LAS VEGAS — Luke Walton was late — not for the game but the pregame media session. He wasn’t late by a whole lot but just enough to technically qualify. And as the Los Angeles Lakers coach strolled into T-Mobile Arena on Saturday night, Walton was stopped by his old boss, Golden State Warriors GM Bob Myers, who offered Walton a hug and a few ribbings for being tardy. Walton laughed. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Punctual during his two seasons as a Warriors assistant, owing to his laid-back persona. So Walton at least proved to Myers that he hadn’t changed much since, even if so much around him is different and new.
Walton soon headed to the Warriors locker room to reconnect with familiar faces, and head coach Steve Kerr spotted him. The two caught up. In an effort to go easy on an old colleague, Kerr told Walton precisely what play the Warriors were going to run to start the game. Walton objected. “No, don’t call that play first,” he told Kerr. “I want to be surprised.”
There wasn’t much surprise about what unfolded over the next 48 minutes, when the championship-contending Warriors toyed with the rebuilding Lakers for most of a not-nearly-as-close-as-the-final-score-indicated 112-107 preseason win in Walton’s first game against his former team.
“That was a good lesson for our guys,” Walton said afterward. “The way that the Warriors cut, how quick the ball moves from one man to the next, playing aggressive on the defensive end — these are all things that we want to get better at. There’s a lot to be able to watch [on] tape and learn and hopefully grow from it as a group.”
In most cases, Walton said he won’t use film of another team as a learning tool, but the Warriors are different, in part because the Lakers are trying to borrow from Golden State’s schemes and style.
Obviously, a Grand Canyon-sized gap separates these teams: One won a record 73 regular-season games last season; the other posted a franchise-worst 65 losses. And it’s unreasonable to expect any coach — let alone the NBA’s youngest coach at age 36 — to close such a gap soon, if ever.
But creating a similar culture is a more feasible goal, even if it, too, will take time.
“The culture that we had up there is what I’m trying to build down here,” Walton said. “Obviously, [there are] different starting points. It’s a different plan of attack because of where we’re at and the youth that we have. Obviously some new coaches are coming in and some new [veteran players are] coming in. But the way they did things, as far as big picture, is something I’d like to see down here with the way our players develop and look forward to coming and doing the work today.”
Walton expanded on what was so special about the Warriors’ culture that he wants to replicate in Los Angeles.
“It was just a good work environment,” he continued. “It was a family atmosphere. Guys enjoyed coming in and competing every day. There was a value on doing things the right way. There was a value on the way that people held each other accountable.
“And I think that kind of provides the right platform for growth and players that want to come in and work every day, even on optional days. We had an optional day last week and every guy on our team was in there — some longer than others — but they were still all in there, which is what you want to see.”
Kerr didn’t mince words about how the Warriors were able to forge their culture in the first place. “Um, talent,” he said with a laugh. “Honestly, you can come in with all kinds of ideas, but the players have to be good enough to win games. And I think the Lakers are building a really good wealth of young talent. I think they’ll get there. They have to be willing to work, and our guys were willing to work right away. Luke and I are pretty similar in our approach to the game. We want the ball to move. We want guys to work, but we want to have fun. We understand that this is a game. This is sport. They’re going to probably play better if they’re enjoying the atmosphere, and Luke will create a good atmosphere for them to work in.”
Already, Walton is receiving positive reviews.
“I’ve talked to most of the guys over there,” said Warriors guard Stephen Curry. “They all love him and his approach to coaching their team. That says a lot about who he is and how he’s going to try to change their culture.”
“Very positive atmosphere,” added Lakers forward Julius Randle. “We know we’re going to take our lumps, but we’re just trying to get better every day. We just know that we’ve got a lot to learn.”
One of Walton’s greatest attributes is his ability to connect with players, and it certainly helps that his 10-season playing career ended just three years ago. That strength is magnified considering that the coach he replaced (Byron Scott) struggled mightily to connect with the Lakers’ young core for two seasons.
“He’s just got great social skills, interpersonal skills,” Kerr said. “Everybody who knows Luke just loves being around him. He’s smart. He’s funny. He’s a wise-ass, but he’s self-deprecating at the same time. He talks trash. It all comes across in a really fun, well-meaning manner. Everything he does. And it’s all genuine. There’s no facade. There’s no mind games. No trick questions. He’s a great communicator and he’s fun to be around.”
Added Warriors guard Klay Thompson, “He’s young and knows what it takes to be good in this league and have a great team. And it’s easy to listen to a guy who played a long time in this league, and Luke did that. He’s been around a lot of great teams. They’ve got a good, young core over there. They’re trying to make big steps to get back to where they were. I think Luke having been where the Lakers were in some of their best years, I think it’s huge for them.”
In terms of relating to players, Walton said that was one of the main traits he learned from Kerr.
“It was the first time I’d been around that type of open relationship [between] player/coach, and that’s naturally who I am,” Walton said. “I like being able to talk to the guys and include them in decisions and get their feedback. The way [Kerr] did that and the success we had and how much that helped in having players take ownership of what we were doing as a team is something that is a big part of my coaching style now.”
But Thompson relayed the obvious — re-creating a Warriors-like environment won’t be easy. He said theirs came together because of hard work and selflessness, as evidenced by ex-Warrior David Lee and current Warrior Andre Iguodala both agreeing to come off the bench during key stretches in recent years, even though both players have been All-Stars.
“They didn’t have to [do that], but they did it for the betterment of the team,” Thompson said. “So [Walton will] probably bring that same attitude to the Lakers, just about selflessness and [a] team-first [mentality].”
With that said, Walton has had the pleasure of being around plenty of winning in recent years, especially when the Warriors won a title during his first season and then fell one shy of repeating this past summer. The Lakers, meanwhile, have set a franchise-record for most losses in a single season … for three straight seasons. In short, this process will no doubt test his patience.
“They’ll be a lot better this year,” Thompson said. “A lot of those guys are young. They’ve got another year under their belt, and that’s huge. I think [Walton is] smart, and he knows that it’s not going to be built overnight, and he understands that it takes time to be great. He’ll lose sleep over losses, because he’s competitive, but he won’t be killed if they don’t have great success early on, because he knows it takes time, especially with such a young team like that.”
Walton again stated that the priority for the Lakers is not necessarily winning right now, but learning a system and creating a culture. “And if that ends up costing a couple wins here or there, I think that’s something that we have to live with as a group,” he said, “because in the bigger picture, it’s more important that we have those basics down, those fundamentals down.”
He acknowledged, though, that maintaining a big-picture view while enduring losses will wear on him.
“It is very hard, yes,” Walton said. “But you have a big-picture plan, and I have a staff that I trust and we talk about things like that and we know the approach that we’re going to take. I’ll have them remind me of that when times are tough.”
Walton will face countless adjustments not only because he’s in a different organization but also because he’s a rookie head coach. Kerr reflected back on his first year as a head coach, which culminated with a title two seasons ago. The biggest challenge in that inaugural season, Kerr said, was finding time to teach.
“You have all these grand plans and then you draw up the practice plan and you’ve gotten halfway through and realize that you’ve got to get the players off the floor because it’s an 82-game season and they’re tired,” he said. “So it’s surprising how little practice time you have that first year.”
Walton said he’s already experiencing that exact challenge.
“Even during the games, there’s only so much you can call out because there’s only so much you can put in, and there’s a million things you want to put in, but you can’t get to it,” Walton said. “I like getting in there and going really hard for a short amount of time and keeping the attention of the players throughout the whole time. But obviously with a new group, you have to be patient and you can’t just come in and do that.”
Kerr is confident in Walton, someone he described as a “great guy” and “one of my best friends.” Kerr continued, “We’re all going to miss him, but we’re all happy for him. And I know he wouldn’t have taken any other job but the Lakers job to leave Golden State. So I’m glad they’re in the same division so we at least get to see each other four times a year, plus preseason.”
Kerr then shared a favorite story about Walton, one that captures his personality well.
“I don’t know if you guys know this, but he rarely made it out for the national anthem in the last two years,” Kerr began. “Luke is the most laid-back guy on Earth. The rest of the coaches would be showered and ready to go with 15 minutes on the clock, and Luke would be in a towel with his legs kicked up on the table and there’d be seven minutes on the clock before the anthem. He’d have a dip [of chewing tobacco] in his mouth. [The] most laid-back guy ever. He’d hop in the shower [with] about six minutes left. The anthem would finally come to a close and the starting lineups would be announced, and here comes Luke, big smile on his face.”
On Saturday, Kerr asked Walton if he was making it out in time for the national anthem this preseason, and Walton said just barely — another sign he hasn’t changed, even if so much around him has.
ESPN’s Arash Markazi contributed to this report.