The Sacramento Kings continue to climb up the Western Conference standings, tied with the Boston Celtics for longest active winning streak in the league at 6 games. Sure, it’s early in the season, but it’s just great to see this team playing competitive, exciting basketball. You don’t have to go back far in time to see a much different Kings team. So, I thought it would be a nice cathartic exercise to celebrate the 2-year anniversary of one of the worst and best moments in recent Sacramento Kings history: the last game under Head Coach Luke Walton, otherwise known as “Puke Walton.”
Puke Walton’s Mess
By November 20, 2021, most Kings fans were already sick of Luke Walton. He had been with the team for over 2 seasons and was sitting on a 6-10 season record on top of a 68-93 overall record. That night’s loss would be the 7th straight loss of the season.
It’s hard to put the blame solely on Luke Walton‘s shoulders. He inherited a franchise carrying a historically long playoff drought around its neck. And they didn’t exactly have an all-star caliber roster. But, as we’ll get into shortly, there was plenty to be unhappy about beyond the losing record. And if Luke wasn’t already worthy of the Puke Walton moniker by that time, he was about to solidly inherit it once and for all due to a poetic twist of fate.
Someone Get a Mop
“The Kings are so bad they made a drunk courtside fan puke during a game.” That was the headline for an SB Nation article published on November 22, 2021. And yeah, that really happened. In Coach Luke Walton’s last game in Kings’ gear.
The image of a fan puking just a few feet away from where Luke was standing was a fittingly ignominious way to cap off his tenure with the Kings. But it was made even more so by the fact that the game was stopped to clean up the mess. This was, after all, the 2021-2022 NBA season. Fans were in the building, but extra precautions were still being taken to limit the spread of COVID-19. And while the cleaning crew did their thing, we got an extra moment to feel the full weight of that rock-bottomy moment.
And that was the beginning and the end of Puke Walton.
As I said, the Kings’ poor record wasn’t the only reason fans felt so frustrated with Luke Walton. I can’t speak to his coaching acumen from an Xs and Os perspective. But I can share just a few reasons for why we all identified so much with that queasy courtside fan.
“I Have to Look at the Tapes”
This was Luke’s answer to literally every question in post-game interviews. Actually, that’s not fair. He had a few other responses as well. Like “I don’t know.” And “uhhhhhhhhhhhh.” I’m only exaggerating a little bit.
Seriously, I can think of very few coaches across any major sport who consistently gave such head-scratchingly disinterested answers to basic, legitimate interview questions. You couldn’t even really be mad at the guy. There was such a sincerity to the aloofness that it truly sounded like the most honest answer he could muster.
Of course the guy couldn’t give any real answers to questions. He seemed just as disinterested while the games were transpiring. It was rare to see him get up out of his seat, much less bark anything useful to his players. Looking into his eyes was like looking into the eyes of a goldfish. Complete blankness. Silly me for believing he would have any insight into a game that he just coached.
However, there was one instance in which he showed himself to be an active coach: his decision to repeatedly bench Buddy Hield. Now, I have no delusions of grandeur about Buddy Hield. He is most decidedly not the next Steph Curry, as Kings’ owner Vivek Ranadive once prophesied. But he was the closest thing we had to an exciting player besides De’Aaron Fox. He was one of the few remaining reasons to actually watch a Kings game.
Luke’s rationale for keeping him out of games was usually some version of, “I need Buddy to do more things than just shoot 3s.” But dammit Luke, Buddy doesn’t do more things! He just doesn’t. That’s who he is. He’s a 40% 3-point shooter who’s made more 3s since 2017-2018 than anyone in the league, including Stephen Curry. On a team as bad as the Kings were at that point, what more could you ask for?
“Luke, You’re an Idiot!”
The most frustrating instance of this happened on March 8, 2020. It was a game that actually did matter, as the Kings were still trying to claw their way into a playoff spot. They were down 3 against the Toronto Raptors with less than 14 seconds left on the clock. Hmmm, if only they had a player who was really good at scoring exactly 3 points…
But nope, Luke left him out of the game, much to the dismay of another courtside fan whose protests were clearly audible during the game’s broadcast: “Luke, you’re an idiot! You have the 3-point champion! Play him! Where is Buddy?!” That’s right, Luke Walton decided to sit the guy who won the 3-point contest at that season’s All-Star Game. The team, of course, lost that game and Kings fans everywhere had to softly cry themselves to sleep. Meanwhile, Luke was stuck on static in the media room with nothing to say but, “Uhhhhhhhhhhh….”
A Brief Moment of Glory
Repeatedly benching Buddy was clearly the most egregious “not knowing your personnel” aspect of Luke’s coaching tenure with the Kings. But there was one other, admittedly minor, instance of this that still really bothers me when I look back on it.
It was actually one of the brightest moments for the Kings during the Luke Walton years: March 27, 2021. The Kings defied all odds, winning the game from their own baseline with 1.6 seconds left and no timeouts. How did they do it? De’Aaron Fox launched a truly epic nearly full-court lob to Harrison Barnes, who hit the game-winning buzzer-beating corner 3.
It seems like this would have been a win for Luke, right? He drew up one final play that gave the team one of the most unlikely wins imaginable. And while that might be true, something De’Aaron had to say in the post-game interview made me once again question Luke Walton’s leadership.
“Does Anyone Know how to do a Baseball Pass?”
[Forgive me for not being able to dig up the link to a post-game interview following a relatively meaningless Kings game from 2 and a half years ago. You’ll have to take my word on this.]
One reporter asked Fox the question that was on everyone’s mind? Was that a set play and whose idea was it? Fox’s answer? “Well, Luke asked if any of us knew how to do a baseball pass [a one-handed full court heave] and I said I could do it.”
Maybe I’m being unreasonable here. Maybe my bias against Luke made me blow this out of proportion. But why did he even have to ask that question? Isn’t that something you should already know as a coach? Isn’t that a late game scenario that should have come up at least one time prior in a game or a practice or something? I get that it’s not the most common late game scenario, but it is one that teams should expect to face at least once a season. And for a team like the 2021-22 Kings, being prepared for situations like that which can steal you a game or two is really important.
Yes, it was Luke’s call. It worked out. And it won them the game. But it really makes me wonder what other kinds of things he never bothered to learn about his players. Luckily, I don’t have to worry about such things any longer.
Good riddance, Puke Walton.