Luke Walton is young, ambitious and bright, and the Kings are just down the road. So, sure, when the time is right – probably after the Golden State Warriors-Houston Rockets playoff series – the Warriors’ lead assistant and former interim head coach is expected to meet with Kings general manager Vlade Divac to discuss his team’s coaching vacancy.
But then there’s everyone else. Though Divac is particularly intrigued by a small group of potential candidates – Walton; San Antonio Spurs assistant Ettore Messina; and former head coaches Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks – as he begins his search, he planned to reach out to several other prospects in an expansive process.
In no particular order, the second-year general manager, who has been empowered by principal owner Vivek Ranadive to select George Karl’s replacement, also is inquiring about the interest level and/or setting up interviews with former head coaches Vinny Del Negro, Mike Woodson, Mark Jackson, David Blatt, Monty Williams, Kevin McHale, Jeff Van Gundy, Nate McMillan, Jeff Hornacek and Sam Mitchell, Spurs assistant Ime Udoka and at least two college coaches.
Mitchell, the former Toronto coach who was interim coach in Minnesota this season before being let go last week, will interview with the Kings on Wednesday, according to a source.
A number of these possibilities, of course, likely will be unavailable because better opportunities and superior rosters exist elsewhere. Thibodeau is the front-runner with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Brooks is being courted heavily by the Washington Wizards, and Van Gundy continues to be linked with the Houston Rockets, one of two franchises he coached before becoming one of ESPN’s most appealing NBA analysts.
Additionally, Divac has quite the sales job ahead of him, given Sacramento’s well-deserved reputation as a coaching pit stop. Since Paul Westphal was fired early in the 2011-12 season, no Kings coach – Keith Smart, Michael Malone, Tyrone Corbin or Karl – has lasted two seasons. In the interim, the team was sold, almost relocated to Anaheim and Seattle, and the front office overhauled twice before Divac took over in 2015.
But the league’s annual coaching carousel is never short of surprises. There are only 30 of these gigs. Stan Van Gundy to the Detroit Pistons? Brad Stevens to the Boston Celtics? One-time Los Angeles Clippers player Doc Rivers returning to the organization before owner Donald Sterling was forced out of the league after making racist comments, among other transgressions?
Never say never. When the phone rings, you would be surprised who answers. And for all the Kings’ issues, Divac is quick to point out that certain benefits come with the job. The team moves into state-of-art Golden 1 Center in October. The roster is a toxic mix of personalities, but it is not devoid of talent, and All-Star DeMarcus Cousins is a tantalizing asset, either as the featured piece in a major trade or as the starting center. (The opinions among the candidates will swing as wildly as Cousins’ moods; count on it.) And Reggie Theus’ famous wisecrack notwithstanding, Sacramento indeed is California.
The location always has appealed to Brooks, who grew up in Manteca, and increasingly to Walton, a San Diego native who enjoys living in Northern California and has several close relatives in the Sacramento area.
“Right now, I just want to focus on the playoffs,” Walton said Monday before Game 2 of the Warriors-Rockets series. “I don’t want this (speculation) to take away from what we’re trying to do. So I really don’t want to talk about it. I hope you understand.”
Walton was thrust into an awkward situation over the weekend when ESPN reported he had discussed the New York Knicks vacancy with team president Phil Jackson, only to have Warriors coach Steve Kerr insist Monday no team had requested permission to speak with Walton, 36, per the NBA protocol. “That would be tampering,” Kerr noted.
Yet Kerr added the Warriors would grant permission for teams to approach Walton “after a series ended and we have a little spare time.”
Whether Walton could be lured out of Oakland remains to be seen. In only his second season, and his first as a lead assistant, he led the Warriors to a 39-4 record while Kerr recovered from complications from back surgeries. Kerr continues to suffer severe headaches and occasionally misses practices or shootarounds. While his long-term prognosis is encouraging, the 82-game regular season – and two months of playoffs for championship contenders – is a physical grind even for a coach with the league’s most talented, balanced and coachable roster.
Walton might just want to stick around awhile. Or maybe not. He is young, ambitious and smart. He is extremely fond of Divac, his former Los Angeles Lakers teammate. And once a head coach, well, just look at the names on the above list.
Walton. Messina. Brooks …
Woodson, Del Negro, Blatt …
There is no dearth of quality candidates. Divac’s task is to select the best one and close the deal.