Why Walton’s Job Could Be Safer Than You Think

Plenty of fans were half-hoping, and some were even demanding, that Luke Walton be fired after last season, but the franchise kept him around. His players’ high regard for him plus his well-esteemed partnership with GM Monte McNair were major reasons for this decision.

Now, with the Kings off to a 6-9 start, the word around town is that Luke Walton is on the hot seat, and that it’s hotter than ever before. The Athletic’s report that sources are claiming Walton’s job is on the line if the team’s troubles persist came out earlier this week and seemed to give credence to this feeling.

The digital pitchforks and torches were assembled, and the chorus rang out: Fire Walton Now!

But before joining the mob and getting your hopes up, the question should be at least asked: Doesn’t any of this feel even a little hasty?

There’s no doubt that if Walton were fired sooner than later that nobody would be surprised. But keep in mind, these are leaks from unnamed sources, and they could easily be fluff, intent on diverting negative attention from the image of ownership, using the head coach, often the ultimate scapegoat, for cover from the scorn of a justifiably cranky fanbase. Who knows? But consider that, despite his considerable share of responsibility for this disappointing start, there are reasons why one could expect Walton to, at the very least, finish out the season as head coach.

For one, it’s November. It’s early, and there’s a lot of basketball to be played.

In addition to that, and probably more important to ask: When has a coaching change ever worked out for this team in an immediate, stand out way?

Some fans were disappointed how things went with Mike Malone given his success in Denver, and loads more were frustrated with the decision to can Dave Joeger. Each of them showed sprinklings of potential, glimpses of promise that actually got the fanbase buzzing, namely Joeger’s final season in 2018-19 where Sacramento finished ninth in the West with a 39-43 record.

Starting over at head coach in each of those instances felt like a blatant disruption of the little bits of momentum this fanbase is unaccustomed to tasting. Probably because it was.

One should at least wonder why it would be different now.

Of course, maybe a change is warranted considering the instances of new head coaches taking their team straight to the finals. Steve Kerr instantly turned the Warriors—a team jammed with talent—into a dynasty. In 2016, mid-season, Tyronn Lue took over David Blatt’s job and helped LeBron take the Cavs over the hump against Kerr’s Warriors. In 2019, the Raptors, led by Kawhi Leonard, won a championship against Golden State under first-year head coach Nick Nurse. And Frank Vogel, succeeding Luke Walton, was at the helm in his first year with Los Angeles when the LeBron-led Lakers—another team jammed with talent—won a championship (with, it should be noted, a fat asterisk for the shortened, incongruent pandemic season).

It’s not out of the realm of possibility, but for a team like the Kings, maybe it is at this point. The major difference between those four championship teams, as one can probably tell, is the Kings don’t have a star, a go-to guy, a killer—some of those teams had a few.

Who knows?

Could it be, instead, that this is a team not yet privy to the ingredients of winning, a team still lacking the chops to take it to the next level?

Without a playoff appearance in 15 years, it’s safe to say Sacramento has developed a losing culture. This is what made the drafting of professional, mature players in Haliburton and Mitchell so exciting to fans, and what made Fox’s near all-star season exciting. There was evidence of a potential shift in the attitude about that culture that, through the years of this playoff drought, has not emerged. We’re talking about a team of proven winners.

After all, there were no indications that McNair’s opinion of his partnership with Walton has grown less favorable in any way— that wasn’t a reason the rumors were generated this week. Nor is it due to any negative shift in players’ opinion of their head coach. It was because the team is still losing, because of “the slide.”

Keep in mind a few macro-level things about the Kings right now: There’s a young core.  There’s a GM and a coach who mesh on the style of play for that team. And then, as is apparent by now, there’s just the losing— the poor execution, the poor collective efforts.

In what ended up being the victims of the proverbial out-of-context sound bite, some fans began speculating online about some comments Tristan Thompson made at the end of the game in Minnesota. Likely a projection of what could be the digital fanbase mob mentality, the take away was that Thompson was dissing his coach when he said “I don’t need no f–king coach to inspire me. . . The day I need a coach to inspire me is the day I’m f–king retiring.”

Listening to the full extent of the remarks, it was clearly not a diss on Walton. The full response may have, in fact, been recognition of what may alternatively be the glaring issues holding the team back. And those issues exist in effort and execution.

The reporter noted the Kings’ unraveling and Karl-Anthony Towns’ late game performance—both keys to Sacramento’s loss—and asked Thompson if there was a verbal leadership deficiency and, if so, from where.

Thompson responded by declaring that no NBA player should ever need a coach to inspire them. “If you don’t get inspired in a game, then you shouldn’t be on the court,” he said. “Losing teams, losing players need to get inspiration from their coach.”

He elaborated on the team’s effort and performance referenced in the question, saying:

“I know Towns is a good player, but we had a game plan for him and, yes, you wanna force him left, but if he goes right, your teammate’s gotta have your back. . . If I get beat and I want my teammate to get there, I gotta be there for him. That’s part of being on the string and that’s how you build a defensive mentality. And the league is f–cking hard— it’s hard to win. We don’t have the luxury of having that go-to guy, like a LeBron, a Kawhi, a PG, or a Jayson Tatum, or Luka. We gotta win collectively.”

Further stressing the point of defense and working together—two aspects sorely missed in this year’s losses so far—Thompson, at another point, added:

“I think the key from this road trip is that you gotta close out defensively, you gotta [as a team] string multiple stops and you gotta have each other’s back. We gotta be on a string and have a brotherhood. The offense, it’s going to have the highs and lows. Who gives a sh-t? It’s the NBA. But defensively, that’s what matters. And I think that’s what you have to learn on this road trip: that defense is what’s going to keep you in the game and give you a chance to win.”

Tristan Thompson is a world champion, he’s been in the league a long time, he’s gone deep into the playoffs, he’s seen what a team needs to win, he’s played with go-to guys— this is no armchair opinion. He’s also out there every day with the team he’s constructively criticizing, he knows it as well as anyone.

At the end of the Minnesota game, Walton made similar points about the team’s performance in the game and on the road trip. On Towns, Walton laid out how the defense failed to execute the game plan Thompson was referencing, letting him get on a roll. “Clear game plan,” Walton explained, “don’t go under, he’s gonna pick and pop, hit three’s. We gapped it, he hit a three, and then we overplayed and he back cut us and now the best player on the team is feeling pretty good about it.”

He also highlighted Anthony Edwards’ game, who along with KAT made the Kings defense look foolish, saying that when he got by the defense “our low man [didn’t] come over and rotate, so now [Edwards has] got a couple of easy ones.”

It’s not clear Walton is keeping this analysis to himself. There’s no reason why he would. Therefore there’s weight in the idea that this is a matter of execution.

The Kings are losing games because the players have failed to raise the defensive intensity, have failed to mesh, and, at times, have failed to execute the game plan. Both the head coach and veteran team leaders notice and acknowledge these facts, so it’s safe to say there’s a good chance the people up top view it similarly. But then again, who knows?

Ranadivé has fired three prominent coaches in his time as the chairman of the franchise, and the cries from the mob are louder than ever.

It’s hard to tell, impossible to know.

All we happen to know right now is that it is in no way a given that the Kings will show Walton the door any time soon.

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