Luke Walton coached the Lakers to a 37-45 record this season. Meanwhile, Dave Joerger coached the Kings to a 39-43 record.
Yet, Sacramento just fired Joerger to hire Walton. That hiring became official on Monday.
The Kings didn’t necessarily make a mistake. Wins and losses are an extremely limited way to judge a coach. Joerger had other issues in Sacramento. Walton was caught in a difficult situation between Magic Johnson, LeBron James and everything else in Los Angeles.
But Walton is getting treatment usually reserved for far more accomplished coaches.
In the last 30 years, five teams have fired their coach to hire someone who had a who spent the entire prior season coaching another team to a worse record:
Budenholzer, Rivers, Brown and Wilkens were widely regarded as among the best coaches in the league at the time. All four had already won Coach of the Year. Brown and Wilkens were already in the Hall of Fame!
Wilkens guided Toronto to the franchise’s first playoff victory. Brown coached Detroit to a championships. Rivers brought the Clippers newfound credibility. Budenholzer is favored to win another Coach of the Year this season, and he has Milwaukee dominating.
Those are big shoes for Walton to fill.
And it’s not as if this season were an aberration. This was the Lakers’ best record in three years under Walton. He went 35-47 and 26-56 the prior two seasons.
Then, as soon as the Lakers parted ways with Walton last week, the Kings were there to scoop him up.
It rarely works this way.
Walton’s win percentage with the Lakers (39.8%) is the fourth-worst ever for a coach in a tenure that ended with him immediately getting a job elsewhere.
Here are the worst coaching tenures by coaches who completed a season then got another job that offseason:
Why all this special treatment for Walton?
He turned heads by guiding the Warriors to a 39-4 start as acting head coach in 2015-16 while Steve Kerr was out with medical issues. That’s not the same as being a head coach. Kerr was still involved. Walton didn’t have full autonomy. But it’s an experience that should absolutely count in Walton’s favor for future jobs.
However, Walton’s time in Golden State and Los Angeles leaves an impression true of many coaches: He wins with good players and loses with bad players.
Good luck comparing last year’s Lakers and Kings, though. At one point, it would have been hard to believe the team with LeBron had a weaker roster. But injuries and poor fits make it debatable.
Maybe this is just a product of personal connections lining up just right. Walton is a former teammate of Kings general manager Vlade Divac. Kings owner Vivek Ranadive, who previously owned a share of the Warriors, is reportedly obsessed with imitating Golden State.
Walton is also well-liked throughout the league. He’s the son of Bill Walton, an all-time great player who is also well-liked. Walton might have had inroads outside Sacramento, too.
It probably doesn’t hurt that Walton is white. These are the kinds of second chances black coaches rarely get.
Again, the Kings hiring Walton isn’t necessarily a mistake. The Celtics (Red Auerbach from the Tri-Cities Blackhawks in 1950), 76ers (Alex Hannum from the San Francisco Warriors in 1966), Trail Blazers (Jack Ramsay from the Buffalo Braves in 1976) and Celtics (Bill Fitch from the Cavaliers in 1979) all hired coaches coming off losing tenures then won a championship with that coach. Hannum and Ramsay won titles in their first years with their new teams.
But we can acknowledge how far outside the norm Sacramento stepping to hire Walton. This is a big bet by Divac – on his roster and on Walton.