You may have noticed that our UCLA Basketball Coaching Search Hot Board has slid off the front page. That’s just an unfortunate side-effect of firing a coach mid-season. The rumor market tends to dry up as coaches focus on preparing their teams for the tournament. So, call it a blessing that Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports graced us with a status update on the UCLA job opening. It’s full of the usual things; a breakdown of whether Tony Bennett will consider the job, a host of second-tier options, and a quick burial of Steve Alford. But if that was all there was in this article, I wouldn’t be writing about it. Instead, we have to talk about a new name on the block: current Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton.
Luke Walton, son of UCLA Bruins legend Bill Walton, has become an increasingly mentioned name for the UCLA job as his prospects with the Lakers appear to be circling the drain. Rumors have floated since the beginning of the season of friction between Walton and Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson, and an Adrian Wojnarowski report in the aftermath of the NBA trade deadline essentially stated that the Lakers locker room felt that Walton’s days were numbered. Combine that with a locker room confrontation last week, and rumors that Lebron James would like a new coach, and Walton’s days with the organization look numbered.
But, behind every rain cloud is a rainbow and, in this case, it is the potential for a new job. Let me be clear here: I don’t believe Luke is a bad coach. He is certainly respected in coaching circles and, looking at his Lakers tenure, it’s hard to really blame him for the Lakers struggles. The first two years of his tenure featured an extremely young roster where the two core pieces could not even legally drink and where 23-year old Julius Randle was considered a veteran for the team. Then the entire makeup was changed when James signed this past off-season and a host of big personality veterans were brought in. I’d argue that Walton has done the best he can with a flawed roster that struggles shooting from distance and the loss of James for a month did not help matters. At the same time, I can see the arguments against Walton, especially considering how the Lakers’ young core has struggled to show consistent progress under Walton’s tutelage. All of which is to say that I think, should the Lakers part ways with Walton in the near future, he will be a hot commodity on the coaching market and you can see the appeal to a college program. Walton is a young, charismatic coach who can, theoretically, connect really well with young players and sell his vision for a program.
Now, at the same time, it’s hard to say Walton would be the correct hire for UCLA. Let’s first dispel some of the bad reasons you wouldn’t hire Walton:
- He chose Arizona instead of UCLA: Honestly, if you want to hold it against someone that they choose not to play for Steve Lavin, more power to you, but it wouldn’t be disqualifying in the slightest.
- “He’d just be like Earl Watson.”: Walton, unlike Earl, has a much better track record as a head coach and, for longer. Yes, it’s easy to win games when you have the Warriors, but even his Lakers teams had a similar talent level to Phoenix, but the players played much harder and performed much better. Along those lines, the fact that Earl Watson hasn’t been mentioned for any NBA head coaching job since he got fired while Luke would almost assuredly be in the conversation at a few stops is pretty telling to me.
That said, there are definitely some issues that have to be considered:
- No college coaching experience: This is, in my mind, probably the biggest factor against Walton. College basketball is just a different beast compared to the NBA, especially considering recruiting and rule differences. Some guys are able to make the jump, but they seem to be the exception rather than the rule,and UCLA shouldn’t be in the position to make that kind of gamble over taking an established, successful college coach.
- Schematic issues: Here is where I will bash Walton for his Lakers tenure by saying that his Lakers teams have had issues, especially on the offensive end. Too often this season, the Lakers will devolve into iso play or rely on James to do something while everyone else stands around. This hasn’t been a single-season issue either; the Lakers have had issues on offensive sets. The defense has been better,which at least makes sense considering Walton’s focus on that end every preseason, but Walton has yet to prove he can run a solid offensive system without relying on a Top 5 player in the league.
- The Arizona situation: Thamel references this in his UCLA article, and he, along with Pat Forde and Dan Wetzel, talked about it more in-depth in this article, but Arizona could be looking for a new coach after this season. The Wildcats have not only failed to escape the gaze of the FBI and NCAA, but fired an assistant just a few days ago over an apparent transcript issue with current UCLA player Shareef O’Neal. Should the Wildcats choose to move on from Sean Miller, Walton would be near the top of their wish list, being an Arizona alum and charismatic enough that he could potentially save their recruiting class.
So I guess the question is: should UCLA potentially pursue Luke Walton? Ehh, probably not. Or, at the very least, he shouldn’t be near the top of the list. There are better options available with fewer question marks.
But I am interested in hearing from you all. What do you think of the possibility of UCLA hiring Luke Walton? Leave it in the comments below.