The Union Democrat
What Warriors coach Kerr said about Walton’s future
Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr has been friends with Luke Walton long enough to know he was facing an uncertain future in Sacramento before the Kings even started the season.
Kerr discussed Walton's situation and the pitfalls of coaching in the NBA during a recent stop in Sacramento, saying he is “pulling for” his former protégé as he tries to save himself and pull the Kings out of a 15year playoff drought.
“This is obviously a big year for him,” Kerr said. “He knows that.”
Pressure was already mounting as the Kings prepared to play the Detroit Pistons on Monday night at Little Caesars Arena. The Kings snapped a four-game losing streak with a 129107 victory over the Pistons hours after The Athletic reported Walton's job could be in jeopardy if the team's recent struggles continue.
Kerr expressed his support for Walton prior to the Warriors' 119-107 win over the Kings on Oct. 24 in Sacramento. Walton, 41, spent two seasons as an assistant under Kerr, helping the Warriors win one NBA championship and make a second NBA Finals appearance before venturing out to become head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
“Luke has always been really smart, a great communicator, a great team player,” Kerr said. “You want to be on a staff with him because he's so giving and doesn't care about the credit. He just wants to be part of a good group.”
Walton has found himself in two unstable environments with infighting and roster disparities in Los Angeles and Sacramento. The Lakers were a 17-win team when they hired Walton in April 2016, drawing him into a Hollywood drama involving Jeanie Buss, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. They won 26 games in his first season and 35 in his second, improving from 30th to 13th in the NBA in defensive rating.
The Lakers went 20-14 to start the 2018-19 season after signing Lebron James, but their playoff hopes were decimated by injuries to James, Brandon Ingram, Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball, each of whom played fewer than 56 games. After finishing 37-45, the Lakers parted ways with Walton, but he was only out of work for 48 hours.
Former Kings general manager Vlade Divac quickly swooped in to hire Walton after firing Dave Joerger. The Kings signed Walton to a four-year deal, aligning his contract with Divac's, but they fired Divac a year later after going 31-41 in their first season under Walton.
Walton has formed a strong working relationship with second-year general manager Monte Mcnair, but he still finds himself in a tenuous position with only one year remaining on his contract after this season. Lame duck seasons are uncommon for NBA coaches, so ultimately Walton could be on his way out unless Sacramento has enough success to warrant a contract extension.
Kerr, who inherited a 51win Warriors team when he took over for Mark Jackson in 2014, was asked if the conditions in Los Angeles and Sacramento have made it difficult to evaluate Walton's body of work.
“I think coaching in the NBA is very conditional,” Kerr said. “You're really dependent on your players, your organization, your management. You have to have a lot of support and it's very difficult in this league to find a spot like that. I was lucky enough to find this spot right away (in) my first job, and that's very rare.
“Usually, if you get a chance to coach in the NBA, it's because a team is bad and then you're charged with trying to lift that team up and help them get better. That's not an easy position to be in, so we all kind of know what we're getting into. Some of us are luckier than others in terms of the jobs we inherit, but you do the best you can. You try to figure out your surroundings and manage in different directions and forge relationships and help players develop, and if it's good enough, great. If it's not, you've got to move on and it's somebody else's turn. That's just the nature of the business.”
Walton survived the 2020-21 season — his first with Mcnair — despite going 31-41 for the second year in a row with two ninegame losing streaks and the second-worst defensive rating in NBA history. Those issues reflected the roster's lack of depth and defensive aptitude, but Mcnair made offseason moves to address those flaws.
Walton and Mcnair have both emphasized the importance of improving defensively and avoiding prolonged losing streaks. The Kings have struggled to achieve those objectives over the first 14 games despite going 5-4 to start the season, but Kerr still believes in Walton's ability to get the best out of his players. Despite their recent struggles, the Kings have shown some growth on defense, improving to 21st in the NBA in defensive rating after finishing 30th last season.
“Really glad to see that they've made some improvements to the roster that I think will bode well for Luke's ability to put together a good two-way team,” Kerr said. “They're really addressing their needs and I think Luke understands and is appreciative of that. We touch base every week, and I'm pulling for him and he's pulling for me, and we're always going to be tight no matter what happens.”