EL SEGUNDO: The Lakers’ new coach is on board, a person so familiar to the organization that when, during his interview, Luke Walton handed Mitch Kupchak a packet with the top page bearing his face and name, Kupchak asked, “Really, Luke?”
The Lakers general manager chuckled at the memory during a news conference on Friday (Saturday in Manila), and said Walton responded, “This is something my agent made me do.”
Absent from Kupchak’s appearance Friday was the man with the familiar face that had smiled back at him from that cover sheet. Walton, who agreed to terms of a deal on April 29 but didn’t sign a contract until Thursday, will finish the season as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors.
“We’re hoping for Luke that he continues to play until mid-June,” Kupchak said. “Certainly we’d also like to have him here as soon as possible.”
Kupchak said Walton will not wait until after the Warriors season to fill out his coaching staff. That process, he said, has begun, and will likely focus on bringing experienced coaches to Walton’s side, including a “strong possibility” of hiring assistants with head coaching experience.
Walton will be the Lakers’ youngest head coach, Kupchak pointed out, since Pat Riley was appointed early in the 1981 season. Like Walton, Riley was 36.
“He did pretty good,” Kupchak said.
Despite Walton’s youth and limited coaching experience, Kupchak said the former Lakers power forward is “a good bet going forward.”
Hiring Walton reflects the current state of the Lakers: a young, developing team with plenty of potential and limited experience. The retirement of Kobe Bryant made it easier for the Lakers to shift gears, Kupchak said.
“For the last 20 years, we felt we needed a veteran coach,” he said. “This is really the first opportunity to have a rebuild – a fresh new start or a new chapter.”
Walton is certainly a big departure from his predecessor, Byron Scott, who Kupchak said “did a wonderful job under very adverse circumstances the last two years.”
Since his third-year option was declined by the Lakers on April 24, Scott has questioned the organization’s sense of loyalty and said he thought he would be given one more season at the helm.
“That’s the business,” Kupchak said, “and when I spoke to Byron we kind of both looked at each other and said we’ve both been around long enough to know that this happens.”
Walton was at the top of the Lakers’ list even before he impressed Kupchak and Jim Buss in their April 28 interview. Kupchak said Walton’s rising star in coaching circles, and the number of coaching vacancies around the NBA, influenced the Lakers decision to part ways with Scott after his teams went 38-126 in two years.
After an impressive meeting with Walton, the Lakers canceled their other interviews.
“With the openings in the NBA at that time,” Kupchak said, “and the openings that we thought might come about once we finished the interview, we decided quickly that he was our first choice, why wait? Just get it done.”
Walton’s youth is viewed as a positive attribute. Just three years removed from his own playing career, he is expected to relate well with the Lakers trove of young players, a number that could grow, depending on the results of this month’s draft lottery.
“I’m hopeful that Luke can turn it into a tool that not only helps him coach the players on the team but also helps us recruit players,” Kupchak said.
That’s the next big question for the Lakers.
Walton said last week he was impressed by the Lakers plans for the offseason, which he said included players they expected to target in free agency.
While hiring Walton seems to set the stage for a slow rebuild, Kupchak said the Lakers will still approach the offseason with aspirations of a quick turnaround.
“I’m hopeful that we can make a pitch (to free agents) that includes a dramatic improvement in the team,” he said, “and not just a slow build.”
What remains unknown is whether players will be more receptive to that pitch now that Walton is on board. In past seasons, stars such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Carmelo Anthony have dismissed the Lakers overtures after taking meetings with the team.
“You learn something every year,” Kupchak said. “Last year and the year before, we did not have as much to sell as we do this year… This year I think we have more talent on the court to convince free agents it might be a good place to come play.”
Bryant’s departure changes almost everything. Kupchak said “it’s clear” that the Lakers are entering a new era.
“We do want to begin to win as quickly as possible,” he said, “but first and foremost, we want to build a strong foundation. We want to make sure that we do this the right way.”
That means preserving cap space when wise, spending when necessary and striking a deal when most timely.
Walton is the first big piece of that.
“Luke is on board to do it the right way,” Kupchak said, “play exciting basketball and provide a product to our fans and our viewers and our supporters that they’re proud of.”
Watch him coach
Walton will have two opportunities to coach against the Warriors in the preseason: October 15 in Las Vegas and October 19 in San Diego.
The Lakers’ preseason schedule, which was announced Friday, consists of eight games, six of which are in Southern California. They open Oct. 4 against Sacramento in Anaheim at Honda Center, then play Denver on Oct. 7 at Staples Center and Oct. 9 in Ontario. They host Portland at Staples Center on Oct. 11, before heading to Vegas for two games at the new T-Mobile Arena, starting with the Kings on Oct. 13.
After the two games against the Warriors, they wrap up the preseason Oct. 21 against Phoenix back in Anaheim.
After spending 10 days in Honolulu last year, the Lakers will return to their El Segundo practice facility for training camp. The regular season schedule will be released later this summer.