LOS ANGELES – Dave Joerger was wrapping up a pregame briefing with reporters Tuesday when the inevitable question was hurled in his direction: What did you think of the whole Luke Walton-LaVar Ball situation? The Sacramento Kings coach, who has no ties to Walton, no connection to Ball, and was being asked mostly for the opportunity to join the chorus of coaches who have blasted Ball for recent criticism of Walton, shook his head.
“I will answer any question about tonight’s game,” Joerger said, before ending the interview and ducking away.
There’s an element of absurdity to all this, isn’t there? A loudmouth parent craving attention opens his mouth once again and gets it. NBA coaches are lashing out at ESPN for publishing Ball’s comments. What? Say what you want about Ball — and it says here he is a good father who gets the complexities of building an NBA team as well as a first-year med student understands neurosurgery — but his tattooing of Walton is news. Not if it’s coming from LaVar, but if he is channeling sentiments from Lonzo Ball, whose half-hearted support of Walton — “I’ll play for anybody,” Lonzo said this week — only fuels that belief.
Another narrative has emerged this week, a terrifying one for Los Angeles Lakers fans everywhere: L.A. should cut ties with Lonzo Ball.
So what does “cut ties” mean, exactly? A trade? To where? To whom? Ball has significant value — he’s a potential franchise point guard in the first year of his rookie deal. But the Lakers just spent the No. 2 pick in the draft on Ball. He makes $6.3 million this season and $11 million in 2020-21. L.A. can’t hope to get equal value back.
Cut him? That’s even more foolish. Remove LaVar from the equation, take the target he put on Lonzo off his back and what do you have? A rookie point guard having a pretty good season. Ball’s field-goal percentage (34.9 percent) is lousy, but he’s crept near 30 percent from 3-point range as he has improved from beyond the arc over the last two months. For all the hand-wringing about Ball overhauling his jump shot, if his percentage continues to creep up, he won’t need to.
You don’t cut players like that. You build around them. Point guard is the NBA’s most indispensable position. You either have one, or you spend years combing the draft looking for one. And when you have a playmaker with the talents of Ball, you expend every resource developing him.
“If a [rookie point guard] walks into a great situation with a lot of experienced guys who are really talented, [they] can put their arms around you and groom you into playing with them,” said Joerger, who is charged with developing De’Aaron Fox, the fifth overall pick in the 2017 draft. “If you’re with a younger group, where a lot of guys are young at the same time, it can be more difficult. You can make mistakes on plays you aren’t quite ready to make just yet. You can play outside of where your role and skills are at the time. [In Memphis] we had Mike [Conley], Rudy [Gay], Marc [Gasol] and O.J. [Mayo]. We had all those young guys together at one time. It takes time. But if you don’t give minutes away, if you go out and compete every night and guys learn how to play that way, there is real value to that.”
The challenge Walton faces is developing Ball on a team of mercenaries. Think about it: How many players think they actually have equity in the Lakers? Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson are on the trade block, and they know it. Brook Lopez was acquired for the salary-cap flexibility he creates this summer, not for what he contributes this season. Luol Deng is around until the Lakers decide to release him and stretch out the rest of his contract. Corey Brewer is in the last year of his deal. The threat of turnover creates a challenging environment.
Dealing with LaVar? That’s Lakers president Magic Johnson’s problem. There are no indications that LaVar’s comments have caused any rifts in the locker room, and perhaps they never will. “Quite honestly this should be a non-issue,” former NBA guard Greg Anthony told Yahoo Sports. “I’ve dealt with parents, friends and significant others over the course of my career. The reach that LaVar Ball has creates a little bit of a different dynamic, but for the most part it’s the same stuff. It’s more about who Lonzo Ball is. And from all accounts he is a terrific kid and an incredible teammate. That’s the most important thing.”
Still, Johnson needs to be proactive. Publicly he can ignore Ball — neither Johnson nor GM Rob Pelinka has commented on LaVar’s latest outburst — but privately he needs to address it. He dangled a carrot in front of LaVar early in the season, meeting with him, massaging his ego. Now he needs to break out the stick. Player development is paramount for the Lakers this season, and L.A. can’t have LaVar planting seeds of doubt in the locker room that Walton isn’t up to the task.
Lonzo Ball has brought more baggage than the Lakers hoped, but that doesn’t mean he’s not worth it. On Tuesday in the Lakers’ 99-86 win over the Kings, Ball scored five points, missed eight of his 10 shots, bricked six of his seven threes … and Walton showered him with praise for his playmaking (11 assists against one turnover) and rebounding (11). There’s a special player in Lonzo — you just have to peer through the LaVar haze to see it.
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