NBA Rumor: Luke Walton Hot Seat?

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Luke Walton safe for now

It was late September in Sacramento, where the city’s only major professional sports team had recently hired its third new front-office leader in a seven-year span. And Monte McNair, the 36-year-old Houston Rockets executive whose pragmatic vision had resonated with owner Vivek Ranadive during the interview process, laid it all out in a series of meetings that included coach Luke Walton and various other team officials. They would take the long view — two to four years — and this season would be what was widely referred to internally, sources say, as a “gap year.”

Alvin Gentry would likely take Kings job if Luke Walton dismissed

But sources with knowledge of the Kings’ plans say Walton is not in any imminent trouble and — barring a complete nose-dive in the second half — is likely to last at least through this season. There is a strong sense in coaching circles that Kings associate head coach Alvin Gentry would likely take over if Walton were eventually dismissed, but that time does not appear to be coming anytime soon. Sources say Walton, who was hired by former general manager Vlade Divac in mid-April of 2019, is owed a combined $11.5 million in the next two seasons of his four-year guaranteed deal.

Record aside, sources say the Kings’ priorities that matter the most for the long term are being met and Walton continues to have McNair’s blessing as a result. As for Ranadive, whose tendency to take over has been such a hallmark of his rocky ownership tenure that began in 2013, he appears to be allowing McNair to continue down the path they discussed so many months ago. Despite the swirling doubts to the contrary, it appears their plan is still in place.

New Sacramento Kings general manager Monte McNair said he is looking forward to working with coach Luke Walton to revive a franchise that has the longest current playoff drought in the NBA. McNair was hired last week to replace Vlade Divac after a long tenure as an executive in Houston. He backed Walton publicly during his introductory news conference Wednesday. “I’ve got to know him the last few days; we’ve had some good conversations,” McNair said. “I’ve heard great things. So far I think we’ve had a great rapport. Luke’s going to be our coach next year. I’m really excited to work with him. I think we’re aligned with our vision and we’re gonna start implementing it.”

Divac and Walton are both in the first year of four-year contracts. Firing them now would mean paying them for three more years — and paying their replacements — something the organization would have been reluctant to do even before the coronavirus pandemic caused tens of millions of dollars in revenue losses. The Kings have underachieved this season, but ownership will want to see what Walton, their 10th coach in the past 14 seasons, can do with a healthy roster before changing course yet again. Divac will get at least one more season as well, although his ultimate fate might have been sealed when he passed on Doncic in the 2018 NBA Draft.

Kings keeping Luke Walton, Vlade Divac?

All that improvement, it appears, lowered the temperature on the hot seats of both Walton and general manager Vlade Divac. As we reported on Feb. 12, owner Vivek Ranadive had made his frustrations known with both the front office and coaching staff during the Kings’ 15-29 start. Questions arose about whether he might be compelled to make changes in the offseason, but sources say Divac and Walton appear very likely to remain (their contracts run through the 2022-23 season).

Kings keeping Divac, Walton for next season

According to Sam Amick of The Athletic, the pairing of head coach Luke Walton and Vlade Divac is likely to continue into the 2020-21 season, at a minimum. “Owner Vivek Ranadive had made his frustrations known with both the front office and coaching staff during the Kings’ 15-29 start,” Amick writes. “Questions arose about whether he might be compelled to make changes in the offseason, but sources say Divac and Walton appear very likely to remain (their contracts run through the 2022-23 season).”

Luke Walton safe

The injuries haven’t helped Walton. He’s been without Bagley, Holmes, De’Aaron Fox and Bogdan Bogdanovic for extended stretches. “I’m very happy to work with (Walton),” Divac said. “We are on the same page. Obviously, he’s trying different lineups, different styles, dealing with the shortened roster. So I really cannot judge him for anything until he has a full roster, but I’m happy about how he does things in practice, even in the games. We’ve lost a lot of close games with the roster being shorter, it’s a tough job for him.”

De'Aaron Fox endorses Luke Walton

The Kings were winless and looked absolutely dreadful for long stretches. Somehow Walton continued to preach the big picture, even as the current view of the Kings was enough to make one cover their eyes. The message appeared to reach his players. Perhaps it’s most important that point guard De’Aaron Fox was still all in with Walton. “For sure,” Fox said. “We’re going to ride with him. He’s been great since the day that he stepped in. I think we feel like we trust him and he trusts us.”

There isn’t a lot of playoff talk after a 1-5 start, but the big picture remains in focus for Walton and Fox, who seem to have formed a bond since Walton was hired in April. The relationship continues to grow with moments like Friday’s when the coach has to trust Fox to make the right plays in crunch time. “It’s definitely a confidence builder,” Fox said. “And having that trust, you want to continue to get better so that you know it doesn’t look bad, you know what you’re doing out there. It’s definitely great; I feel like he’s helped put me in position to be ready for that opportunity. It’s great. I feel like our relationship has grown extremely fast.”

Luke Walton safe

Know this much about this Kings’ landscape: Barring a drastic change in current conditions, it appears extremely unlikely that any of the principals are getting fired anytime soon – not Walton, nor general manager Vlade Divac. Both men are on the same contractual track, with Divac having been given an extension through the 2022-23 season in April. And both of them, it seems, are in agreement that the answers must be found by staring into that unflattering image in the mirror.

And so, as he shared in an interview with The Athletic on Thursday afternoon at the team’s practice facility in Sacramento, they will look inward. “We know we signed up to be on this journey and grow this team and get this team back into the playoffs and all of that, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Walton said. “It’s not the start we wanted, but the work that’s being done, I think, is the foundation for what’s going to get us there when we’re ready. And maybe…”

He pauses for the briefest of moments to figure out the end of that sentence, and who can blame him? In this loaded Western Conference, where it seems so inevitable that it will take a 50-ish win season to get into the postseason, there is no margin for these types of early errors. “We’ll find out when we’re ready,” he continued. “You know, there’s no way to know. But we’re going to keep pushing these guys, and growing these guys, making sure that we’re playing and continuing to understand what it takes to win at a consistent level in this league. It’s gonna happen.”

Luke​ Walton’s new​ job​ as​ head​ coach of the Sacramento Kings is​ safe –​ for​ now. According to​ a source​ with​​ knowledge of the team’s plans, they are in the process of working with the NBA to find the truth regarding the sexual assault allegations levied against him by his former colleague at Time Warner Cable (now Spectrum SportsNet), Kelli Tennant. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Kings’ focus was solely on the fact-finding aspect of the serious situation and the prospect of firing him appears to have no momentum at this time.

To that end, it appears the early stages of the investigation have been delayed because all parties involved have had trouble securing copies of the lawsuit that was first reported by TMZ and later detailed by the Los Angeles Times. A spokesman from the Los Angeles Superior Court told The Athletic mid-day Tuesday that the case had yet to show up in their system. Nonetheless, it appears to only be a matter of time before the suit is formally processed. Tennant’s attorney, Garo Mardirossian, is expected to hold a press conference on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the allegations. According to the Times, the alleged incident took place at a Santa Monica hotel during Walton’s time as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors (2014-16).

A source with knowledge of the situation had previously told The Athletic on Monday that Kings general manager Vlade Divac had no previous knowledge of the accusations until the report surfaced and that it was too early in this fact-finding process to explore the possibility of terminating Walton’s contract (many coaching contracts are known to have a moral turpitude clause that might allow the team to void the contract in this sort of situation, but it’s unclear if that’s the case with Walton’s deal). Divac, whose final NBA season (2003-04) came alongside Walton with the Lakers during his second season in the league, had pegged Walton as a likely replacement long before firing Joerger. Then just two days after Divac was given a four-year extension that runs through 2022-23, he was coming to terms on a four-year deal with Walton that would put them on the same timeline. The Kings, who considered candidates like Monty Williams and Ettore Messina but did not interview them, appeared to have been as stunned by the report as everyone else.

Lakers owner Jeanie Buss recently gave Magic Johnson permission to fire coach Luke Walton at the conclusion of this season after being informed of Walton’s unwillingness to “bulk up” his coaching staff, league sources told Yahoo Sports. Johnson, who held an impromptu news conference outside the Lakers’ locker room Tuesday to announce his resignation as president before the team’s final game of the season against the Portland Trail Blazers, had been displeased with Walton’s ability to effectively make in-game adjustments and he felt the coaching staff lacked the experience and expertise to foster player development, sources said.

One version of events that circulated within the Lakers’ walls — and does not bode well for Walton’s future — suggested that it was the coach’s desire to play James off the ball more that inspired the team’s emphasis on playmakers. A source with knowledge of Walton’s thinking vehemently refuted the assertion, indicating that the sequence of events has been unfairly flip-flopped: Walton was given all these players who weren’t strong shooters but could handle the ball, and thus had no other choice but to find a way to play LeBron off the ball more. Other sources said the coaching staff was not consulted about potential targets in free agency, and that Walton was only looped in very late in the process.

Luke Walton is heavily favored to be fired as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers before the start of next season. BetOnline.ag has set the odds of Walton being the Lakers’ head coach for opening night in 2019 at +1000. Los Angeles is going to miss the playoffs this season, the first year of the LeBron James era. Walton and Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson had a heated meeting earlier in the season after Los Angeles got off to a slow start.

The intensity and specificity of the reports around a potential successor have invited speculation that the Lakers have informally started their search while Walton is still on the job — something Walton said he has not concerned himself with. “I just view it as outside noise unless someone from within tells me that that happened,” Walton told The Athletic. “Unless someone from within our group is telling me that, I just view it like all the other things we’ve gone through as a team this year. Those are things that I don’t have the time to worry about. I’ve got more important things to do like getting the team better and doing my job.”

And yet it is clear that he prefers the NBA. From what I’m told, if the Lakers do let him go, he will have plenty of options around the league. Walton previously worked briefly as an assistant to his former Arizona teammate, Josh Pastner, when Pastner was at Memphis, but he came away from that experience disenchanted with college coaching. It is unclear whether Walton would be willing to put in the time and effort required to recruit the caliber of player he would need to win at UCLA.

Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka are all on the same page regarding Walton being the coach for the rest of the season, the people said. Buss especially wants to give Walton every opportunity to succeed, one person said. “Nothing is going to happen with Luke,” that person said. “There hasn’t even been any talk about it and there won’t be any talks about it. Luke will definitely finish the season and he has the full support. So any talk in the media or on social media can be put to bed about Luke. He’s not going anywhere. There has been no conversation about it.”

During the loss to the Hawks in Atlanta, there seemed to be some “disconnect” between Walton and the players, one person said. LeBron James didn’t look “totally engaged,” despite producing a triple-double of 28 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds, one person said. Another person said all the players had “bad body language” during the loss, which dropped the Lakers below .500 (28-29) for the first time since November. The Lakers are currently 10th in the Western Conference standings, 2½ games behind eighth-place Sacramento (30-26) for the final playoff spot.. Another person said that Johnson, who was at the game in Atlanta, didn’t like how the team played with such “low energy”.

Now it appears the Lakers may have zeroed in a potential replacement, as Ric Bucher explained on the “Bucher and Friends” podcast that there’s mutual interest with Jason Kidd: “There’s another development that I’m hearing is gaining momentum, and that’s the possibility of Jason Kidd returning to the coaching ranks by succeeding Luke Walton with the Lakers. Now, I first heard Kidd’s name connected with the Lakers a while back. Right about the time the first round of, ‘Is Luke Walton on the hot seat?’ stories came out. Jeanie Buss, head of the Lakers, threw a bucket of water on that seat, cooled it off. And so I tucked away the talk of Kidd and the Lakers as something at the time, simply spitballing or connecting dots that weren’t necessarily part of the same mosaic. Now, I know that Kidd wants to coach again. And I know he expressed interest in the Knicks job before David Fizdale ultimately got it. … In the case of Jason and the Lakers, I figured it was a matter of Jason letting them know he was interested, and the Lakers saying, ‘Thanks, we’ll get back to you.’ Well, now sources are saying that the Lakers have actually gotten back to him and this has gone to the next level. And if the Lakers do make a move on Luke, which based on all of the rumblings could happen sooner rather than later, Kidd appears to be very much in the mix and possibly is even the favorite.”

LeBron James has a reputation for not getting along with coaches. One could argue whether or not he deserves that reputation, but it’s one that has followed him to Los Angeles with the Lakers. But Luke Walton knew what to expect when James arrived. He talked to James’ former head coaches and teammates to prepare for it. He even cautioned his locker room about the “rumors” that might hover over them throughout the season. And yet, the rumors about Walton’s job security have only heated up, and it might be because James and his camp have made it clear they want Walton out. In an discussion on “Brian Windhorst & The Hoop Collective,” Jackie Macmullan of ESPN said that James’ camp have made it no secret that they want a new head coach for the Lakers, and Windhorst — always plugged in to everything on James — said her wording was fair.

MacMullan: “There’s a lot of tension in that building. A lot of tension in that building, and I think people are wondering about Luke Walton even though Jeanie Buss came out very strongly and said ‘I want Luke to be here, I back him 100 percent,’ but then also made the point that has to be made, and that’s that she hired Earvin Magic Johnson to make these decisions, and if Earvin feels differently she gave him the power to make those kinds of decisions. It’s clear to me, and probably to you Brian, that LeBron’s camp would prefer a coaching change. They’re not too subtle about that.” Windhorst: “LeBron publicly hasn’t talked publicly in a month.” MacMullan: “Not LeBron, but all the people around LeBron, and they’ve made it known. I don’t think this a shock, is it? For me to say this?” Windhorst “That’s a fair thing to say. That’s a fair thing to say.”

Sam Amick: I spent a lot of time doing Luke Walton stuff this week … They better win that game [against the Bulls] or else I’m going to have be getting on that phone and making sure that Luke is not going to lose his job. There is no imminent reason to think it’s that bad right now when it comes to whether or not he’s actually going to get fired. But this little back to back [Cleveland and Chicago] is a little bit of a trap. And I only say that because Magic [Johnson] is now … widely known as a pretty intense, aggressive executive. So there’s always this kind of sense of who knows what game puts him over the edge.

As for the relationship with Johnson that so many wondered about after their rocky start, and that matters more than any other when it comes to his hopes of seeing this through, he swears it’s back in a more positive, productive place. “It’s been good,” he said of the relationship with Magic. “Honestly, it has. …Anytime I call him, he calls back within an hour or two, and we talk hoops. He wants to win, and I want to win. So as far as that (goes), we’re all trying to do the same thing, and I don’t feel like he’s trying to move me out of there.

“We definitely talked about (the Oct. 30 meeting). Me and him, one on one. We one hundred percent have moved forward from it. I don’t think it has changed anything. We still – it’s still the ultimate goal, and there’s time when I’ll call him or go sit in his office and pick his brain on what he’s seeing and what kind of suggestions he might have. But there’s no – what’s the word – discomfort. I don’t walk in there, and it’s like ‘F—, I’ve got to go talk to Magic.’ Like, I have no problem going in and sitting down with him and talking about what’s going on without thinking about that at all.”

A natural question arises: Given this uncertain landscape, are there times when the desire to stay employed might drive his decisions rather than the holistic development of the group? He’s sitting on a hard chair on an outdoor patio, but he may as well be on the sports psychologist’s couch now. “The question is a fair question, because I can see (the possibility),” he says. “And there’s times where it’s like, ‘Well, s— maybe we need to just make sure we do this and look to make sure that we save our jobs.’ Yeah. But all the advice I’ve gotten from those coaches, throughout this coaching journey I’ve been on, is ‘Always stay true to yourself and what you believe in as a coach.’ And look, at the end of the day, you either get fired or you don’t. But when you get fired and you tried to do it to please other people, then you’re going to have regret. If you get fired, but you went out and you did it your way and you coached what you believed in, then you can live with that. You can sleep at night, and you move on to what’s next. It’s hard. It’s challenging. But I try to remind myself of that during losing stretches, (during) losing times.”

As I’ve chronicled before, the dynamic between Luke Walton and his Lakers bosses is complicated enough that his situation will be worth monitoring until season’s end. Yet even before the Lakers routed Dallas on Monday to improve to 22-19, when they had lost five of six games since losing James entering play, a source close to the situation said that there were no signs of imminent danger for the third-year coach. Then again, you could tell that much by the understanding tone of Kobe Bryant’s Sunday night tweet. When a fan pointed the spotlight at Walton while discussing the struggles, Bryant replied, “Relax. Entire squad is damn near out. We’re playing pretty well before that #gethealthy #LakerFam.” While Kobe has no formal title with the Lakers, his voice most certainly matters.

When it comes to the discussion about Lakers loyalty and whether Walton enjoys any from his bosses or the game’s greatest player, that lack of shared history will be the elephant-in-the-room factor all season long. It’s why coaching sources continue to peg Walton as the most likely to feel his seat grow warm if there’s an extended Lakers losing streak, and why this latest span of five losses in the last nine games is the sort of downward turn he needs to avoid. Yet all in all, the Lakers are much improved from that early stumble. The defense that was so porous through seven games is third in defensive rating since, with the addition of Tyson Chandler playing a major part (they’re 12th in net rating during that time). LeBron has plenty to be thankful for as well.

When it comes to the discussion about Lakers loyalty and whether Walton enjoys any from his bosses or the game’s greatest player, that lack of shared history will be the elephant-in-the-room factor all season long. It’s why coaching sources continue to peg Walton as the most likely to feel his seat grow warm if there’s an extended Lakers losing streak, and why this latest span of five losses in the last nine games is the sort of downward turn he needs to avoid. Yet all in all, the Lakers are much improved from that early stumble.

There is some truth to the notion the Lakers are not functioning like the team they expected to be, but that may be more to do with misplaced expectations than anything else. That said, there is no doubt that Johnson understands his team isn’t trending in the direction he wants it to be heading, and that has ramifications beyond the current season. It’s too early to say that Walton is going to be fired. In fact, the Lakers are publicly and privately saying Walton isn’t in jeopardy, and it’s simply that Johnson as a leader wants more than he’s currently getting.
2 years ago via ESPN

“I mean, it’s great to win, period,” James said when asked about winning amid the drama surrounding Walton. “Listen, coaching staff put us in a position to win, and it’s up to us to go up and execute. “Luke can care less about what’s going on outside. We could as well. I’m the last person to ask about scrutiny or anything of that nature. So none of that stuff matters to me. The only thing that matters to me is what goes on inside this locker room, both home and away.”
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