Los Angeles Lakers fans haven't celebrated much lately, not with the team setting a franchise record for most losses in each of the past three seasons. Kobe Bryant offered an occasional break from the doom-and-gloom by dishing out a handful of throwback performances in his final season, including an eye-popping 60-point finale, but those alone weren't enough to bury the rotten stench of the team's worst-ever 17-65 record.
Yet Lakers Nation erupted in long-awaited cheers earlier this week when their season-long pleas for head coach Byron Scott to be removed from his post were finally met, and fans erupted again Friday night when the team announced that Luke Walton will replace Scott, becoming the 26th head coach in franchise history.
Walton was a fan favorite when he played nine seasons for the Lakers, winning titles in 2009 and 2010, and he was a fan favorite to replace Scott after Walton led the Golden State Warriors to a 39-4 record -- most notably a 24-0 start -- as the team's interim coach early this season while Steve Kerr was sidelined with health issues.
The Lakers were so sure of Walton that he was the only candidate they interviewed, a source told ESPN's Ramona Shelburne. They had other meetings lined up but canceled them after meeting with Walton on Thursday in Oakland, California.
By hiring Walton, the Lakers accomplished several feats. They're hiring a young, smart, well-regarded, up-and-coming coach from a successful, forward-thinking organization. They're once again bringing back one of their own, as Walton will become the eighth former Lakers player who went on to coach the team. And the fact that the Lakers are bringing in a beloved familiar face -- a Southern California native, no less -- will undoubtedly help them not only win the media conference but establish patience from their fans as Walton tries to steer the team out of the depths of rebuilding.
And yet the reality is, for as happy as the Lakers and their fans are now, there's plenty of reason for skepticism. Walton will become the youngest active head coach in the NBA. In fact, at 36 years, 32 days old, Walton is 1 year, 218 days younger than the just-retired Bryant. And Walton's first NBA head coaching job will be leading a rebuilding team that currently offers a few promising young players but little else. Walton will be tasked with developing those fledgling talents and helping lure free agents back to the Lakers after the team has struck out in that arena for three straight offseasons, though it's unclear what kind of sway he'll have with free agents, let alone his own players.
Beyond that, the Lakers aren't considered to be the most modern-minded franchise, so Walton will have to assist in installing a new culture that helps them turn the page from their past (and Kobe) to whatever successful future he hopes to forge.
This is an extremely tall task for someone who two years ago was a part-time assistant with the Lakers' D-League team, the D-Fenders. Though, in an odd way, Walton's experience dealing with those players should come in handy considering the roster he's now taking over.
There will be expectations for Walton to replicate some measure of success that he had when keeping the seat warm for Kerr, and to infuse some of that Warriors' DNA into the Lakers. However, such expectations must be tempered.
First, Walton had the NBA's most talent-laden roster at his disposal, the defending champions who would go on to win a record-73 games this season. Quite possibly, the Warriors are the best team in history, but they're much more than just Stephen Curry. As their recent steam-rolling wins over the Houston Rockets soundly proved, the Warriors are still really good even when Curry is sidelined.
Beyond talent, those Warriors have a marvelous system in place created specifically for that roster. Walton didn't hire the staff around him and didn't devise the system tailored to those players.
In all, it's fair to wonder if Walton would've been given this offer a year ago. It's fair to wonder if his 39-4 mark with the Warriors may have hypnotized some. The Lakers will back him and say that Walton will be a great coach, as they should. But they've said that for their previous three coaches, too, all of whom departed before their contracts expired.
Walton has learned under Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr, as well as Mike Brown and Byron Scott, and now the Lakers have gone back to a familiar well, bringing back one of their own. Walton could be the greatest hire in Lakers coaching history, a perfect fit. But, if we're being honest, no one knows much about Luke Walton as a head coach, as someone who can hire a staff, observe a roster and set a course for success.
The once and future Laker is entering an organization that, on many levels, couldn't be more different than the one he's about to depart. The Warriors are a well-oiled machine with total buy-in, a modern-day top-down philosophy, a confluence of so many good elements that, together, have produced something almost magical -- that's truly a joy to watch.
The Lakers are none of that.
Jim Buss, part-owner and executive vice president of basketball operations, could well be gone next summer and so could Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. Could Phil Jackson return? Such questions loom heavy over the Lakers' future.
"The number one thing is this," said one source familiar with both the Warriors and Lakers. "The Lakers are dysfunctional as an organization. A coach can't change this."
Indeed, but at the very least, Walton will be (or should be) better than Scott, who is one of the worst coaches in recent memory. Walton has a chance to be good if he develops and is given time, which the Lakers should certainly grant him. Walton knows the Los Angeles market, the Lakers organization, their fan base, the expectations and history. He wanted the Lakers and they wanted him.
He has his dream job and now the Lakers have something they haven't had in a while: hope.