NBA 2017-03-20 10:17 AM

Wellbet, ENGLISH. — 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.

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“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.”

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