Williams, whose strategic differences resulted in an embarrassing power struggle during the season.
Divac reached out to Walton on Friday, immediately after Walton and the Lakers announced they were going their separate ways after three seasons.
“I called his people, like, literally five minutes after to see what’s going on and make sure that’s true and if I can see him that day,” Divac said.
Twenty-four hours later, Walton was in Sacramento finalizing a four-year deal following a face-to-face meeting with Divac.
“I think, initially, I was going to take some time off and just relax and try to get mentally ready for what was going to come next,” Walton said. “But when Vlade called, I knew it was something I had to talk to my family about and I talked quickly because I knew these types of opportunities don’t come available very often.
“Dave did a great job with this team. We played against them and — watching them, scouting them — they play hard. They are a good, good team. I love coaching, so having that opportunity with this type of talented team, and then doing it alongside somebody that, the way I feel about Vlade, made it just too good to pass on.”
Walton, 39, grew up around the game as one of four sons born to Bill Walton, a Hall of Fame player who won two NCAA championships under the legendary John Wooden at UCLA and two more titles in the NBA. Luke Walton said Wooden had a big influence on his upbringing.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but he was a huge influence,” Walton said. “We had the ‘Pyramid of Success’ hanging on every wall and we had John Wooden quotes written on our brown bag lunch sacks every day going to school, and we used to go to John Wooden basketball camps when we were kids. As a kid, you don’t realize it, but the influence he had directly on my dad impacted me and my brothers very much.”
Walton played for other legendary coaches, studying at the hand of Lute Olson at Arizona and Phil Jackson with the Lakers. Walton was a member of back-to-back championship teams in Los Angeles.
He retired after 10 NBA seasons and began his coaching career as a University of Memphis assistant during the 2011 NBA lockout. In 2013, he was hired as a player development coach for the Lakers’ Developmental League team.
Walton climbed through the ranks quickly after joining Steve Kerr’s staff as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors in 2014. He helped the Warriors win an NBA championship in 2015 and led them to a 39-4 record as interim head coach the following season when Kerr took a leave of absence to rehabilitate his back.
Kerr was named Coach of the Year after the Warriors went 73-9 to post the best record in NBA history, but Walton coached more games during the regular season and received votes for the award. Kerr invited Walton to join him on the podium during a news conference announcing the award.
Divac wanted to bring Walton to Sacramento before eventually hiring Joerger that summer, but the Lakers lured Walton in to replace Byron Scott after winning just 17 games in 2015-16. The Lakers won 26 games in their first season under Walton and 35 in their second while showing rapid improvement in pace and defensive rating.
Walton’s third season in Los Angeles was a roller-coaster ride from brief but thrilling heights to a fiery, slow-motion crash. The Lakers had high hopes after signing LeBron James to a $153.3 million deal. Team president Magic Johnson reprimanded Walton after the Lakers lost five of seven to start the season, but then they started to roll, improving to 20-14 with a win over the Warriors on Christmas Day.
The Lakers were fourth in the Western Conference at that point, but their playoff hopes faded following injuries to James, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. The situation was ugly and uncomfortable throughout. LaVar Ball was a frequent critic of his son’s coach, telling ESPN in January: “Luke doesn’t have control of the team no more. They don’t want to play for him.”
The Lakers experienced more dysfunction during their failed effort to trade for New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis. The Athletic reported that the team’s young players grew distrustful of James, believing he was working behind the scenes to get them traded to New Orleans for Davis.
Amid the chaos, the Lakers plummeted in the conference standings, finishing 35-47. Johnson resigned before the season finale. Three days later, Walton was out, too.
Walton compiled a 98-148 record with the Lakers, the same record Joerger had with the Kings. Kerr said the Lakers were “losing one of the best human beings in the NBA” and “a guy who knows the game as well as anybody I’ve ever met.”
Within 24 hours, Walton was sitting with Divac in Sacramento. Walton is considered a good fit for the Kings, who demonstrated potential while unleashing talented young players and an exciting up-tempo game this season.
The Kings were third in the NBA in pace. The Lakers were fourth, finishing in the top five for the third year in a row under Walton, who prefers a fast-paced game with several 3-point attempts.
“We’re going to shoot a lot of 3s this year,” Walton said. “As the games go, you take what the defense gives you, but you have a philosophy of how you want to play and, as a coach, it’s your job to get to know your roster and then do what’s best for this group of players. I think we have a group of players where shooting a lot of 3s is what’s best for us, and we’re going to play fast.”
Walton also oversaw a significant turnaround in the Lakers’ defense. They were last in the league in defensive rating in his first year. They finished 13th the past two seasons. The Kings were 21st this season.
“Defense wins,” Walton said. “Defense wins championships. I love offense. I love how beautiful it can be when you have five guys moving the ball and shooting and everything else, but defense is how you win when everything counts. We’re going to put a huge emphasis on defense.”
Divac expects the Kings to end the NBA’s longest postseason drought after 13 consecutive losing seasons and believes Walton can help them do it.
“We understand each other very, very well,” Divac said. “I’m excited that we’re going to build this team together and go to the next level.”