SAN DIEGO – The Warriors spent decades envying the Lakers. The procession of stars they had. The championships they customarily won. The Lakers were NBA royalty, and the Warriors upon sight always seemed to bow in subservience.
The Warriors could only dream of reaching such status, or of someday trading places.
Someday has arrived.
The days of Lakers dominance over their Northern California peasants are cold and dead, the burial performed by Warriors coach Steve Kerr and his staff.
Luke Walton was a part of Kerr’s staff that won six of the last eight games against Los Angeles and a two-season total of 140 victories. Walton scouted the Lakers. As interim head coach, he was 3-0 against them last season.
But Walton, essentially borrowed by the Warriors, is back home now. He is a Los Angeles Laker. Played most of his career in LA. Bought a home near the beach. And now he is the head coach, a job he was offered after excelling last season as an interim head coach and assistant under Kerr.
The second of what they hope will be many reunions between Walton’s Lakers and Kerr’s Warriors comes Wednesday night, when the teams meet for a preseason game at Valley View Casino Arena in San Diego. Walton would like to avoid embarrassment.
Walton’s new task is different, and so is the responsibility. He went from daily alliance with a roster coming off back-to-back NBA Finals appearances, including a title, to a group of youngsters trying to pull the Lakers out of the steepest free fall in franchise history. Not until last season had they ever experienced three consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance, much less three straight losing seasons.
The Lakers have become what the Warriors used to be, the Warriors what the Lakers once were.
Walton has yet to coach a regular-season game, but he has a vision. He knows precisely what he wants from his new team. He wants it to be like his old team. He wants the Lakers to emulate the Warriors.
“We won a championship up there, so you want to do a lot of the things in the same manner as they did,” Walton told CSNBayArea.com. “Guys loved coming to the gym up there. We had fun, but we worked hard. Guys weren’t just coming in to BS and showcase.”
Walton concedes he misses Kerr, misses Draymond Green and misses the many good times shared when he was a member of the Warriors. He might even miss the few tough times he endured with the team that during his two seasons as an assistant won 140 regular-season games and made consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the first of which ended a 40-year championship drought.
Kerr encourages joy in the workplace, and Walton took to it like a flower to the sun. But the joy is accompanied by dedication to improvement and competitive zeal. There was about the Warriors a unique and lively spirit.
“We worked,” Walton said. “Draymond stayed after practice to shoot. Steph (Curry) stayed. But it was also an inviting environment. People weren’t like, ‘Arghhh, I gotta go to the gym today.’ It was ‘Let’s go in there and get after it. We won’t be in here all day, but we can get good work in.’
“That’s the idea behind what we’re trying to do in LA.”
Walton, 36, is taking over a team with some talent – best of it young and unrefined. Power forward Julius Randle is 21. Point guard D’Angelo Russell is 20. Small forward Brandon Ingram, taken second overall in the 2016 NBA draft, turned 19 last month. It’s an intriguing trio, but mere boys in the ways of the NBA.
“It’s a whole different challenge than it was last year,” Walton said, comparing his role with the Warriors and his new role. “We’re starting all fresh, all new, implementing the style we want to play and the defensive philosophies we want to have. So we’re going all the way back to the very beginning, the very basic fundamentals beyond how we want to play.”
Meanwhile, the Warriors, after adding four-time scoring champ Kevin Durant to a team with three All-Stars, are being hailed as a “super team.” They have a fabulous blend of experience and youth, and they’re expected to roll to a championship.
The Warriors have joined the NBA elite, and gotten comfortable in the palace once occupied by the Lakers, for whom oddsmakers have set an over/under of 24.5 wins.
The Lakers secured Walton with a five-year contract worth $25 million. He’ll be paid well to rejoin the franchise where he spent nine of his 11 seasons as a player. He’ll also have to enduring some misery. This coach and team can only dream.
“What I expect is that we play hard,” Walton said. “I expect is that we compete on defense. And I expect that we get out and run when the opportunity presents itself.
“Wins and losses, I’m not concerned with right now.”