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Strauss: Steve Kerr's bet on Luke Walton


After Stephen Curry scored 53 points against the New Orleans Pelicans, Luke Walton was repeatedly asked about the particulars of experiencing something so incredible.

The normally cheerful Walton termed the performance “spectacular” in a flat tone, noting, “I don’t think from the head-coaching seat you can enjoy it as much as the other people in the arena.”

This is what head coaching does to even a spirit as ebullient as Luke Walton’s. Before, Walton could perhaps enjoy watching Curry bend space and time with his fingers. Now, there’s too much to track, too much at stake. He’s too present, too focused.

“When I watch it on the plane flight home, I’m sure I’m going to have a smile on my face,” Walton said. “But you’re out there and you’re looking at the scoreboard, and now it’s a nine-point game, the game’s not out of reach. If you sit back and try to enjoy it, it’s just like being a player.”

Although 35 years old, Walton is no longer a player. On account of Steve Kerr’s painful spinal fluid leak, he’s now the temporary head coach of the defending champion. Quite a few NBA people, inside and outside the Warriors, questioned whether Walton was ready. It’s a tall task, and he’s been open about its pressures.

He talks about the lack of sleep, jokes about how everyone should wear W.W.S.D (What Would Steve Do?) bracelets, constantly reminds us that all these wins count toward Kerr’s tally.

Apart from all the organizational responsibilities, the head coach must keep track of and call timeouts, while also controlling substitution patterns. From the bench, it’s an assault on the senses, the most participatory of spectator sports. It’s easy to forget about certain levers and pulleys in the heat of the game. For instance, the Warriors were blitzing the Rockets en route to a blowout, “clamping” them with traps.

Such a trap was sprung after the game was already in hand, leading Walton to turn to his coaches and exclaim, “Wait. Are we still f—— clamping?!” Certain details can slip away from even the most experienced of bench captains. Walton has held steady, though, staying even keeled throughout the trial by fire. So far the results are about as good as anybody could expect — four victories by a combined 100 points, the largest point differential through the season’s first four games in NBA history. Walton has rewarded Kerr’s trust to the point where Kerr jokes about how he’s no longer needed.

On Tuesday, Walton addressed media in a sweat — he had just finished drills with Warriors players. This isn’t the norm for head coaches, who are usually at a remove from the physicality of practice.

“That’s kind of I was doing that as an assistant, so there are some things you just keep the same,” Walton said. “I’m not going to just stop being on the court. I enjoy being out there. I enjoy mixing it up with the players. In drills other coaches are leading, I try to get out there and stay involved.”

After taking questions, he would take part in full-court pickup games involving general manager Bob Myers and assistant GM Kirk Lacob.

Walton’s sweaty news conference? That’s all part of the plan, a window into Kerr’s operational architecture.

“I wanted Luke and Jarron [Collins] because I knew they could still get on the floor with the guys,” Kerr told ESPN.com. “They had still played against a lot of the current NBA generation and they could share a lot of that experience and wisdom. But I think it’s important to have people on the staff who can play 3-on-3, stuff like that.”

The Warriors like to get bench players fit with boisterous half-court games of 3-on-3. There are only so many players involved, so the rosters are supplemented with coaches. It’s easy to forget that for many coaches, the job isn’t all clipboards and squinting. Even without the 3-on-3 games, there’s a taxing physical component to the labor — especially for coaches who work out post-up big men.

Kerr wanted guys who could hold their own physically while offering recent, lived wisdom about opponents still in the league. He also wanted a staff that gets after it, one that experiences the camaraderie of competition outside of game night.

After Alvin Gentry left for New Orleans, Kerr had the option to explore stocking his staff with more experienced voices. He declined, betting on a system of promotion of younger staffers from within. To be reductive about it, he made a big bet on Walton and what he represents.

When Kerr took over the job, his plan was to target steady, experienced coaches (Gentry and Ron Adams), then build with youth below that. Outside of defensive guru Adams and Kerr’s longtime running mate Bruce Fraser, Golden State’s traveling staff is young — strikingly young. Walton, Collins, special assistant Nick U’Ren, advanced scout Chris DeMarco, advanced scout Kelly Peters and player development coach Theo Robertson are all under age 40.

“A big part of it is his personality,” Kerr said of the qualities that drew him to Walton. “I’m very laid back. I believe in the calm presence of a coach more so than the ranting and raving and screaming and yelling. I believe in the atmosphere that we’ve created. I just feel like Luke was so invested with that and in tune with that that it made perfect sense.”

Walton and Kerr, both San Diegans and Arizona men, share a certain wavelength. You could certainly find worse Steve Kerr proxies on the coaching market.

“You know, I didn’t anticipate losing Alvin so quickly,” Kerr said. “This transition would have been a lot easier obviously if Alvin was here because he’s done this so many times. But with that said, I felt very comfortable that Luke would be able to handle this well.”

With Gentry gone, Kerr made Walton Gentry’s replacement, and trusted his comfort level. Since getting pressed into head-coaching action, Walton has grown increasingly comfortable, by his own admission.

When will Kerr return? Nobody truly knows. What’s now more certain is Walton’s mettle in a time of need, and his ability to lead with Kerr absent. Stressed and sleepless as he might be these days, Walton’s laid-back demeanor has betrayed little of that. The Warriors are receiving his languid, monotone San Diego accent loud and clear.

“He trusts that we’re keeping the program going,” Walton said, assessing the job he’s done.

So far, that program is going far beyond immediate expectations.



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