Luke Walton has more NBA Coach of the Month awards than official wins.
The Warriors interim coach was named top coach in the Western Conference for October and November on Tuesday after leading the team to a record 19-0 start in place of the absent Steve Kerr.
While the NBA issued a statement earlier in the day reiterating that Kerr remains the head coach of record for the Warriors, the league said Walton was eligible for the monthly award and other honors, such as Coach of the Year.
Kerr has been sidelined since training camp because of complications from offseason back surgery. There is no timeline for his return, with Kerr telling reporters Tuesday that he’s still experiencing headaches and other post-surgery symptoms and that he won’t return to the sideline until he’s completely certain he’s ready for the grind.
But the defending champion Warriors have hardly missed a beat under Walton.
“He’s been amazing,” forward Draymond Green said of Walton. “He’s still Luke. That’s what has been special about it. He hasn’t changed the way he acts. He hasn’t changed anything. Obviously, he says a little more in the game coaching and calling the plays. He does all that stuff. It’s just incredible how he’s adjusted to that role.”
Walton’s success as a coach comes as little surprise to those who played with him. Former Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant saw this in Walton when he was sidelined late in his career by a back injury and brought into the coaching circle by Phil Jackson.
“I told him he was the next Phil, because he was an average player with a messed-up back,” Bryant said. “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.”
Walton has done something that even Jackson never accomplished in his decorated coaching career that featured a record 11 NBA titles — even if he doesn’t officially get the credit for it.
The Warriors have downplayed who deserves credit, with Walton praising the system Kerr put in place, Kerr praising Walton for the way he has run the team and the system and the players saying both are integral.
Walton, the son of Hall of Famer Bill Walton, has been around the game for most of his life. He played for Hall of Famer Lute Olson in college at Arizona, learned under Jackson and two-time NBA champion Rudy Tomjanovich during his playing career and was an assistant under Kerr on the Golden State team that won 67 games and a title last season.
But Walton credits much of his learning to that time when he was injured with the Lakers in the 2009-10 season.
“It was an unbelievable gesture to start with,” Walton said. “He said that I was depressed and down and out. I had a bad back and didn’t know when I would be able to play again. There was nothing that I could do except sit in the trainer’s room and get treatment all day. Phil going through a similar experience I think it helped him through that time and it definitely helped me through that time.”
Walton said his time in the trainer’s room with Jackson, assistants Frank Hamblen and Brian Shaw and the rest of the staff helped draw him into coaching.
“I saw right there that you still get that sense of camaraderie that you have as a player and you are out there and trying to come up with stuff to help your team win,” he said. “It had all those elements that make playing basketball so much fun. It had all of those in the coaching.”
Walton spent time as an assistant in college at Memphis during the NBA lockout in 2011 and then was hired as a player development coach by the Los Angeles D-Fenders of the NBA Development League after retiring in 2013.
Walton joined Kerr’s staff last year as an assistant and got promoted to the lead job when Alvin Gentry left for New Orleans after the championship season.
Now he’s getting a chance to run a team with Kerr out and is showing the league he could be ready for his own head coaching job soon.
“You see it all the time with an assistant that he’s cool and then when he’s a head coach he’s crazy,” Green said. “You see that all the time. It hasn’t been like that at all. That says a lot about him as a person. He’s cool.”