OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Luke Walton was in no rush to leave his job as an assistant coach with the Golden State Warriors.
He won an NBA championship his first season, went 39-4 as interim coach in place of Steve Kerr to start this season and was part of a team that set the single-season record for wins in the regular season.
But when the Los Angeles Lakers came calling, Walton could not turn down the team he began his career with and which he helped win two NBA titles.
“I was very comfortable with the idea of coming back here and coaching again next year with this team and Steve,” Walton said Saturday. “I was fine with that. But you have to take the opportunities when they come.”
The Lakers announced Friday night that they had agreed to a contract to hire Walton just five days after firing Byron Scott. It all came together very fast as Walton interviewed in Oakland with Lakers owner Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak on Thursday before getting the offer the following day.
Walton said he was nervous to call Kerr to give him the news. He started the call by telling Kerr he had good news – he got the offer to coach the Lakers – and bad news – he was going to take it.
“He’s thrilled for the opportunity and it’s going to be great,” Kerr said. “But it’s bad news for all of us. You can’t replace Luke. He’s one of a kind. They broke the mold after they made Luke. We’re going to miss him desperately.”
Kerr credited Walton for helping to create the culture that allowed Golden State to win 140 games the past two regular seasons, including a record 73 this season. Walton took over when Kerr was sidelined by complications from offseason back surgery to start this season and led Golden State to a record 24 straight wins to open the season.
Walton will remain with the Warriors until their playoff run ends, while using some down time to prepare for his new job.
“My priority is the Warriors, these players and winning a championship right now,” Walton said. “The Lakers know that and they know that’s how it should be. We have a chance to do something very special.”
Walton spent nine seasons as a forward for the Lakers, winning two championship rings as a smart, steady contributor. Three years after his retirement as a player, the 36-year-old Southern California native is back to become the 26th head coach in franchise history.
Walton, a second-round pick out of Arizona in 2003, was a depth forward on the Lakers’ championship teams in 2009 and 2010 before getting traded to Cleveland in March 2012.
After his playing career ended in 2013, he worked briefly for the Lakers’ television network as a broadcaster, and for their D-League team as a player development coach. Walton became an assistant in Golden State last season and earned promotion to the job of Kerr’s lead assistant this season after Alvin Gentry left.
“I’m happy for him but at the same time this will sting a little bit,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. “He’s obviously a guy we want around. When we have the type of success we had and he proved what he proved this year he deserves it. That’s a dream job for him.”
Walton has a tough task trying to turn around an organization that has won 16 NBA championships but is coming off the two worst seasons in franchise history as it transitions into a new era after the retirement of Kobe Bryant.
The Lakers are fully rebuilding after the retirement of Bryant, Walton’s longtime teammate. Bryant has backed Walton as a future head coach for years, praising his intelligence and understanding of the game.
The Lakers’ core consists of recent draft picks D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. alongside an unremarkable collection of veterans and young players. They also will add a top-three draft pick if they finish high enough in the lottery next month.
“There’s always challenges with every coaching job you take,” Walton said. “The one here was trying to take a good team that already had established themselves and try to make them great. The team in L.A., we need to go down there and build a foundation.”