By now, you’ve heard about how former Lakers forward Luke Walton is the hottest coaching candidate on the market this offseason after leading the Warriors to a historic 24-0 start to the 2015-16 season as their interim head coach. By the time Steve Kerr had returned to the Golden State bench following a recovery from back issues, Walton had guided the Dubs to a 39-4 record en route to their 73-9 mark that passed that of the 95-96 Chicago Bulls for best record in NBA history.
Even before the Lakers fired Byron Scott this past Sunday, the young, easygoing Walton was a favorite among both fans and insiders to replace the old-school, hard-nosed Scott as Los Angeles gears toward developing its younger players and hopes to repair its recent bad luck with top NBA free agents following the retirement of Kobe Bryant. Since Scott’s firing, virtually every rumor from inside the NBA has painted Walton as the clear favorite to land the Lakers job.
The speculation increased on Wednesday when Kerr told reporters during a pregame press conference that the Warriors had indeed granted permission for Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak to interview Walton, and that the meeting would take place as soon as there was a lull in Golden State’s playoff schedule. Immediately following that, the Warriors throttled the Houston Rockets to advance to the Western Conference Finals and are still waiting to see whether the L.A. Clippers or Portland Trail Blazers will meet them in that round.
It was no surprise, then, when Lakers reporter John Ireland revealed on ESPN 710 LA’s “Mason & Ireland” on Friday afternoon that, according to multiple sources, Walton’s first interview with Kupchak has already happened (h/t @NBAThinkPieces on Twitter):
Let me tell you the latest on the Lakers’ coaching search, because I think it’s good, particularly if you’re a fan of Luke Walton. They’ve met, they’ve talked, it went well. I personally, and nobody is telling me anything this is my personal feeling in talking to both sides.
Ireland went on to say that Golden State’s apparent willingness to part with Walton may be a bigger deal than most realize:
I think this is going to hinge on whether or not Steve Kerr feels he can complete his contract. He’s in year two of a five-year deal. His back is very bad. He missed the first 43 games this season, he’s continued to leak spinal fluid and is in a lot of pain. I think if you’re a Lakers fan, you should take it as a very good sign that the Warriors let Luke go do this interview, because if Kerr knew “you know what I’m leaving. My health is bad, I’m not going to be able to finish my contract,” they wouldn’t even let Luke go. But I think what Kerr has told them is “look, I’m feeling better, I think I’m going to be able to complete my contract, I’m not going to hold you back.”
Walton has never seemed particularly desperate to leave his position as the top assistant on one of the best teams in NBA history, and his father Bill even publicly discouraged him from rushing into a head coaching job so quickly. However, another mentor of Luke’s, former University of Arizona coach Lute Olson, recently expressed his desire to watch his former player become the Lakers’ new leader. Also working in favor of #LukeToLA, as Ireland points out, is the money factor:
An average assistant coach salary is about $300,000 a year, a head coach salary is between six and seven million. And I think the fact that the Warriors have granted permission for the Rockets and the Lakers to talk to Luke Walton is a sign that they’re willing to let him go, and I think, just connecting dots, that if he gets offered the Rockets’ job, the Knicks’ job, the Kings’ job, and the Lakers’ job, that he would take the Lakers’ job. I said before that I thought it was 60 percent Luke, 30 percent Ollie, 10 percent other, I’d now up it to 70 percent.”
(Ollie, of course, refers to University of Connecticut head coach and Southern California native Kevin Ollie, who reportedly told a UConn recruit that he plans on staying put.)
This is fantastic news for the many Lakers fans who wants to see Luke Walton guide this team going forward. At this stage, it would seem like a massive upset if the job of head coach for the purple and gold wasn’t at least offered to Walton.