About five minutes after hearing Luke Walton had been dismissed as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings general manager Vlade Divac called Walton’s agent.
Finalizing the deal that brought Walton to Sacramento as the Kings new coach didn’t take much longer. After getting the call Friday, Walton changed plans to take some time off and flew to Sacramento the following day instead. He agreed to a deal that afternoon and was formally introduced as coach of the Kings on Monday.
“I knew these types of offers don’t come available very often,” Walton said. “I love coaching, so having that opportunity with this type of talented team and doing it alongside somebody the way I feel about Vlade made it too good to pass up on.”
Divac called Walton one of his basketball “soul mates,” who embraces the same philosophies in style of play and building culture on a team. The relationship between the two goes back more than a decade to when they were teammates on the Lakers in 2004-05.
Divac had wanted to interview Walton for the opening three years ago before hiring Dave Joerger but never got that chance as Walton took the job with the Lakers instead. He wasn’t going to miss his chance again.
“When I believe in something, I just do it that way,” Divac said. “No need to waste time. I knew exactly what I was looking for. When he was available, I just gave him a call.”
Walton takes over a Kings team that’s in a much better position than it was three years ago thanks to progress made under Joerger and key acquisitions made by Divac. Joerger was fired Thursday following a 39-43 campaign that was the best record for the franchise in 13 years.
Divac made that move because he felt Joerger wasn’t the right coach to take the Kings to the next level and the post-season and hopes that Walton can do that.
He inherits an up-and-coming team in Sacramento that features several talented young players acquired by Divac: guards De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, forward Marvin Bagley III and centre Willie Cauley-Stein. The Kings finished nine games out of a playoff spot after being tied for the Western Conference’s eighth seed heading into the final game before the All-Star break.
“They play fast, they have 3-point shooting, they’re young, they’re versatile,” Walton said. “That’s how I want to play. That’s how I think the game should be played. All that is right there with this group. There is still room and need for improvement like with almost every team in this league. What this team could be and what I think this team will be is very exciting from a coaching standpoint.”
Sacramento had its most wins since going 44-38 in 2005-06 during coach Rick Adelman’s final season. That ended a run of eight straight playoff berths and Sacramento hasn’t been back to the post-season since for the NBA’s longest active drought.
Joerger was the ninth coach since Adelman was fired in 2006 and none was able to post a winning record or earn a playoff berth. In fact, since moving to Sacramento before the 1985-86 season, the only winning seasons for the Kings came in Adelman’s eight years at the helm, highlighted by a trip to the Western Conference final in 2002.
Divac is now counting on Walton to be the one who can get the team back to the level it reached under Adelman, when the Kings were a contender for several years and played an entertaining brand of basketball.
“Maybe sometimes I’m greedy,” Divac said. “We had a great season, don’t get me wrong. It was a successful season for us but we can do better. I’m just trying to go to the next level.”
The 39-year-old Walton was 98-148 in three years with Los Angeles in his first full-time head coaching job. He was 37-45 this season and was unable to make the playoffs even once.
Walton also has experience as an assistant for Golden State, helping the Warriors win the 2015 title and then leading the team to a 39-4 record, including 24 straight wins to open the 2015-16 season, as interim coach while Steve Kerr was sidelined following complications from a pair of back surgeries.
That performance helped him get the job with the Lakers but he was unable to duplicate that success with a roster with far less talent during his first two years and then again this year, even with LeBron James on board.
“I learned a lot,” Walton said. “The best way to learn in my mind is experience and I had a lot of experiences these last three years. I feel much more prepared and advanced as a coach right now that I did three years ago.”