As far back as his final years as a player, Luke Walton aspired to become an NBA head coach eventually. He just didn’t know that day would come this soon.
“I thought this was how it happens — retire, win a championship, be an assistant then a head coach,” Walton said.
It’s just that Walton would rather have done it under different circumstances. He will take over for Steve Kerr on an interim basis while the Warriors head coach recovers from back surgery.
One day after his leave of absence was made public, Kerr made a surprise visit to the team practice facility in Oakland even if not all the players were aware of it.
“We didn’t think he’d be around today,” Walton said. “We were in the meat of the competition part of practice. And when these guys are competing, I’m not even sure they knew he came in or not. That’s just the type of guys we have.”
Kerr ruptured a disk in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. He had surgery on July 28 and again on Sept. 4 to repair the injury. The hope is that he’ll be available for the regular-season opener on Oct. 27, but there is no timetable for his return.
Perhaps no one in the organization can relate to Kerr’s situation than new Warriors consultant Steve Nash, another longtime friend. The two-time Most Valuable Player retired at age 41 because of a back ailment.
Nash was more graphic about Kerr’s medical situation than anyone else in the organization has been.
“I feel really badly for him,” Nash said. “I mean, back issues are one thing, but spinal issues and spinal fluid and we’re talking about the brain and energy levels and systems … That’s scary stuff. He’s going through a tremendous amount right now. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.
“If anybody can deal with it and cope with it, it’s Steve, but I really think he has created an environment here where they can cope without him and he should take as much time as he can, because it’s very, very serious.”
Had the situation occurred a year ago, the franchise would have one fewer championship banner. Kerr was a rookie head coach at the time, and he and his staff were about to install new systems that required a transition period.
Now that core nucleus has experience and much success in the systems, training camp is more about maintenance than anything else. For that reason, Walton expected the preseason to be business as usual.
“If it was a permanent change, yeah, I would have to change,” said Walton, who coached the Warriors’ NBA Summer League team. “This is just continuing to do what we do. The guys know that, if I see laziness happening or we’re not playing at a certain level, my job without Steve here is to step up. I’d be cheating them and I would be cheating our team if I didn’t say anything.
“That will change a little it, but as far as my relationship with the players, it will be the same as when I was an assistant.”
The Warriors are scheduled to open the preseason against the Toronto Raptors in San Jose on Monday.
“To me, the only concern is for Steve to get healthy,” Walton said. “Whether that takes a few days, which obviously would be the best case, or a few weeks … We’re just trying to encourage him, ‘Take your time. We’ll handle this until you get back.’ You know, it’s a long, tough season.”