Luke Walton: FAQs
Sussing out the keeper of the hottest seat in the NBA.
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
The Dog, Francisco Goya, 1819-23
IS LUKE WALTON A GREAT NBA HEAD COACH?
There is no evidence that Luke Walton is a great NBA head coach. He had that incredible start as fill-in head coach of Golden State while Steve Kerr dealt with his back injury in 2015-16, but that team was an all-time great squad coming off of a championship and had a tremendous bench. Plus, Kerr wasn’t around but he was around.
Since becoming a head coach for the Lakers and then the Kings, Walton has a record of 166-239, a .410 winning percentage. He’s 68-91 (.428) leading the Kings. He’s had five full seasons as a head coach, and his teams’ best record was 37-45 (the 2018-19 Lakers).
Walton’s teams have never been a staple of the Basketball Twitter Xs and Os Illuminati. He’s not some underrated tactical genius. He also doesn’t strike anyone paying attention as some great motivator. (See the Kings-Wolves entry in the Scores section for more on that.)
The odds that Luke Walton becomes a Coach of the Year candidate at his next stop or later in his Kings tenure just do not seem very high.
IS LUKE WALTON A TERRIBLE HEAD COACH?
I’ll say this: both the Lakers and the Kings have had worse head coaches — or at least head coaches that fared worse — than Walton within the past decade. For as much as Walton seems to not be a coaching genius, he is also not clearly unfit in terms of the skills required to be an NBA head coach.
That said, I would wager that if you asked a couple dozen NBA analysts to rank the current NBA head coaches in terms of comprehensive quality, Walton would be in the bottom five. Another angle: is there any rookie head coach you’d take Walton over right now?
IS LUKE WALTON THE PROBLEM WITH THE KINGS?
No. There’s not much strong evidence that this roster should perform better than “mediocre,” and that’s exactly what the Kings have been under Walton. Sacramento needs better players to justify expectations that the Kings would be a decent or even good team. For starters, you can’t pin atrocious wing depth and shallow defensive talent on the coach, unless you’re of the belief that the talent is there but the coach isn’t effectively nurturing it or showcasing it.
There’s one piece of evidence that disagrees with this: the 2018-19 Kings, who were 39-43 under Dave Joerger. That team’s core was De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and half-a-season of Harrison Barnes. That team had somewhat better depth, but had Willie Cauley-Stein instead of Richaun Holmes and didn’t have Tyrese Haliburton. That is a piece of evidence indicating these Kings have the capacity to be better. The Kings went 31-41 in the next season under Walton.
IS LUKE WALTON A PROBLEM WITH THE KINGS?
Yes. He has never been able to cobble together a cogent defensive scheme that can even work moderately well given the talent he has. And again: he does not have much defensive talent to work with. But the world-historic bad defense last year in a season where Sacramento attempted to be competitive was a big tell that Walton doesn’t have the chops to either design it or implement it. In December the Kings had no clue what they were doing on defense. In April the Kings had no clue what they were doing on defense.
Walton’s rotations are also a little weird. That can probably apply to every coach to some degree, but it’s noticeable.
Let’s put it this way: Walton does not appear to be raising the Kings’ floor or ceiling. If you think coaches don’t actually matter much, that’s not a problem. If you think coaches do matter, then the Kings are leaving something on the table with a non-impact or negative-impact head coach.
IS FIRING LUKE WALTON THE SOLUTION FOR THE KINGS?
This is a two-level question. As I’ve noted, Walton isn’t the problem. The roster is primarily the problem. There are just not enough good players, and the good players aren’t good enough to raise the floor of the team. Firing Walton will not magically transform some of the subpar players into good players or the good players into stars …
… unless the person who replaces Walton is a plus coach that raises the floor and/or ceiling of the roster and helps guide the team upward. Again, it depends on how much you think coaches matter.
Alvin Gentry is the Kings’ associate head coach and, of course, has lots of NBA head coaching experience. It is overwhelmingly likely that if the Kings were to dismiss Walton during this season, Gentry would take over in an interim role. Gentry is 67 years old and has a career .462 winning percentage as a head coach. As an NBA observer who doesn’t focus much on coaching analysis, my assumption would be that Gentry is a better coach than Walton but not a future Coach of the Year candidate, if that makes sense.
IS GENTRY BETTER-THAN-WALTON ENOUGH TO MOVE THE KINGS FROM FRINGE PLAY-IN TEAM TO SOLID PLAY-IN TEAM?
IS THAT BOOST WORTH EATING MILLIONS OF DOLLARS ON WALTON’S CONTRACT, WHICH RUNS THROUGH 2022-23?
It’s not my money. It doesn’t affect the salary cap. If Vivek Ranadive and his partners can’t swing it, they can’t swing it. It’s worth noting that Ranadive did pay real money to make Michael Malone and Dave Joerger, two quantifiably good coaches, go away. So it would really weird if he got cheap about it now.
IS THERE HOPE FOR THE KANGZ YET?
Always. It makes the torture the franchise puts its fans through ever more painful.
This is a Franz Wagner play with less than two minutes left to give Orlando a lead they would not relinquish.
Rockets 89, Thunder 101 — Time to start wondering if Houston is a little too bad? This is 13 straight losses, a 1-14 record, on pace for a 6-76 season, none of the rookies look great. Free John Wall (to play basketball for this team)!
Mavericks 98, Suns 105 — Ten straight wins for Phoenix since I put them on my list of three teams to worry about. You’re welcome, Suns fans! Devin Booker isn’t the best player in the world or anything, but folks he is a genius with the ball.
Bulls 107, Blazers 112 — Really, really nice win for Portland to get to .500. Major drawn-out collapse for Chicago, but understandable amid a tough Western road trip. Strong performance for Damian Lillard.
Six games on Thursday with just one on NBA TV. It’s unnatural! Re-take ownership of Thursdays, NBA! All times Eastern.
Warriors at Cavaliers, 7:30
Wizards at Heat, 7:30
Clippers at Grizzlies, 8
Spurs at Wolves, 8
Sixers at Nuggets, 9, NBA TV
Raptors at Jazz, 9
The State of Oklahoma is scheduled to execute a man named Julius Jones on Thursday. There is increasing and overwhelming doubt that Jones committed the murder he has been convicted of. The state parole board recommended granting clemency. There is a groundswell of pressure on Oklahoma Gov. Brian Stitt to halt the execution, including with a number of NBA personalities speaking up in recent days. Jazz assistant coach Irv Roland is a childhood friend of Jones who has been helping the fight.
As soon as I saw the news that the NBA was going to play preseason games in the U.A.E. next fall, I was waiting for Henry Abbott’s take. It does not disappoint.
Dwyane Wade with Trevor Noah on a new photo book about the Heatles and parenting his trans daughter.
Be excellent to each other.