SACRAMENTO, Calif. — It was good to talk to Luke Walton by phone on Thursday. I needed it and maybe he needed it too. The first-year Kings coach is a kindergarten math teacher these days as he shelters in place with his family in Sacramento.
Last summer, the hope was that Walton would be coaching the Kings in the playoffs this week. You might recall that the Kings haven’t made the playoffs since the Spring of 2006 — 14 long, dismal, spirit-crushing seasons ago.
Instead, six weeks on from COVID-19 causing the suspension of the NBA season on March 11, Walton is coming up with math equations for his 5-year-old son. They go something like this: “If you have 10 apples and (your sister) takes two, how many do you have left?” Walton said. “My son thinks I’m a genius.”
Walton’s kids love him but, objectively, he is a very bright guy. He’s polished, confident and engaging. And he’s a lot tougher than his persona as the precocious son of NBA legend Bill Walton would indicate. We forget now, our minds preoccupied by the monotony of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place, that Walton was validating Kings GM Vlade Divac’s faith in him by the time the season was shut down.
Walton was rallying the Kings late after disappointing early and mid-season runs during the ill fated 2019-20 season. They went 13-7 over their last 20 games. They were 7-3 after the All-Star game and before the end on that bizarre March 11 night when the New Orleans Pelicans players refused to come out of their locker room.
Pelicans players were concerned because Courtney Kirkland, a referee poised to call that game in Sacramento, had recently come in contact with Utah Jazz player, Rudy Gobert. On March 11 when we learned that Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus.
“I’ve had quite a few strange experiences being around the NBA but that was probably number one,” Walton said.
I asked him about the moment that brought him the most satisfaction. Walton returned to that crazy night and the reaction of his players as confusion and disbelief filled the arena around them.
“I left it up to them if they wanted to go out there and they said, ‘Yeah, coach. Let’s play.’ ”
After failing to compete in some games earlier in the season, the Kings wanted to play the Pelicans that night and Walton was encouraged to see their determination.
The Kings and Pelicans had identical records that night, 28-36. In the loss column, they were three games behind Memphis for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Eighteen games remained in the season and Walton felt like all his work and all his talk about establishing a level of professional consistency had finally taken hold.
Even though the Kings were coming off a gut-wrenching 118-113 road loss to the Toronto Raptors, how the Kings played heartened Walton.
“It was heartbreaking, but, boy, it was fun to watch our guys go blow-to-blow with the NBA champions,” he said.
It was fun and it is fun now to think about those last weeks of Kings basketball — and to wonder if they would be in the playoffs right now but for a global pandemic.
We’ll never know, but we do know this: The Kings went 0-5 to start the season. They had too many games in which they didn’t show up. Some fans expressed buyers’ remorse over the hiring of Walton. They wished that Divac hadn’t fired Dave Joerger. For a while, when Walton’s name was announced during pregame warm-ups and his image was shown on the big screen at Golden 1 Center, you could hear the booing.
Could he hear it?
“Since my playing days I developed this skill where I just always pretended they were chanting my name, ‘Luuuuuke,’ ” Walton said.
But seriously, folks. Walton heard it. But he also accepted it as part of an NBA life with distractions off the court and no mercy on it. Walton accepts that this is the life he chose. It’s a lifestyle his players have chosen. You get paid a lot. You get paid to perform. You win when the distractions and obstacles before you become secondary.
In Walton’s case, 2019-20 was like a basket full of marbles being hurled in his path. On opening night — a 124-95 blowout loss in Phoenix — Walton didn’t fall when he stepped on the marbles as the Kings went 0-5. And that says a lot about him. He held it together and he held his team together.
But especially now, with time to reflect, he realizes what the first problem was.
The Kings had won 39 games the season before, their highest win total in more than a decade, with a promise of improvement.
“I think we just came out and expected to have success again,” Walton said. “Now there were expectations.”
Walton likened to a prize fight, the Kings got punched by opponents early, and lost those first five games in a row when they didn’t respond.
“As soon as we got punched that first time, I saw how we reacted and I thought, ‘We have a lot of work to do,’ ” he said. “We were just breaking down … The biggest concern was our reaction when things got tough.”
Distractions and obstacles undid the Kings early. Big man Marvin Bagley went down in the first game in what would be omen. He would barely play all season. Several key Kings players lost significant time to injury. Key shooter Buddy Hield was struggling, likely distracted by signing a big contract.
The fans were chanting, “Luuuke” and every now and then, the team wouldn’t show up at all. A Jan. 22 road defeat to Detroit was the season nadir, a 127-106 loss that the Kings phoned in.
“It was pretty low,” Walton said. He said he’s watched video of that game during the shut-down. “I honestly don’t even recognize them,” he said. “That game made no sense; I didn’t understand what was going on.”
No defense. No effort. No pride. Clearly, the players were distracted and worn down and injured.
To Walton, that shouldn’t have mattered. And the Kings would not improve until he got them to buy into a consistent level of professionalism no matter what was going on around them.
Twenty games later, the season was suspended. They still stumbled a few times before the All-Star break, but were competitive in all their games after.
“When you’re trying to build a team it’s beautiful and it’s challenging,” Walton said. “It’s not always about putting the best five out there. It’s about finding consistency. The high point to me was how we were playing towards the end.” The team began playing more aggressive defense and taking care of the ball. Careless turnovers got players benched, even core players like Hield.
They committed to playing effectively in the half court, which is not as splashy as running and gunning like last season. But it’s more sustainable for playoff runs where defenses tighten and teams win by executing fundamentals over flash.
Then came March 11, the league was shutting down, the Pelicans were refusing to play. In hindsight, Walton said neither he nor his players knew how serious COVID-19 was on that day. Few of us did. Blanket stay-at-home orders across the country were just days away.
“I told the players it was up to them and they wanted to play,” he said. “That was their mentality.”
Obviously, pro spots are secondary to keeping people safe in a global pandemic.
But before it ended, the Kings had shown signs of being a young team built to win. Walton looks forward to seeing that dream realized. “We’re gonna win and it’s going to be a lot of fun,” he said.
In the meantime, it’s back to kindergarten math, sheltering in place and looking forward to a bright future.
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