EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The windows down, music up, Oakland whizzing by as the late-night freeway offers open lanes to cruise on a postgame high that few could ever imagine. "Oh, man," Luke Walton recalls of a yesterday that seems like forever ago. Those were good times, better than good, those jaunts out of Oracle Arena, where Walton watched the Golden State Warriors forge history from the front row. One championship run in his first season as an assistant coach, followed by an NBA-record 73-win regular season that ended 48 minutes shy of a repeat title, plus all the blowouts and once-in-a-lifetime highlights: Klay Thompson's record 37-point quarter, Stephen Curry's moonshot 3s and back-to-back MVPs.
"It was spectacular," says Walton, who as interim head coach led the team to a record 24-0 start before handing the reins back to Steve Kerr with a 39-4 mark. And it was easy to be swept up in the spectacle, to become a fan, so once a game, he had to remind himself that he needed to find flaws, areas to improve, even if the team so often played near-perfect basketball.
Not even a year later, and clocking out couldn't be more different for Walton. The music is muted, the windows up, the high turned low. From Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles to his doorstep in Manhattan Beach, the Los Angeles Lakers' rookie head coach tries to shake anger and frustration stewing after blowout losses -- "trying to get my mind right," he calls this process -- by listening to podcasts, which the 36-year-old says he had never listened to before. But then early this season, Walton chatted up Dr. Mike Gervais, a performance psychologist whom Walton has known for years. Specifically, Walton sought new ideas, viewpoints, anything that might be useful. Gervais mentioned his podcast, "Finding Mastery," and an episode in which he interviewed Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, whom Walton admires. Walton dug that first episode, then kept going. "I love it," Walton says today. "I don't even mind getting in the car anymore. Sitting in traffic for the first time in my life doesn't bother me, if it's a good one."
It's almost an annual tradition -- assistant coaches from contending teams being hired away to lead the league's bottom feeders, where management hopes the success will carry over in time. The shift from nightly success to nightly failure is part of the job, but it's never easy. Just ask Brett Brown, who left the San Antonio Spurs -- where as an assistant coach he was part of five Finals trips and four titles -- to coach the Philadelphia 76ers, who have finished with or near the NBA's worst record since he took over in 2013. "You always went back to, what sword are you prepared to fall on?" Brown said recently. "And you live by your values and your standards and truly try to grow a program. You're always reminded that it's not yours. You're sort of a gatekeeper for somebody else's business and the city's basketball team. I think when you sort of think like that, and as much as you can act like that, then life seems a little bit cleaner for me."
Then again, Walton's transition is about as extreme as it gets: leaving one of the NBA's greatest-ever teams to coach for a franchise mired in its worst four-year stretch, one that currently owns the league's second-worst mark. The Lakers have six losses by 35 or more points this season, the most such losses by a team in NBA history, according to Justin Kubatko at statmuse.com. And the difference is felt far beyond Walton's drives to and from the office. "Really, it shifts your entire life," he says, looking back as another dreadful Lakers season nears its merciful expiration (April 12), "because your daily routine is so much different from the stress and the grind and the everything. I do my best to stay in the right frame of mind."
He adds, "There's a lot of sleepless nights."
He knew he'd be signing up for a deluge of pain, but Walton is keeping this in perspective.
"The core of the job is awesome," he says. "I get to get in my car every day and I love coming to work -- and not many people get to do that. Coming into the building is exciting, every day, no matter how many we've lost or won. Again, the outliers make life frustrating at times and you can't sleep at night and you don't have an appetite, but that's short lived. Everything else in life is awesome still."
But there are times when frustration goes deeper than he anticipated. Walton recalls Dec. 14, when the Lakers lost to the Nets in Brooklyn, falling for the eighth game in a row. "And I had all the tricks I had in the bag as far as different ways to get the team out of a funk," Walton says. "I had tried all of them. And we just kept losing and losing." He stared at the ceiling of his New York hotel room, telling himself, "This is crazy, you know what we've got to do. Let's keep [at it]. And still, it took a while to even be aware of it to get myself out of that low." He adds, "I know this is what I signed up for, but I was dark."
He also looks at a Nov. 23 loss in Golden State, where the Lakers fell, 149-106, while the Warriors dished out a franchise-record 47 assists on 53 field goals. When Walton was a Warriors assistant, he never really felt sorry for any opponents who were crushed by the onslaught of talent, the barrage of 3-pointers and Curry Flurries, but that night, he finally realized what it felt like. "It sucks," Walton says. "It sucks for all these other teams. From the other side, I didn't think about it. I was enjoying what we were doing. And then when they're just making 3 after 3 after 3 and you're sitting there on the other bench and the crowd is going nuts, you definitely have that realization, like, damn. This is what it feels like."
No matter how he felt that night, or how restless or aggravated he might be, Walton believes that when he wakes up in the morning, grabs his coffee and heads to the gym, he has to be ready, energetic -- but most of all, real. That advice harks back to what he learned as a player and what Spurs coach Gregg Popovich taught Kerr, who in turn passed it down to Walton: "Take this job and just be yourself because players see through everything." Says Walton, sitting in the Lakers' practice facility: "It's true. So if I come in here and I just try to fake this energy or do this fake whatever coaching, they're not going to buy that. So I can't afford to carry over the losses or whatever else with me, because all that's going to do is take away from the present and take away from what we're trying to get done that day."
Lakers players say Walton has stayed on an even keel throughout a brutal campaign.
"It's been Luke every day," says veteran swingman Metta World Peace. "It's just been him. And that's hard to do. He has a hard job, but he's making it look real easy."
Says veteran forward Luol Deng, "He's human. He has times where you can tell he's frustrated. There's times when he's extra happy or extra proud of the guys. But, for the most part, he's maintained."
While the Warriors were a well-oiled machine, the Lakers need a from-the-ground-up overhaul, so Walton keeps a long to-do list and re-evaluates constantly, starting with the details.
"OK, is what we're doing the best way to approach this right now -- or should we go back three steps and go back to the basics of the chop-step close-out?" Walton wonders.
"Do we have this down well enough now that we can move on to the next part of our defensive schemes -- whether that's keeping the pick-and-roll down and turning that into a switch against the shooter?
"Or, even though we're getting killed on that, do we still need more reps at just keeping it down and not letting the pick-and-roll get to the middle, even though we know we're going to give them shots?"
For the big picture, the long term, Walton believes the Lakers must nail such fundamentals to lay the foundation for whatever future they hope to form. Such a tedious task, especially one involving a core of players so young, is demanding, but so goes rebuilding. "It's way more intense as far as these day-to-day decisions that need to be made, as far as what's best for this moment and what's best for us in the future as far as where we're trying to go," he says. "That's kind of a learning-on-the-go type of thing. If one assistant has an opinion this way, another assistant has another opinion another way with it, it's trial-and-error with it."
He has sought counsel from Kerr, the Warriors' head coach, whom Walton says "helps with the spirit." He has reached out to Phil Jackson, the New York Knicks' president and Walton's former Lakers head coach, whom Walton has asked how to implement ideas and manipulate practices. Walton also talks to Warriors players, such as Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, asking their advice on his young players and what techniques might work best for teaching.
It might seem almost surreal to make such a drastic leap from the NBA's mountaintop to base camp, and Walton admits as much, but he considers that to be an outside view.
"The job itself is still the same," he says. "It's rewarding. It's exciting. Now we're competing for different things there and here, but the competition level is right there from the daily practices to the games. We only lost nine games last year, and I remember being sick after every one of them. It's crazy. The feeling, that's always there. What I'm trying to say is the core of this year and last year are the same, at least for me.
"I absolutely loved the job and the opportunity of coming in and trying to figure things out as a group and motivate and this and that. Now all the little outliers are completely different. It's feeling pretty incredible every night driving home as opposed to the thousand different things that are going off in my head in terms of what we need to do, this and that."
But when asked how, quite simply, he's holding up, Walton smiles.
He rises from a chair and tries to allay any concern. New Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka has called Walton a "championship coach." Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson recently said, "I love Luke. I think he's getting the most out of the guys. He also has an offense that is putting them in a winning situation." And Walton is in Year 1 of a five-year deal -- four years of which are guaranteed -- at an annual salary believed to be between $5 million and $6 million, depending on incentives, ESPN's Marc Stein has reported. Life is good.
"I'm going to be just fine," Walton says, "and we're going to be just fine as a team. It's just part of the way it works, right? It's part of the grind."