All Ball Sports: The Force is with you, Luke; Aaron Donald too

Luke Walton shares a few coaching tips with teammates during the Charlie Saikley Six Man tournament at the Manhattan Beach pier in August, 2019. Photo by Ray Vidal   

Luke Walton in Dec. 2003, posing on the sand in Manhattan Beach for an Easy Reader cover story. Photo by Kevin Cody                                                                                                                                          

by Paul Teetor  

Six years ago Manhattan Beach’s own Luke Walton was the hottest head coaching candidate in the entire NBA. 

Today, not so much.

As the interim head coach of the Golden State Warriors in 2015-16, he led the Warriors to a 39-4 record while Head Coach Steve Kerr missed much of the season with back surgery.

When the Warriors went on to win the first of their three NBA titles, Walton’s coaching future was so bright it would have taken last week’s total eclipse of the sun to darken his prospects.

But today, after being fired from two head coaching jobs in the last six years, his head coaching future is so cloudy that this week he quietly accepted an assistant coaching position with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The shocking news – after all, who voluntarily moves from Manhattan Beach to Cleveland? — flew so far below the media radar that his hometown LA Times ran just a couple of paragraphs on his hiring, a far cry from the banner “Homecoming!” headlines when he was named the Lakers new head coach in 2016. 

His long, perilous journey from the glorious heights of the Golden State job to the humbling depths of the Cleveland job is a case study in how a coach’s performance and team results are dependent on so much more than just their own coaching ability.

What’s far more important are the players you get to work with and the management that acquires those players — and then evaluates your performance.

Walton is a guy who, to mix sports metaphors, was born on third base and then swished a three-pointer.

Back when Walton and NBA star-turned-analyst Richard Jefferson were teammates at the University of Arizona more than 20 years ago, Jefferson dubbed Walton the luckiest man in the world.

It was easy to see why the nickname stuck. Not only is Walton a tall, handsome still-young man with a deep, commanding voice, but his father is Bill Walton, the Hall-of-Fame center who starred at UCLA and went on to lead the Portland Trail Blazers to an NBA title before foot and knee injuries sidelined him. The injuries reduced him to a sub – an important sub, but still a backup to Robert Parish and Kevin McHale – on the Boston Celtics 1986 championship team.

Luke Walton, now 42, was a good high school player in San Diego, by far the best of Bill Walton’s four sons. As a 6-foot-7 forward he was a legit Division 1 recruit to the U of A. But no one ever projected him as a can’t miss star. He was a good college player who twice made the All-PAC 10 team and was eventually drafted 32nd overall by the Lakers in 2003.

He beat the long odds and made the Lakers roster – many second-round picks never play a minute in the league, and most who do make it don’t last long. Walton went on to wear the purple and gold uniform for 10 years, helping the team win NBA titles in 2009, and 2010.

He was known as a great passer but a poor shooter who was lauded for his high basketball IQ – exactly the kind of unselfish, grit-and-grind role player who often goes on to make a good coach. 

When his playing career ended, Walton worked a short stint as an assistant coach for the University of Memphis and spent one season coaching the Lakers G-League team, then called the D-Fenders.

He was then hired as an assistant to Kerr for the 2014-15 season. The Warriors won the first of their three titles in four years that season, and Walton’s coaching profile ascended along with the team’s fortunes.

During the 2015-16 training camp, Walton was named the Warriors interim head coach when Kerr took an indefinite leave of absence to rehabilitate his back. He led the Warriors, with a core group of Stephen Curry – now regarded as the greatest shooter in NBA history – Klay Thompson and Draymond Green to a 24-0 start, still the best start to a season in NBA history.

Walton was named the Western Conference Coach of the Month for October and again in November 2015. By the time Kerr returned in January 2016, Walton had compiled a 39-4 record and the Warriors were well on their way to setting the mark for best record ever at 73-9 

Kerr was voted the NBA’s Coach of the Year that season, but he insisted on sharing the glory because Walton had coached 43 games to Kerr’s 39. Kerr had Walton sit next to him on the podium at the award press conference.

Even as an interim head coach, Walton had finished ninth in the voting, receiving one second-place and two third-place votes. At that point Walton had his pick of the open coaching jobs in the league. Not surprisingly, he targeted and was hired by the Lakers.

The media hailed it as a home-coming for the former Laker. Equally important, he would be able to live year-round in the Manhattan Beach home he had bought a few years after first making the Lakers roster in 2003. By this time he had a wife and a couple of children, so it all seemed perfect, personally and professionally.

But there was one big problem: the Lakers were at rock bottom, one of the worst teams in the league, a team that hadn’t even made the playoffs since 2012. Former Laker great Byron Scott had just been fired after overseeing Kobe Bryant’s two-year long farewell tour, and to this day Scott still tells friends he doesn’t feel he was treated fairly by the Lakers after performing that thankless task.

Regardless, Walton was a symbol of new hope, and he, along with owner Jeannie Buss, seemed to understand that they had to get bad to get good. In other words, they had to lose a lot of games to get high draft picks, and then make sure they developed those high-potential players into genuine stars.

The master plan seemed to be working, slowly but surely. By the end of Walton’s second season in 2018 they had lost a lot of games but they had also acquired a bunch of talented young players, including Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Ivica Zubac, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart.

Then along came LeBron James, who suddenly wanted to bring his talents to LA where he could take a hands-on approach to his dreams of becoming a Hollywood mogul. That upended the Lakers big-picture plan of losing now to win later. Suddenly the Lakers were in win-now mode with LeBron at the tail end of his incredible career as the second-best player in NBA history, behind only the great Michael Jordan.

At that point, LeBron had a long history of getting coaches fired. He did it to Paul Silas, Brendan Malone, Mike Brown during seven frustrating seasons in Cleveland, and he tried to do it to Eric Spolestra in Miami. But Heat President Pat Riley wasn’t having it, and backed Coach Spo all the way. Back in Cleveland, LeBron did it again, this time to David Blatt.

Walton understood that he was now on thin ice with LeBron on the roster. And sure enough, when the Lakers missed the playoffs in LeBron’s first season, Walton was fired on April 12, the day after the 2018-19 season ended. Within a few months most of the young players Walton had been developing were gone, as LeBron pressured the front office to offer the New Orleans Pelicans whatever it took to trade for Anthony Davis.

Walton was suddenly collateral damage in the LeBron-driven new Lakers plan. 

Despite being fired – it was framed as a mutual “parting of the ways” to save face, but no one bought that — Walton still had a good rep around the league and a vast network of friends. Just two days later his former Lakers teammate, Vlade Divac, hired him as the new coach of the Sacramento Kings.

But again, Walton was the victim of an incompetent front office and a meddling owner, Vivek Ranadive, a tech mogul know-it-all who didn’t know enough to leave the basketball decisions to his basketball experts.

Ten months before Walton arrived in Sacramento, his fate had already been sealed by one of the worst draft blunders in NBA history.

The Kings had the second pick in the 2018 draft thanks to their horrible record in the past season. There was a three-player top-tier of potential draftees that year: dominant big man DeAndre Ayton, pint-sized scoring point guard Trae Young, and European sensation Luka Doncic, an 18-year-old guard/forward who had been playing against grown men in European leagues since the age of 14.

The Phoenix Suns went first and selected Ayton, a safe choice in that he was a can’t miss prospect. Here’s where it gets weird. Divac, the Kings general manager, had been targeting his fellow eastern European Doncic all along. He even had Doncic come stay with him in Sacramento for a week before the draft. According to both men, they hit it off, bonded and Divac had every intention of making Doncic his pick.

But at the same time the Kings owner, Ranadive, had fallen in love with Marvin Bagley, a 6-foot-11 center who had played one season at Duke before declaring for the draft. Most talent scouts placed him at the top of the second tier of prospects, one level below Ayton, Doncic and Young.

Didn’t matter. Like so many power-mad owners before and after him, Ranadive overruled his basketball experts and insisted Divac select Bagley, not Doncic.

It was the kind of disastrous decision that can set a franchise back a decade or more. That’s how important a single great player can be for a basketball team.

Walton, exiled from the Lakers, did his best with the crummy players he was given to work with in Sacramento. Bagley, in particular, turned out to be a near-bust. In the old NBA, where size mattered more than anything, he would have been a good player. But in the new NBA where shooting skill matters much more than size, there was nothing Walton could do to turn Bagley into a star. 

There’s a truism in NBA coaching circles about young players: you pretty much know who they are and what they are by their third season. In their third season, Doncic made first team All-NBA and Young made third-team All-NBA.

And Bagley? He was dumped – sorry, traded – to Detroit for a box of Oreos early this season. The trade happened a few weeks after Walton was fired when the Kings got off to a 6-11 start.

Once again, he had been made the scapegoat for an incompetent front office and a meddling owner, just as he had been in Los Angeles.

So he came home and recovered from his six-year coaching ordeal in Manhattan Beach. Now he’s off to Cleveland to join the up-and coming Cavaliers, who have a couple of very talented young players in Darius Garland and USC’s own Evan Mobley.

The good news for Walton: even if the Cavaliers don’t continue to get better and make the playoffs, the blame won’t fall on him. It will fall on head coach J.B. Bickerstaff.

The even better news: if the Cavaliers get into the playoffs and make some noise, Walton’s coaching profile will rise with the team’s fortunes.

By then, who knows? The Lakers may be ready to fire their new coach Darvin Ham and will be looking for yet another new scapegoat.

Homecoming, anyone?  

A Scary Thought: the Rams without Aaron Donald

Believe it or not, it’s been four months since the Rams electrified Los Angeles and the entire sporting world by winning the Super Bowl in their very own So-Fi Stadium.

Organized Team Activities begin next week! The first exhibition game is only two months away!

Winning a Super Bowl is hard enough. It takes hard work, group effort, self-sacrifice, super-talented players, coaching genius and a whole lot of luck.

Winning another one the next season?

That’s even harder.

The last team to do it: the New England Patriots in 2004 and 2005.

Only Seven franchises, including the Patriots, have ever won back-to-back Super Bowl victories. The Green Bay Packers won Super Bowls I and II, then called the AFL-NFL Championship Game, under legendary coach Vince Lombardi in 1967 and 1968. Other franchises to do it include the Miami Dolphins (1973 and 1974) and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who did it twice in 1975 and 1976 before repeating again in 1979 and 1980. The San Francisco 49ers (1989 and 1990), the Dallas Cowboys (1993 and 1994) and the Denver Broncos (1998 and 1999) are the only other teams to accomplish the rare feat.

With training camp right around the corner, the Rams are laser-focused on joining that elite group. And last week that goal suddenly looked a lot more elusive. Aaron Donald, the defensive brick wall who is by far the Rams best player, speculated out loud that he is considering retirement.

It made a lot of sense: at age 30, he’s already got all the money he would ever need, and as a warrior in the trenches he’s already taken far more than his fair share of head-on hits, drive-by swipes and brain-rattling high-speed collisions. He’s a smart guy who knows all too well that many older football players lead lives of physical misery and mental anguish because they stayed at the party too long.

Speaking on a popular podcast, Donald said he would like to repeat the Super Bowl win – but was contemplating retirement unless the Rams made it worth his while to come back.

“If I can win another one, that’s great. But if not, I’m at peace,” Donald said of his career. “First we have to handle the business side of things.”

Turns out Rams General Manager Les Snead was listening. Monday afternoon the news leaked out that the Rams had given Donald a 2-year, $65 million deal to stay and play. 

There was no official announcement, and thus no comment yet from either side. But All Ball feels confident in speaking for all Rams fans who want to run it back with the whole Rams gang aboard.



Follow: @paulteetor


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