It has been awhile since the Los Angeles Lakers have managed to establish this level of hope in its fans. The massive, adoring fan base is filled with optimism following the team’s search for a new leader.
The Lakers have not had to worry about finding a leader to be the face of the franchise in nearly two decades, thanks to Kobe Bryant. No matter what question marks they had, they could always turn to Kobe for a sense of direction, until recently. Bryant exited in a way that only he can, riding off into the sunset on the shoulders of another 60-point performance, leaving the franchise he won five NBA championships with searching for someone they can get behind.
On the court, they may still be looking for that player, or they might have found him already. Only time will tell if D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle or Jordan Clarkson are ready to take the torch like so many great players before them. Perhaps it could be from a potential top-three pick in this year’s NBA Draft. There are far more questions than answers when it comes to the players that can lead this franchise back to prominence.
Those questions will have to wait to be answered. But the Lakers didn’t wait to find a leader in a different role. After parting ways with Byron Scott, they set their sights on another player that used to wear a No. 4 purple and gold jersey: Luke Walton.
Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss vowed to conduct an extensive search for the person that would be the 26th coach in franchise history, but they didn’t need to. Walton is their guy, and the Lakers are his team.
According to Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding, one interview that lasted six hours was enough for both parties to be sold on what appears to be a perfect match. But what was it about Walton that sold Kupchak and Buss? His vision for the future of the Lakers.
It was Walton’s vision for the future of Lakers basketball that sold Buss and Kupchak, especially after their struggles to get Byron Scott to embrace new-school NBA styles of play. Walton has seen the benefits of the Warriors’ open-mindedness both on the court with their generous passing and in a uniquely democratic locker room.
Fans have noticed the direction that the NBA has headed in over these past few years, emphasizing ball-movement, floor spacing and three-point shooting, all of which the Lakers were inept at to the nth degree these last two seasons. Despite all the criticism launched their way, Los Angeles had seemingly brushed it aside and failed to grasp the modern age of the league, until now.
After seeing coaches come and go in the blink of an eye since the departure of Phil Jackson five years ago, the Lakers finally took a different approach to filling the position. In hiring the 36-year-old Walton — now the youngest active head coach in the NBA — the Lakers finally appear to have found stability in a man that suited up for them as a player just four years ago.
The Lakers wanted to build their future, but were afraid to unhinge from their past. With Bryant and Scott gone, they can finally let it go.
It’s the beginning of a new era for the purple and gold. The last two summers saw the Lakers strike out blindly swinging for the fences both in free agency and in their efforts to find a quality coach. This time around, they had a focused, direct attack and managed to finally hit a home run. Will that translate to free agency? We will find out in July, but Los Angeles finally has a leader that knows how to build strong relationships with players.
Walton, 36, has a way with people as old as [Lute] Olson, 81, and even more so with those as young as [D’Angelo] Russell, 20. Walton’s skill in relating to all types of people and conveying meaningful messages in all sorts of ways is his gift.
And as much as that might be ascribed to [Phil] Jackson’s team-building teachings, it goes deeper: Walton’s mother, Susie—who has been a bigger influence on his life than his famous father—is a parenting educator renowned for her expertise in strengthening relationships.
The Lakers had taken steps forward in the rebuilding process, simply by taking steps back on the court. As the losses piled up, so did the draft lottery odds. It helped net them Randle and Russell near the top of the draft, to go along with Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr., two gems found with considerably lower picks.
The return of Walton, however, could be the first major step forward both off the court, and on it. He is the embodiment of everything that Lakers fans have desired in a coach for years now. With an expected modern, up-tempo, free-flowing approach, Lakers fans will be able to watch their young team start to grow up under the direction of their newest leader.
The Lakers had questions for Walton, and he knew all of the answers. Many still have concerns about the landscape of the Lakers, but they didn’t matter to him. Despite those questions and four other teams hoping to pry him away, Walton chose the Lakers. He’s coming back home.
The retreads are finally over. The search has ended, and a new era has begun.
Luke Walton landed his dream job, and the Lakers landed their dream coach.
*For the full Luke Walton feature from Kevin Ding, click here.