When his career is over, Luke Walton has a pretty decent idea what he is going to do in his next life. But the way his back is feeling these days, he believes he can shelve all the thoughts of retirement for a while.
Walton’s back feels so good, he thinks he can play in the NBA another couple of seasons. And to the surprise of both Walton and the Cavs, this relationship could extend beyond this season.
Walton was a money dump when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him to the Cavs at the deadline last season. The Lakers were thrilled to get out from under the $6 million owed him for this season, and most expected he would sit on the end of the Cavs bench and collect a check before drifting off into retirement. Even Walton thought that’s how it might go.
“With the amount of back pain I’ve had the previous four or five years, I was going to give it everything I had this year, and if my back acted up, I was going to retire,” Walton said. “Now that my back has been feeling much better, I’m enjoying this.”
Walton conceded this unlikely pairing of a West Coast guy and a blustery Midwestern town has worked out better than he ever expected. His back and his fit with the Cavs have surprised him.
“Shocked the hell out of me, too,” Cavs coach Byron Scott said.
There were rumors during training camp the Cavs could buy out the final year on Walton’s deal and send him on his way. But Scott liked what he saw in camp, liked the way Walton was moving and surprised everyone when Walton debuted with the Cavs’ second unit on opening night. He has remained there much of the season.
Walton has never been much of a scorer, but his vision and passing ability are remarkable. He had a career-high 12 assists in a loss to the New York Knicks, including nine in the first half, and is averaging 5.8 assists in the Cavs’ past five games. He routinely hits guys on the run, makes passes between his legs and behind his back.
“I think he’s the best passing forward in the league,” Scott said, even comparing Walton’s passing ability with Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. “Luke is not on that level, but he’s probably the closest thing I’ve ever played with … probably closest to Magic. But he’s still a ways away.”
Scott loves putting the ball in Walton’s hands when the second unit is on the floor. That will only increase now that Shaun Livingston has joined the starters to replace the injured Kyrie Irving, leaving Walton as the lone distributor with the reserves.
The Cavs have even incorporated some plays from the Triangle offense into the playbook strictly for the reserves to take advantage of Walton’s passing ability and familiarity with the offense he spent most of his career running.
“If you’re a wing and you’re playing with Luke, you better be cutting hard to the basket,” said C.J. Miles, who has taken to calling Walton “Basketball Jesus” for his passing ability. “He’ll find you. He will find you. Even if you don’t think you’re open, he’ll get it to you.”
Walton is a basketball junkie. He returns home after games and catches the television replay. He watches the West Coast games, often trying to watch his old Lakers teammates.
Walton would like to coach when his career is over. He has participated in coaching internships offered by the league and during the lockout two summers ago, he worked with the University of Memphis basketball program. The Tigers are coached by Walton’s old college teammate Josh Pastner, who invited Walton to temporarily join the team.
The experience quickly taught Walton he is not meant to coach in college.
“The NCAA makes it really challenging. There’s time limits you can work out with players and you’ve got to baby-sit,” Walton said. “I like basketball. I don’t want to go class check and make sure guys are going to class. I want to be 100 percent basketball. I think the NBA is what I’d try, and if that didn’t work, high school could be fun back home.”
To the surprise of most everyone, he doesn’t have to worry about that right now. He has more games to play — maybe even with the Cavs. He would have to take a veteran’s minimum contract to return here, something he understands and is even receptive to doing.
“I’ve made my money,” he said.
Scott believes there is a place on this roster for Walton next season — albeit in a reduced role given that two more first-round picks will be added to this team over the summer. For now, Walton is receptive to the idea.
“I’m enjoying this,” he said. “I think this core group of people here and this coaching staff are doing some really good things and it’s a lot of fun to be a part of. I haven’t really gotten that far into it yet, but I’m still focusing on trying to stay healthy and having fun playing this game and helping this team become better. But I love playing with these guys.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.