January 20, 2018

1.) Even those optimistic about Lonzo Ball’s talent had reason to wonder if the extra baggage (i.e., his father) he brought would be worth dealing with. Are LaVar Ball’s recent comments damaging and how should the Lakers handle this as an organization? 

Brandon Jefferson: I don’t know if I’m ready to call LaVar Ball’s recent comments damaging, but they are easily the worst since Lonzo has been a member of the team.

Lonzo was still able to speak his way around any true controversy. When asked to comment on his dad’s assessment of Walton, Ball said he would “play for anybody.” It’s not exactly a glowing review of Walton, but it also isn’t a confirmation of LaVar’s words.

As an organization, I don’t think the Lakers should sweat this too much. To his credit, Walton’s one-liner about LaVar when questioned about an early substitution of Lonzo was the greatest comeback anyone has ever aimed at LaVar. But, the team should have known that this was coming from the patriarch of the Ball family. He must maintain his persona while he attempts to get his other sons (LiAngelo and LaMelo) onto the Lakers by 2020 as he’s asserted. Any press is good press for LaVar and sometimes that means running his mouth unnecessarily. However, the entire organization is behind Luke and as long as Lonzo remains on board, the opinion of his father should have little impact on how the team operates on a day-to-day basis.

Eli Horowitz: The best-case scenario is Lavar Ball’s comments are merely a distraction to the Lakers players, coaches and front office. Rather than spending all their energy on coaching up young players and gearing up for the trade deadline, the organization has to use valuable time and resources addressing Lavar’s comments.

At worst, the comments could have an ounce of truth, and impressionable players could begin to lose faith in the coaching staff, if they haven’t already. Unfortunately, Lonzo Ball is thrust in the middle of it all, having to respond to the media in what is a lose, lose situation for him.

Lavar Ball will continue to provide commentary and the media, especially ESPN, will continue to give him free air time because it gets them clicks and views. The Lakers would be wise to come up with a party line for all news pertaining to Lavar Ball. Maybe it’s simply “no comment.”

If Lonzo becomes a superstar, dealing with Lavar Ball will be worth it. But until the Lakers are winning, which won’t be for at least another year, Lavar’s antics could drive a wedge between the players and coaches, so the organization needs a strategy to make sure that doesn’t happen.

James Holas: When talking LaVar Ball and the Lakers, I think about the parable about The Scorpion & The Frog: sure, LaVar promised to back off and let the Lakers handle Lonzo’s development, but he’s been meddling in his boys’ relationships with their coaches for years and biting his tongue just isn’t what the senior Ball does.

As far as actual damage? On a scale of 1 to 10, maybe 1 or 2….in the big scheme of things, the verbal spouting of a player’s dad isn’t franchise changing. I can imagine it makes for some discomfort in the locker room, and when combined with Lonzo’s tepid non-answer answer to reporters’ grilling him regarding coach Luke Walton, things don’t seem great.

And I’m not sure exactly what recourse the Lakers have. They can’t fine LaVar, and banning him from the arena does nothing when he’s in Lithuania.

To Walton’s credit, he’s handling the weirdness as well as can be expected; his A+ joke regarding Lonzo’s earlier than usual substitution (“his dad was talking sh*t so I took him out early”) went a long way to diffusing the awkwardness.

I have no clue how this plays out. LaVar’s antics have overshadowed that Zo has looked much better over the last seven or eight games, and any thought of LaVar Ball “fading into the background” is a pipe dream; the man is a masterful promoter and the circus of his other two sons playing in Lithuania is just getting cranked up.

Jesus Gomez: Lavar’s comments are clearly damaging, at least in the short term. The Lakers were already going through what will likely be the worst part of their season, following a nine-game losing streak.

Now they are also having to deal with a completely avoidable controversy. I believe Luke Walton doesn’t hold what Lavar does against Lonzo, but he can’t be happy about this distraction.

Kyle Kuzma addressed the comments, so they obviously were discussed in the locker room. Suddenly, the fact Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson have not backed Walton is a thing. It’s unnecessary drama, which no team wants. Long term, however, this might prove to be a positive turning point. It became such a big story, with Rick Carlisle and Steve Kerr chiming in, that it will force the Lakers to realize that they must figure out how to deal with Lavar going forward. He will continue to talk. The organization needs to decide how it’s going to respond.

2.) Putting aside the messenger, how would you rate Luke Walton’s time as the Lakers’ head coach? What has he done well and what might you like to see him change? 

Eli Horowitz: So far, Walton’s performance deserves a “C”. Because of his success with the Golden State Warriors, the perception was Walton was a slam-dunk hire. But he’s made mistakes as a young head coach, especially in late game situations. Whether it’s calling timeouts when he should let his team go against a scrambling defense, playing the wrong lineups, or allowing his players to run unstructured offense at pivotal moments of the game, he’s left a lot to be desired at times.

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But overall, the Lakers seem to play hard, and young players appear to be developing, albeit slowly. Walton should be able to clean up the game management as he gains experience. His demeanor and overall coaching style seem to be positive, and if he can bring in some veteran assistants to help with the X’s and O’s, Walton could grow into a good coach.

If the team misses in free agency Walton has shown enough, especially with Ingram’s development, to lead the rebuild. But if the Lakers sign LeBron James and Paul George, Walton will need to be better to avoid the hot seat.

James Holas:  I’m not a heavy Xs and Os guy. The Lakers came out playing hard and fast, but the grind of losing (and maybe, just maybe, the friction caused by a certain players’ pops) seems to have sapped the energy of these young whippersnappers.

I’ve seen plenty of complaining about Laker rotations, and I’ll leave that to more knowledgeable analysts, but on a fledgling team with so much to learn, it shouldn’t be an issue that Walton is constantly rejiggering lineups and playing with combinations. I have noticed that Zo’s recent stretch of improved play coincides with Walton moving Ball off-ball more. And judging from the Lakers jubilant reaction after blowing out the Hawks and rookie stud Kyle Kuzma (the Lakers best rookie) glowing endorsement of Walton (“I love playing for him. I’m sure most of us love playing for him too”), talk of him losing he locker room seems overblown.

Simply put, it’s tough to judge Walton on his job so far with the Lakers when the Lakers 1) are so young 2) are not very talented 3) don’t have shooters 4) have put him in a stupid spot by making it known so many guys are expendable/will be casualties of next summer’s free agent chase.

Jesus Gomez: Walton is certainly not above criticism. He’s struggled establishing an offensive identity. Some of his lineup choices are questionable. He has relied too heavily on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope this season, just like he did with Lou Williams and Nick Young the year before.

For whatever reason, it looks like he’s not really reached the young players. Walton has not been perfect. Yet he has been good enough to not be in danger of losing his job. He had the Lakers playing surprisingly good defense early on. Brandon Ingram has showed tremendous growth under him and Jordan Clarkson has found his niche as sixth man. There has been a lot of good to go with the bad. He deserves to continue to lead the rebuilding effort. If the Lakers land a couple of quality free agents next summer, however, the heat will be on.

3.) With some time to evaluate this young core now, how would you prioritize these players? Who is the most important prospect, which players are long term cornerstones and who is just a role player? 

I’d grade Walton’s year-and-a-half at the helm of the Los Angeles Lakers as an Incomplete. He was pried away from the Golden State Warriors in an attempt to sprinkle some of the “lightyears ahead” pixie dust onto a Lakers franchise that hit rock bottom. However, in less than two years, the Lakers have had four different franchise players. First it was D’Angelo Russell, then it was Brandon Ingram, next was Lonzo, and now it’s Kyle Kuzma who’s taken the torch. Walton gets an incomplete from me because it seems as if the franchise has yet to settle on a vision

Brandon Jefferson: I’d grade it as an incomplete because the Lakers have yet to settle on a vision.

We’ve seen development rushed before—oftentimes, to disastrous results—but Walton has shown patience giving his young core the opportunity to grow, fail, and learn as they try to acclimate to NBA.

The hope is he will be around to see this approach pay off, but he has not tiptoed around the point with the younger talent. They have been thrown to the wolves and while that means a lot of losses pile up, sometimes it’s the best way to see if there’s potential there.

Are the Lakers going full rebuild with Ingram, Ball and Kuzma? Are they hoping the young talent will allow them to land an elite free agent or two this summer? I think the Lakers won’t be settled on what they want to be until 2019. Walton is young enough to grow with them in that time and I believe his age was one of the contributing factors in his hiring.

Eli Horowitz: Although many in the NBA Twittersphere were ready to throw in the towel before this season, Brandon Ingram now looks like the future All-Star he projected to be coming out of college. It’s unlikely Ingram will ever get to the level of a Kevin Durant, but he’s the only prospect the Lakers have whose ceiling is an elite, two-way wing, the scarcest type of player in the NBA. Right now, Ingram should be the top priority, in terms of player development, due to the position he plays.

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But Lonzo Ball is the Lakers’ most important prospect. As well as Ingram is playing, Ball is the type of player who can overhaul a team’s culture, both because of the way he plays and the type of free agents he could attract. If the Lakers sign Paul George and/or LeBron James, the Lakers would suddenly have players with the skill sets Ingram hopes to develop. Ingram has the higher ceiling, but there’s no doubt the Lakers appear to be building around the playing style of Lonzo Ball.

Kyle Kuzma has been played really well and appears to be a long-term cornerstone. Given his ability to shoot and play multiple positions, he should fit alongside Ball, Ingram and whoever is brought in this upcoming summer. I don’t think Kuzma will ever be an All-NBA type talent, but he appears to be a real piece the Lakers should include in their long terms plans. No one else on the roster is a cornerstone, but Larry Nance and Josh Hart are nice role players.

James Holas; From highest priority to lowest:

Brandon Ingram, to me, should be the hands down priority. The 20-year-old has all of the physical tools to be a Giannis-type WMD down the line; he’s impossibly long, he’s shown flashes of an aggressive scoring touch, and at almost 7-foot-tall with Jack Skellington arms, he can be a hellish defender down the road.

Kuzma would be next; he’s not as long as Ingram, but he’s got good size, can score in a variety of ways, and has a great motor.

Ball…I’ve never been that big on him, but he’s there, and his passing and defense can be the connective tissue that holds that team together in the future.

Larry Nance brings good size, intelligence, and espirit de corps every team needs; he’s nimble and reliable, a great rotation piece.

Randle has shown promise as a small ball center; it’s a shame that the front office seems to be pulling strings to jerk Randle’s role around. Can they afford to keep Randle if they plan to land two max guys? Is he too good to be slotted into a small role? Is he good enough to be a big minute starter for a good team?

Jordan Clarkson, bless him, has gone from “promising scorer that they were smart to lock up” to an albatross contract; Josh Hart on his tiny deal is more desirable in Laker Land.

Lopez’s fat expiring deal will be manna for the cap-space-starved front office; same with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. I don’t care about Zubac. Jettison Deng into the sun.

Jesus Gomez: The most important player—not the best, but the most important—is Lonzo.

Brandon Ingram has a higher ceiling and could become an All-Star. Kyle Kuzma is more productive and should be a cornerstone going forward. They will likely be very good. But the Lakers are not building around them at this point. They are building around Ball.

That’s what the Russell trade and the fact they signed no quality backup suggests. Lonzo is supposed to be their point guard of the future and if they are committed to him, they will need to put the right pieces around him.

Fortunately, Ingram and Kuzma fit, since they can create for themselves in a way Lonzo can’t. As a big man who likes to push the ball after boards and who lacks an outside shot, Julius Randle doesn’t complement Lonzo. Josh Hart and Larry Nance are replaceable role players whose future with the team might depend on whether they can develop chemistry with Ball. It seems to be all about Lonzo in Los Angeles right now, even if it shouldn’t be.

4.) What’re your thoughts on how the organization has handled Julius Randle? 

Brandon Jefferson: It’s a shame Randle has been relegated to the bench for most of this season (injuries aside). He has been one of the best players on the Lakers and that should be enough to get him a true opportunity to get a slot in the starting lineup, especially with the Lakers’ shot at the postseason long gone.

It could be argued the Lakers continue to bring him off the bench to better showcase him for his next team, but in the long run, it isn’t really doing them favors. We all know Randle shares an agent with 2018 free agent target Paul George and I’m sure any frustrations Randle has with management and coaching have been expressed to his agent. This could ultimately end up backfiring on them if they don’t handle it right or are not at least upfront with Randle about his role on this team.

Eli Horowitz: Even though Julius Randle doesn’t appear to be a part of the Lakers’ long-term plans, I think the organization was a bit premature to relegate him to a reduced role. The more he can play and showcase his assets, the more valuable he’ll be in a trade. Moreover, he’s played fairly well this season, and the Lakers may as well get as much data as possible on him before moving on. The market for Randle is already cool, and if the Lakers can’t find a deal they like, they’ll need Randle to be as bought in as possible and develop chemistry with Lonzo Ball.

Jesus Gomez: The regime change really hurt Randle, I think. Magic and Pelinka didn’t draft him, so they are likely less invested in his success than Mitch Kupchak would have been. It feels like they never considered him a core member of the team.

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Their plan is to carve out cap space, so an extension was probably off the table as soon as the new administration took over. Considering the circumstances, it really doesn’t surprise me to see things go as they have. It makes no sense for the Lakers to start him and feed him minutes when he might not be a part of their future. Hopefully Randle will make the best of a tough situation. He needs to showcase his game for potential suitors while not developing a reputation as difficult, because he would look great on a contender, either at the deadline or next season.

James Holas: Reports that the front office is manipulating Julius Randle’s playing time to keep his qualifying offer (and market value) suppressed bums me out.

Teams shuffling minutes so as not to hit incentive points has been going on forever, but to carry it out so blatantly is funky. Walton seems to have had the light bulb go off. Randle played a scant 22 minutes per game off of the bench for most of the year (providing 12.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, and game changing energy in his short shifts), but he’s thriving as a starter in his last six games, averaging just short of 17-10-3 in almost 28 minutes a night.

The Lakers seem to be making it clear that Randle is persona non grata after this summer, and that stinks.

5.) Looking forward to next summer, besides being in Los Angeles, what recruiting points to the Lakers have for free agents? Is there enough on this roster to persuade a LeBron James or Paul George and, if they land one, is it enough to compete with the Warriors? 

Brandon Jefferson: The Lakers have a player’s-coach in Walton, budding young talent and the chance to become a true superstar. At one point in time, the draw of Los Angeles was enough to attract high-level talent like Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, but now it’s about more than just location.

The trio of Ball/Kuzma/Ingram is tantalizing, but there are teams with young talent that reside in the Eastern Conference who can offer players like LeBron and George an easier route to the NBA Finals than coming West would. And outside of LeBron James, there’s no addition the Lakers could make to bring them any closer to competing with the Warriors.

Eli Horowitz: Although recent history suggests location alone can’t land free agents, I expect New York and Los Angeles to buck that trend as both organizations are getting healthier. Ball, Kuzma and Ingram isn’t the top young core in the league, but it’s good enough to compete for the playoffs with the addition of Paul George. If they add LeBron, they’re still behind the Warriors, and maybe even the Rockets, Spurs and Celtics, but assuming he stays at this level of production for two to three more years, any team with James has a chance to win a title.

James Holas: Brandon Ingram (almost 17-5-4 in his last seven games) seems to have the makings of a big-time wing/small ball power forward, the type of player you can challenge the best of the best with on your side.

(Clubs)

Lonzo Ball is a high-level facilitator in need of a superstar to orbit; I’m in no way comparing him, talent or ceiling-wise to Jason Kidd, but think about how Kidd organized the 2011 Mavericks, making everything easier for prime Dirk.

(Parties)

Kuzma as an attacker is also in need of a hub to play off; he’s fun as a primary scorer on a bad team, but he’d be awesome in a “Cedric Ceballos alongside Charles Barkley” role.

(Weather)

Being attached to one of the NBA “glamor” flagship franchises holds a ton of cachet for stars and opens up endorsement and entertainment opportunities unmatched elsewhere.

Landing only ONE of Paul George or LeBron? That’s a major win for Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka. After their ham-fisted approach to opening max salary slots and pissing away the asset of D’Angelo Russell, landing LeBron would make it all worth it, landing Paul George would be a great start, and landing both would be a cause for a parade.

And it’s that last option that would give the Lakers a shot versus the Warriors; a lineup of Ball-PG-Bron-Kuz-Ingram seems like it would have as good a shot as any to run with Golden State (still don’t think that’s enough, unless Ingram makes a leap into the “borderline/future all-star” zone).

Jesus Gomez: The Lakers have enough talent to be an option for stars, especially in a summer in which not a lot of teams will have cap space. There’s no realistic target that would get them to the Warriors level, not even LeBron James.

That should hurt their chances of getting The King. But Kuzma and Ingram are good and Lonzo seems like a fun point guard to play with. I can definitely see Paul George signing there and the Lakers making the playoffs as a low seed with a couple other veteran additions. Would that be worth dismantling a fun young core that was already there by losing D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle? I’d say no, but the Lakers probably feel the pressure to go back to winning sooner than later, so it might be the right move for them.

 

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