Walton returns to LA to face Lakers
DENVER -- Luke Walton will return to Los Angeles with championship memories. But he'll be running into a team that is in shambles.
Walton, who won two titles while appearing in four Finals with the Lakers, will make his first Staples Center appearance Sunday night against his old team since he was traded last March to Cleveland.
The forward might have a hard time recognizing this outfit, which fell to 15-21 with a 116-101 home loss Friday to Oklahoma City.
"I'm probably as shocked as anybody else," Walton said about the state of the Lakers in an interview with FOXSports.com before Cleveland's 98-91 loss to Denver on Friday at the Pepsi Center. "They have had a lot of injuries but even in rebuilding years out there, we were still fighting to make the playoffs and doing that. I keep saying they're going to figure it out, but it's getting later and later in the season. They got to turn it up pretty soon, especially if they want to make the playoffs in the Western Conference."
Walton played with the Lakers from 2003-12. He advanced to the Finals with them in 2004, 2008, 2009 and 2010, winning the final two times.
"I would hope so," Walton said when asked if he'll get a good reception in his return. "We had a good partnership for 8 ½ years."
It ended when Walton went to the Cavaliers in a deal that landed the Lakers since-departed point guard Ramon Sessions. It's not out of the question Sunday could mark the final game Walton, 32, plays in Los Angeles.
Walton, averaging 2.7 points over 14 minutes a game, is making $6 million in the final year of his conract. He said his often-ailing back feels better, but didn't rule out retiring after this season if the pain resurfaces.
"If my back feels good, I want to keep playing," said Walton, who scored a season-high eight points Friday. "If my back goes out again, I'll have to re-evaluate it at the end of the season and contemplate calling it a career. But right now the back is feeling good, so I'm just kind of enjoying playing again (and) being able to play basketball without pain for the first time in a long time."
Walton said he loves playing in Cleveland, although it remains to be seen if the rebuilding Cavaliers would want to re-sign him. For now, though, Walton will be returning to a city where at times he played a key role for the Lakers.
Walton averaged as many as 11.4 points in 2006-07 under Phil Jackson, the coach for most of his Lakers tenure, including all his Finals appearances. Like many, Walton figured Jackson would return to the Lakers after they fired Mike Brown last November.
"I was surprised by that, too," Walton said of Mike D'Antoni instead being hired. "The people I had talked to out there said it looked like it was going to be a done deal (with Jackson) I woke up the next day and saw the headlines that they hired D'Antoni. But it's never dead in L.A. It's always something."
So would the legendary Jackson so far have led the Lakers to a better record than the 10-16 D'Antoni has put up?
"With that team, I think Phil's tempo-controlled type of offense would be more beneficial," said Walton, who didn't play when the Cavaliers beat the Lakers 100-94 at home Dec. 11 and also didn't play when they were at the Staples Center for a 108-101 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5. "But I think D'Antoni's a great coach. That's one of those things there's no way of knowing. The grass is always greener but you never know."
The Lakers have been saddled with injuries. Multiple-time All-Stars Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash all have missed time.
If the Lakers can get healthy, Walton believes they still can make an impact. But they're running out of time.
"I think they still can (get it together)," Walton said. "At the beginning of the season, I thought it would be a virtual guarantee they would be in the hunt at least. I don't believe it wholeheartedly like I did earlier in the year. But I still believe they can get it done."
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @christomasson