Luke Walton

Free Agent Stock Watch: Pacific Division

Throughout the season, Hoops Rumors takes a closer look at players who will be free agents or could become free agents this off-season. We examine if their stock is rising or falling due to performance and other factors. This week, we take a look at players from the Pacific Division:

Kawhi Leonard, Clippers, 29, SF (Up) – Signed to a three-year, $103MM deal in 2019

Until Giannis Antetokounmpo and other All-Stars decided to sign extensions, the summer of 2021 was considered a free agent bonanza. Leonard’s free agent foray two seasons ago, after leading the Raptors to the NBA championship, was one of the big stories of that summer. He chose to go to Los Angeles and the Clippers mortgaged their future by trading for Paul George to give him a superstar sidekick. It could all unravel for the franchise this year if the Clippers lose to the Mavericks in the opening round. Leonard was expected to opt out this summer so that he could maximize his salary with his current team. Now, other contenders might kick the tires to see if Leonard would be willing to jump ship again. If nothing else, the Clippers’ front office will be sweating it out until Leonard signs the bottom line.

Cameron Payne, Suns, 26, PG (Up) – Signed to a two-year, $2.2MM deal in 2019

It’s become an annual and unfortunate occurrence in the NBA postseason – Chris Paul suffers an injury at the worst time. Paul’s shoulder issue has limited his minutes against the Lakers the last two games and those minutes have gone to Payne. Not surprisingly, Phoenix has lost both contests but Payne has posted respectable numbers, averaging 17 PPG, 6.5 APG and 2.5 SPG in 30 MPG. The 2015 lottery pick struggled to find an NBA home until he signed with the Suns for their games in the Orlando bubble. Payne has found his niche as a second-unit point guard and if the Suns don’t re-sign him, some other team will take him for that same role.

Alex Caruso, Lakers, 27, SG (Up) – Signed to a two-year, $5MM deal in 2019

Caruso doesn’t make a big dent in the stat sheet but he’s a pesky defender and energetic spark plug off the bench. He averaged 6.5 PPG, 2.8 APG, 2.3 RPG and 1.1 SPG in 24.3 MPG during the Lakers’ run to the championship last season. He’s averaging 21 MPG through their first three playoff games this season against the Suns. Caruso seems like a nice fit on the Lakers, dutifully playing his role while knocking down the occasional 3-pointer and looking to advantage of opportunities when his defender cheats off him. The unrestricted free agent will likely get a nice bump in salary.

Hassan Whiteside, Kings, 31, C (Down) – Signed to a one-year, $2.3MM deal in 2020

Whiteside was valued so much by the Heat in 2016 he was signed to a four-year, $98.4MM deal. Few teams will covet Whiteside’s services when he reaches free agency again this summer. He had to settle for the veteran’s minimum last offseason and his one season with the Kings was rather forgettable. He was relegated to backup duty, averaging 15.2 MPG in the 36 games that coach Luke Walton used him. Whiteside didn’t play after April 21, supposedly due to lower back tightness. He can still be useful as a rebounder and shot blocker in a reserve role but he’ll have to settle for the veteran’s minimum once again.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Kings Notes: Walton, McNair, Finch, Fox

The news broke on Monday that Luke Walton would be retained as the Kings’ head coach. There has been speculation that the decision was, at least in part, financially motivated. He’s reportedly owed $11.5MM over the next two seasons.

However, GM Monte McNair downplayed that notion in his season-ending press conference, James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area tweets. “I’ve been given every resource I need to get the team back to the playoffs and this was a basketball decision,” McNair said.

We have more on the Kings:

  • Walton’s job became much safer when the Timberwolves hired Raptors assistant Chris Finch as their head coach midway through the season, Sean Cunningham of KXTV Sacramento tweets. Numerous sources told Cunningham that Sacramento’s front office was interested in Finch, who previously worked with  McNair in the Rockets’ organization. Walton maintained a strong relationship with the Kings’ front office and earned respect of the locker room, which also helped his cause, Cunningham adds.
  • De’Aaron Fox‘s bout with COVID-19 was a rough one, Jason Anderson of the Sacramento Bee tweets. Fox had a headache after the April 21st game against Minnesota and then body aches and chills the next night. He apparently wasn’t close to returning at the end of the season, but he says he’s feeling much better, Anderson adds.
  • Richaun Holmes is expected to be a hot commodity on the free agent market. Get the details here.

Luke Walton To Remain Kings’ Head Coach

Luke Walton will remain as the Kings’ head coach, a league source tells James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area (Twitter link).

Walton had been publicly supported by numerous players, including Tyrese Haliburton, Richaun Holmes and Harrison Barnes, who praised their head coach in media interviews on Monday. The Kings made a belated playoff run despite injury and illness and Walton also has a strong working relationship with GM Monte McNair and the front office (Twitter links).

Walton had said over the weekend he was “very confident” he’d be retained. Monetary factors worked in Walton’s favor as well, since he’s reportedly owed $11.5MM over the next two seasons.

Walton spoke of ending the team’s playoff drought next season prior to the season finale, saying this offseason will be critical. The team has gone 31-41 in each of Walton’s seasons at the helm.

“We have an offseason plan put in place from when they’re going to be in Sacramento, and what coaches will be working with them, and what we need them focused on,” Walton said.

Walton will speak to the media on Tuesday.

Pacific Notes: Curry, LeBron, Walton, Ibaka

While Nikola Jokic is considered the odds-on favorite to win this season’s NBA MVP award, Lakers forward LeBron James has endorsed a division rival for the honor, telling reporters on Sunday night that Warriors guard Stephen Curry would get his vote.

“I mean, just look at what he’s done this year,” James said of the NBA’s leading scorer (link via Dave McMenamin of ESPN). “I don’t know anything else if you’re looking for an MVP. If Steph is not on Golden State’s team, what are we looking at? … We get caught up in the records sometimes. We get caught up in the, ‘OK, who has the best record?’ instead of just saying who had the best season that year. And Steph has had, in my opinion, the best season all year.”

Curry has won two MVP awards, but his performance this season may have been his most impressive yet, considering the Warriors didn’t have high-scoring options like Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant available to draw attention away from him. Despite facing double-teams and traps for much of the season, Curry averaged a career-best 32.0 points per game on .482/.421/.916 shooting in 63 games (34.2 MPG). His 5.3 three-pointers per game also represented a new career high.

Here’s more from around the Pacific:

  • Bill Shea of The Athletic explores what life after basketball might look like for LeBron James, who will turn 37 later this year. The Lakers star, who has already ventured into the media and business worlds during his playing career, also aims to one day own an NBA franchise.
  • After expressing last week that he was “very confident” about keeping his job as the Kings‘ head coach, Luke Walton explained on Sunday why he’s not worried, as Jason Anderson of The Sacramento Bee relays. “It doesn’t weigh on me because it’s the same thing I always talk about — it’s control what you can control — the same message I give my players every day,” Walton said. He added that he felt the story of Sacramento’s season should be the growth of the team’s young players. “I’m excited about this group and excited about our future,” the Kings’ coach said.
  • Having returned on Friday after missing two months due to a back injury, Clippers big man Serge Ibaka told reporters that he has played with back pain since the start of the season, per Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN (Twitter link). It’s a nerve issue, according to Ibaka, who admitted he’s still not back to 100%.

Kings Notes: Walton, King, Sunday’s Game, Reserves

Luke Walton says he’s “very confident” he’ll be retained as the Kings’ head coach, Jason Anderson of The Sacramento Bee reports.

Monetary factors may work in Walton’s favor, Anderson notes. He’s reportedly owed $11.5MM over the next two seasons and first-year GM Monte McNair has publicly expressed support for Walton, pointing out the progress made by several key players.

Walton is focused on better results for next season.

“We have an offseason plan put in place from when they’re going to be in Sacramento, and what coaches will be working with them, and what we need them focused on,” Walton said. “Clearly, a big thing for all young players is developing in the weight room as well, but it’s good, after you get a taste of what the NBA is all about, to be able to really fine tune some things in the offseason.”

We have more on the Kings:

Bjorkgren, Stotts, Budenholzer Among Coaches On Hot Seat

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Tuesday that Nate Bjorkgren‘s future as the Pacers‘ head coach is uncertain, and Shams Charania and Sam Amick echo that point in their latest report for The Athletic. According to The Athletic’s duo, Bjorkgren’s “abrasive” style and a tendency to be controlling with assistants and other staff members has been a cause for concern.

Sources tell Charania and Amick that multiple Pacers players have expressed dissatisfaction with Bjorkgren this season, with Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis among those who haven’t been on the same page with the first-year coach. Those same sources tell The Athletic that several Pacers players feel the analytical style Bjorkgren has employed doesn’t suit the team’s personnel.

The growing pains Bjorkgren has experienced in Indiana don’t necessarily mean that the Pacers will make a coaching change at season’s end, but the situation is worth keeping a close eye on, per Charania and Amick.

The two Athletic reporters also singled out a few other coaching situations worth watching around the NBA. Here are a few highlights from their report:

  • The Trail Blazers are increasingly likely to part ways with head coach Terry Stotts this offseason unless he can “pull a rabbit out of his hat” and make a deep playoff run, according to Charania and Amick. Sources tell The Athletic that Stotts has less player support this season than he has in past years. Charania and Amick identify Jason Kidd, Dave Joerger, Chauncey Billups, Brent Barry, and – if he becomes available – Nate McMillan as potential targets for Portland if the team makes a change.
  • There’s significant pressure on Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer entering the postseason, according to Charania and Amick, who say Budenholzer’s job will be in serious danger if the team is eliminated in the first two rounds. Budenholzer has one year left on his contract after 2020/21, per The Athletic’s duo.
  • Luke Walton of the Kings and Scott Brooks of the Wizards are other coaches whose job security isn’t exactly rock solid, but Charania and Amick point to financial considerations in Sacramento and a recent hot streak in D.C. as factors working in favor of Walton and Brooks keeping their jobs. Walton has a strong relationship with Kings GM Monte McNair, while Brooks is well-liked in Washington, note Charania and Amick. Still, the long-term future of Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard is also somewhat uncertain, which further clouds Brooks’ status.

Luke Walton: “No Interest” In Coaching At Arizona

Kings head coach Luke Walton isn’t interested in taking over at Arizona, writes Jason Anderson of The Sacramento Bee. Two decades ago, Walton was a star player for the Wildcats, who created a vacancy by firing Sean Miller today.

“No, no interest,” Walton said. “I love Arizona. I think Sean Miller did an amazing job there in his time, but I have a job. I have a job that I love. I have a group I love working with, so I’m very committed to being here in Sacramento and keeping this going in the direction that we want it to go and getting this team back into the playoffs.”

Walton is in his second season running the Kings and still has two years and $11.5MM left on his contract. There was speculation about his future after Sacramento got off to a slow start, but a report last month indicated his job is safe, at least through the end of the season. The Kings have edged back into the race for a spot in a play-in game and are 12th in the West at 22-29.

Walton spent four seasons at Arizona from 1999-2003, playing for legendary coach Lute Olson. He earned First-Team All-Pac 10 honors two times.

Several other Arizona alumni have been mentioned as possible replacements for Miller, Anderson adds, including Lakers assistant coach Miles Simon, who has been with the team since 2017. Other rumored names include former NBA player and current Pacific head coach Damon Stoudamire and Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner.

California Notes: Poole, Kostas, Smailagić, Walton

As the Warriors strive to make a return to the playoffs, they owe it to themselves to give young reserve guard Jordan Poole more minutes, Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area opines. Poole can provide some ball-handling for the second unit, a skill that is not a strength for his fellow backup guard Brad Wanamaker. With a 19-18 record, the Warriors are currently the No. 10 seed in the crowded Western Conference, which would qualify them for the play-in portion of the 2021 playoffs.

After Jordan Poole outperformed expectations playing for the Santa Cruz Warriors in the G League Orlando “bubble,” Monte Poole believes the time has come for him to get extended run spotting Stephen Curry in the second and fourth quarters during the All-Star point guard’s allocated rest breaks. Poole averaged 22.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, and 3.5 APG across 11 games (all starts) with Santa Cruz.

There’s more out of California:

  • Lakers reserve forward Kostas Antetokounmpo, who signed his second two-way contract with Los Angeles during the offseason, has entered the league’s COVID-19 protocols, Dave McMenamin of ESPN tweets. Center Marc Gasol remains away from the team in coronavirus protocols as well.
  • Warriors forward Alen Smailagić has been recalled from Golden State’s G League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors, the team announced in a press release. Smailagić averaged 7.5 PPG and 4.4 RPG in 10 games for Santa Cruz.
  • While Kings head coach Luke Walton‘s job remains safe entering the second half of the 2020/21 season, Sacramento’s roster may undergo some changes with the March 25 deadline fast approaching, according to Jason Anderson of the Sacramento Bee.

Luke Walton’s Job Appears Safe; Finances Play Role

Kings coach Luke Walton has been on the short list of NBA coaches with tenuous job status for awhile but he’s likely to retain his position at least through the end of this season, Sam Amick and Jason Jones of The Athletic report.

There are a variety of reasons why Walton is expected to hold onto his job, barring a complete second-half collapse. Finances come into play, as Walton is owed a combined $11.5MM in the next two seasons of his four-year guaranteed deal. The franchise has lost approximately $100MM due to the pandemic and there was even an ownership cash call in May, per Amick and Jones.

The Kings have a history of paying multiple coaches at the same time due to early firings, and minority owners are reluctant to go in that direction again.

Minority owners were asked to come up with funds to ensure the organization was still on track financially in accordance with five-year projection plans. Several of them were unable to do so, and owner Vivek Ranadive had to bridge the financial gap.

Walton has also dutifully carried out the plan set forth during the offseason by new GM Monte McNair.

McNair viewed this season as a “gap year,” with his long-term vision requiring two-to-four years to set in. Franchise player De’Aaron Fox has continued to support Walton publicly and privately and the front office is also impressed how rookie Tyrese Haliburton has blended with Fox. The progress shown by Marvin Bagley II in a starting role has also worked in Walton’s favor.

Here’s more tidbits from The Athletic’s story:

  • Nemanja Bjelica chose not to play for over a month because he was furious that Bagley had been handed his minutes. Glenn Robinson III was also upset with losing his rotation role before he was released.
  • Bjelica and Cory Joseph are the two players most likely to be dealt before the trade deadline. Hassan Whiteside has also been monitored by teams seeking a backup center.
  • Despite the improvements he’s shown, Bagley has drawn little interest on the trade market.

Kings’ Luke Walton Believes Job Is Safe

Two NBA head coaches – Ryan Saunders and Lloyd Pierce – have been let go since the 2020/21 season began, and there has been speculation that Kings head coach Luke Walton could be next, given his team’s recent struggles. After getting off to a 12-11 start, Sacramento has lost 10 of 12 and has slipped into a tie for 12th in the West.

Despite rumors that he might be on the hot seat, Walton believes his job is safe for the time being, sources with knowledge of the situation tell Jason Anderson of The Sacramento Bee.

Following a win over the LeBron James-less Lakers on Wednesday night, Walton spoke positively about his vision for the Kings’ future, telling reporters that “it’s exciting to see where this thing can go” if the team keeps building its culture and developing its young players. And while he didn’t say whether or not he has received any assurances from general manager Monte McNair, Walton feels he has the support of management, as Anderson relays.

“As far as pressure from the front office, no,” Walton said, when asked if he’s feeling mounting pressure to win games. “I feel very connected with them and very locked in as far as where we’re at and where we’re trying to go as a group, and they’ve been very supportive.”

As Anderson points out, firing Walton would be a costly move for a franchise that has felt the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The Kings’ head coach still has two guaranteed years on his contract beyond 2020/21, so a change would mean paying two coaches for multiple seasons.

Additionally, while the recent slump has hurt Sacramento’s playoff chances, it’s worth noting that expectations for the team entering the season weren’t exactly sky-high — oddsmakers projected an over/under of 29.5 wins, and the Kings aren’t far off that pace, so it’s hard to argue the club is significantly underachieving.

While he claims he’s not feeling any additional pressure from the front office, Walton did say he feels pressure to win for his players, according to Anderson. And comments from certain Kings players suggest they’re also feeling some urgency to get back into the playoff hunt, recognizing that changes could be coming in the event of another finish near the bottom of the standings.

“Our backs are against the wall,” Buddy Hield said after Wednesday’s win. “At some point, you have to take this thing seriously. You know that people’s jobs are on the line. Everybody’s fighting for something.”