During a playing career that spanned 11 seasons, Luke Walton played in 564 games but started only 138 times.
The man is obviously accustomed to coming off the bench.
So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by his success with the Warriors, whose 26-1 record entering Wednesday night’s games is a reflection of the near-perfect basketball they have been playing. Walton has been the absolute perfect sub for Steve Kerr, who has yet to coach a game this season while recovering from back surgery and a spinal fluid leak.
The irony of Walton’s masterful fill-in job is that it will certainly shorten his career in Golden State. When head coaching jobs become available before next season, the 35-year-old Walton will be at the top of all lists. Yes, perhaps even ahead of Tom Thibodeau.
For those who know Walton, his transition from role player to role model is no surprise. Late in his nine-year stay with the Lakers, he had a back injury and could not play. So Phil Jackson invited him to coaches meetings and assigned him minor duties. Walton began looking at life after his playing career and he liked what he saw.
“I was really into what they were doing,” Walton said, “so I figured ‘If I can’t play. I’d like to do this coaching thing.’ ”
His potential was immediately apparent to Kobe Bryant.
“I told him he was the next Phil, because he was an average player with a messed-up back,” Bryant said to reporters when Walton was named Coach of the Month in November. “I used to rib him all the time about that, but honestly, he always had a really brilliant mind. He understood flow and tempo and spacing and how to manage a team the right way. So I couldn’t be any happier for him. He looks very comfortable in that role. If you’re going to have a mentor, Phil’s a pretty good one.”
And, as it turns out, so is Kerr, who, with a little help from his friend Walton will shatter the NBA record for reaching 100 victories faster than any coach. If you saw that one coming, you should be spending your workdays gambling online. The current record is held by former Chicago coach Thibodeau, who needed 130 games to get 100 victories, one less than Avery Johnson.
Kerr has a 93-16 record and the Warriors would have to lose 15 of their next 21 games for Thibodeau’s record to stand.
Kerr’s physical ailments have generated controversy about coaching victories, however. NBA policy is that if a head coach under contract misses a game for illness or any other reason, he still gets credit for wins – and losses. Interim coaches are credited with victories only if the head coach is fired.
But even though Walton’s official record is 0-0, he won Coach of the Month honors for November and that ignited the issue:
How is it possible to qualify for a head coaching honor when you have no wins or losses as a head coach?
The league did find itself in a conundrum because if the policy was changed, what would that mean for previous head coaches?
Don Nelson is the all-time leader with 1,335 coaching victories and Lenny Wilkens is second with 1,332. But Nelson has at least 10 victories while missing games. The league would have to conduct an extensive investigation to see whether Nelson or Wilkens missed more games, then would have to research all coaches to make sure all records were consistent.
Or maybe it wouldn’t.
The fact is, rules change. For example, during a three-year period in the 1990s, the NBA moved the 3-point line to a uniform 22 feet. When it did not achieve the goal of unclogging the basket area, the NBA went back to 23 feet, 9 inches above the break.
But those years still count in statistics for teams and players. So the NBA could have announced a policy change that was effective beginning this season. The league is in charge of its own statistics, so this is another one it could have handled by simply saying, “We’re changing. This is how we are going to handle it going forward. All previous records remain intact.”
Regardless, Walton has ensured that he will have the opportunity to create his own win-loss record and legacy, although that is not a concern right now.
“This has been great for me,” Walton said. “But Steve is a phenomenal coach and he’s still the head coach of our team. Neither one of us cares about who gets the wins and losses. The important thing is to be ready to defend our championship. Steve can do that and we’re looking forward to getting him back.”
Kerr, who calls the win-loss policy “ridiculous,” comes to all home games and has been at recent practices but still is bothered by painful headaches.
“He’s still there in practices and it still feels like he’s there with us,” guard Klay Thompson said. “He’s just not on the sideline. We miss him, but Luke is doing a heck of a job and it’s going to be like [Kerr] never left when he comes back. I know it will.”
When Kerr returns to courtside full-time, his record will be exponentially better than it was when he left. No doubt, he will have Walton to thank for part of it. But, as Walton says, he and Kerr don’t get too full of themselves.
“It’s all about our players,” Walton said. “We have a world championship team. The players make our jobs much easier, and we never forget that.”
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.