Luke Walton was in a high-profile position for someone trying to keep a low profile these days.
The Golden State Warriors’ Steve Kerr received his NBA Coach of the Year award Tuesday, and seated next to him on the dais was Walton, the assistant who served as the Warriors’ interim coach through the first 43 games of the season while Kerr recovered from back surgery.
Walton led the Warriors to a NBA-record 24-0 start, and when Kerr returned to the bench, Golden State was 39-4 en route to a 73-9 record, the best in league history. While Kerr won the COY award, Walton may have won an opportunity to coach a team — such as the Kings — if he so chooses.
Whether Walton wants the attention, a 39-4 record and a Coach of the Month honor (October/November) draws interest from teams such as the Kings, who desperately need a coach who can change the franchise’s culture. But Walton, 36, isn’t using the playoffs to begin a campaign to coach the Kings or the Los Angeles Lakers, with whom Walton won two NBA championships as a player.
“I love my job, absolutely love it,” Walton said. “Love the playoff battle we’re in now. We’ve got prep work to do. Every bit of our focus should be on the playoffs. Any question I answer about anything else is a distraction in my opinion and then I’m being selfish, so I’m not answering anything about anything except the playoffs.”
The Kings want to meet with Walton, probably after the conclusion of Golden State’s first-round series against the Houston Rockets.
Walton offers some unique qualities, starting with his youth. He’s also played for two legendary coaches — Lute Olson at Arizona and Phil Jackson with the Lakers — and served on Golden State’s staff the past two seasons.
But questions remain. Walton’s only head-coaching experience came with the defending champion Warriors, led by reigning MVP Stephen Curry. Detractors could say Golden State was on cruise control and such a talented and experienced team didn’t necessarily need Walton’s guidance.
“I don’t want to understate his value, what he did,” Warriors forward Harrison Barnes said. “He came in and did a great job. He coached some tough games, and we’re really appreciative that we had somebody who was able to step in. He didn’t have a whole summer to prepare. He had a few days to step in and assume that role, but he did a great job of orchestrating everything.”
Walton also might bypass even speaking with the Kings and angle for the Lakers’ vacancy or wait another season for a job that’s closer to a winning situation.
As long as the Warriors are winning, Walton will garner plenty of attention and ample time to find his ideal environment. Many around the league do not consider Sacramento to be in that category.
So while there were jokes about Kerr giving a piece of his trophy to Walton — they even posed for pictures together — the Warriors made it clear one reason Kerr won the award was because Walton kept the team in the right direction and never made the success about himself.
“Luke, he has leadership qualities himself,” Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said. “At his position, he played like a point forward so he has a great understanding of the game, knows how to utilize guys. And he did a lot of the same sets and same principles that Steve would have implemented in the beginning of the season. And he gave us the freedom to coach ourselves, and he did a great job while Steve was out.”
While the Warriors seek a title repeat, the Kings search for their ninth head coach since their last postseason appearance in 2006. League sources said the Kings met with former Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro on Monday and Clippers assistant and former New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Woodson on Tuesday.
The sources requested anonymity because they do not have the authority to speak on the matter.
Others attracting the Kings’ interest include former coaches Kevin McHale of the Rockets, Brian Shaw of the Denver Nuggets and Jeff Hornacek of the Phoenix Suns. The team will speak with former Kings assistant Elston Turner, who was on Rick Adelman’s staff in Sacramento and is currently an assistant with the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Kings also have reached out to former USC coach Henry Bibby, father of former Kings guard Mike Bibby.