Luke Walton emphasizes joy, bright future as he takes Lakers helm

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Less than 48 hours after Golden State suffered a heart-wrenching Game 7 NBA Finals loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Luke Walton bid adieu to the Warriors, where he has been an assistant coach for the past two seasons, and was introduced Tuesday as the 26th head coach in the history of the Los Angeles Lakers.

Walton, 36, now the NBA's youngest head coach, spent Monday driving to L.A. from Oakland, although he'll return at some point soon to pack up his belongings and have a few farewell dinners with members of the Warriors.

For now, he'll turn his focus to Thursday's NBA draft, where the Lakers hold the No. 2 and 32 overall picks, to summer league and free agency, to building his coaching staff and rebuilding the team that drafted him, that he played nine seasons for, winning titles in 2009 and 2010.

Still, the loss to the Cavaliers remains fresh in Walton's mind, especially after the Warriors became the first team in Finals history to lose a series after holding a 3-1 lead.

"I don't think that I'll get over that in this lifetime," Walton said Tuesday at the Lakers' practice facility. "But I look forward to trying to get back on the other side of that down here."

The Lakers announced they had hired Walton to succeed Byron Scott in late April, but Walton stayed with the Warriors until they completed their playoff run. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak joked Tuesday that they thought Walton might join them a bit earlier, such as during the Western Conference finals, when the 73-win Warriors fell down 3-1 to the Oklahoma City Thunder, or midway through the Finals before the Cavaliers charged back.

"Nonetheless, a lot of times the best way to get on and let go of something that's very painful is to jump into your next challenge, and we talked about it," Kupchak said. "I know you're excited. We're excited."

As he walked to the podium, Walton shot Kupchak a wink.

"Just want to thank you for bringing up being up 3-1 in the Finals, Mitch," Walton joked. "I appreciate that."

Walton joined the Lakers on what coaching sources told ESPN's Marc Stein is a five-year deal -- four years of which are guaranteed -- at an annual salary between $5 million and $6 million, depending on incentives.

And if there was a key theme that Walton tried to stress in his first public remarks as Lakers coach, it was about the joy and fun he wants to instill into the organization, creating a culture that mirrors the Warriors'.

"We're going to put our stamp on the culture that we want, and it's going to be joy," Walton said. "Our players are going to like coming into practice every day. We're going to play a brand of basketball that the L.A. fans will appreciate. We're going to compete. All these things going forward with my vision of how we're going to do things is what I can control."

Walton added later, "Basketball is meant to be a game of joy, and if you can provide that environment and make guys want to come in and bust their tail every day in practice and work harder because they're enjoying it, then they look forward to coming into the gym every day."

Walton noted how the Warriors played music during warm-ups and scrimmages, how they once canceled practice to have a bowling tournament during a winter trip to Minneapolis -- all efforts to keep players engaged during the grind of an NBA schedule.

Walton also offered up his pitch to potential free agents: "That the future is bright. We're going to play an up-tempo game. We're going to bring in another top draft pick this year and hopefully get a solid player at 32 and we have money to spend and I know the Buss family and I know the Laker organization and they do what it takes to win. To me, that's all you really need to know and I [don't] see why you wouldn't want to come here and play."

Listening off to the side was Lakers point guard D'Angelo Russell, who very much liked what Walton had to say.

"I think that's what we need," said Russell, who had a rocky rookie season under Scott, whose style reflected that of a drill sergeant. "We've got a few vets on the team [but] a lot of us are coming out of college and just really want to be able to experience and play and have fun, and that's all he said. He just mentioned having fun and being able to run and have as much fun as possible. I think that's what we need."

"We are going to get better, and if you focus on the process of getting better individually and as a team, and you don't worry about the wins, that's when the wins start happening. That's when the wins start piling up. That's when you make playoff runs. Because it's those little things that are the difference between winning and losing games, and it's those little things that when you win the entire thing make it so special." New Lakers coach Luke Walton

Still, Walton is coming from an organization that won a regular-season record 73 games last season into one that posted a franchise-worst 17-65 record last season, has missed the playoffs for a franchise-worst three straight years and has a roster largely comprised of promising but unproven young players. Walton said he's not sure how long it will take to turn the Lakers around.

"I have no idea. There is work to be done, but, to me, that's exciting," he said. "That's why you do this. The timetable is who knows. It's us coming to work every day. It's us working hard. It's watching improvement in the young guys that's exciting. It's watching us get better as a team that I'm looking forward to doing. There's going to be free agents to sign; we don't know what free agents those are going to be yet, so that would affect that timeline.

"But we are going to get better, and if you focus on the process of getting better individually and as a team, and you don't worry about the wins, that's when the wins start happening. That's when the wins start piling up. That's when you make playoff runs. Because it's those little things that are the difference between winning and losing games, and it's those little things that when you win the entire thing make it so special. Because it's hard work to do all that stuff, but that's where we're at and that's where we're going to take joy in our job."

The Lakers have been in touch with Walton though the playoffs, sending him emails about draft prospect workouts, and he has had many long talks with Kupchak as well as some Lakers players.

"I talked to him as much as I could," Russell said. "I told him, if I'm being annoying, let me know because I've got so many questions. He was very, very open towards me and he was like, 'Whatever you need. I love this game. So if you have any questions, just ask me.'"

Walton said he's excited about the Lakers' young roster.

"They beat us this year," Walton said, referencing the Lakers' upset of the Warriors at Staples Center on March 6. "They're one of the few teams that knocked us off this year. And you could see that joy in them when they did it. They were running up and down and playing a fun brand of basketball. They each have their own unique skill set. It's why you get here. It's why they were high draft picks. You can't make it this far on anything else. Obviously when I can get on the court and see the day to day stuff, I'll get to know them even more, but everything that I've seen about them, and when I've talked to them on the telephone, they seem like a great group of guys. From a coach's standpoint, that's exciting."

Now, he hopes to translate pieces of the Warriors' success into the Lakers' organization.

"I think it's a coach's job to build the system around what's best for the players you have," Walton said. "We have skilled guards that can score, pass, defend. We have a young big man [Julius Randle] who averaged over 10 rebounds a game this year and is great at pushing the ball himself. These are all things that allow us to do similar things to what we were doing up in Oakland. Obviously you can't replace [Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson's] shooting, but we're going to have shooters here. We have shooters here. We're going to have the floor spaced and we have playmakers and we'll obviously get more into detail as we have the team and we see them and we see what their strengths and weaknesses are, but you get the foundation set, and then you kind of adjust it depending on the strengths and weaknesses of your personnel."

Walton said he expects to complete his coaching staff by early July, although Brian Shaw is already on board as one of Walton's assistants and attended Tuesday's introduction. In terms of Thursday's draft or free agency in July, Walton said he will rely on the Lakers' staffers for their expertise while he makes the transition into his new role. He said he's not sure what role he'll have with the Lakers' summer league team, but he plans to be in Las Vegas and to be heavily involved in some form or fashion. He also said analytics will play a key role, which hasn't always been the case with the Lakers.

"We used them in Golden State," he said. "I plan on using them down here. If they bring us numbers that show us something we haven't been thinking of, now all of the sudden we have a new topic to discuss and maybe that changes our game plan going forward. They'll be part of what we do."

Walton, the eighth former Lakers player who has gone on to coach the team, was a fan favorite for the job after leading the Warriors to a 39-4 record, including a 24-0 start, as the team's interim coach early this past season while head coach Steve Kerr was sidelined with health issues. Walton, who two years ago was a part-time assistant coach with the Lakers' D-League team, did not officially receive credit for any of those wins, though.

"That's the decision that was made, but 0-0 still helped me get my dream job," Walton said with a laugh. "I'm fine with the record being what it is and sitting here in front of you guys today, so it worked out fine for me."

Walton interviewed with the Lakers and then canceled interviews that he had with other teams for the same position.

"When your dream job comes and you feel like it's a fair deal and a fair offer, you go home and talk to your wife and you kind of air out the pros and cons, and when it came to the Lakers, it was a pretty short and simple conversation," he said.

Notably, his father, NBA legend and ESPN analyst Bill Walton, had previously told him not to take the Lakers position.

"I love my father," Walton said. "Sometimes he has great advice and sometimes he doesn't. He also told me never to get into coaching in the first place because the lifestyle is too crazy, and I love coaching. So I didn't listen to him on that. Obviously I've had a successful start to this thing."

Walton also will take over the Lakers during a transition from the Kobe Bryant era, which lasted two decades before Bryant retired in April after a 60-point finale against Utah.

"He's obviously going to be missed," Walton said. "But his departure also opens up this opportunity for the next generation of Lakers and the next movement that I think will be exciting, not only to the young players but to free agents. It will be different. It will be strange. But I would still expect Kobe to be around and showing up and doing different things for the organization. I haven't been told that; that would be my guess. But it will be strange going out there and playing games without him. But that's how sports work. While we lose that, you also gain some excitement about opportunities for new players."

Regardless, Walton said he'll draw on his experience of playing under Phil Jackson and coaching alongside Kerr.

"Being able to coach under Steve Kerr for the last two years, looking back on it now, I would've paid a salary to coach under Steve and learn under Steve and be able to steal those ideas that he used up in Oakland," Walton said. "I'm putting all those into who I am as a coach now."

He later added, "Everything excites me. We have young, talented players. We have draft picks. We have $60-70 million in free agency. We have one of the greatest fan bases of all time. It's an organization that free agents want to play for. As far as being a young coach and being able to help rebuild an organization and a team that I love and that I grew up with, it's all exciting to me."