By Bryan Toporek
Surprise, surprise: LaVar Ball said something controversial, once again plunging the Los Angeles Lakers into disarray.
And it once again begs the question: How much drama is LaVar’s son, prized Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball, worth?
On Sunday, LaVar told ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman, “You can see they’re not playing for [head coach] Luke [Walton] no more. Luke doesn’t have control of the team no more. They don’t want to play for him.” Lonzo only poured more fuel on the fire by responding, “I’ll play for anybody” when asked if he liked having Walton as his coach.
To Walton’s credit, he took the latest uproar in stride. Prior to Sunday’s 132-113 victory over the Atlanta Hawks—which snapped a nine-game losing streak for the Lakers—Walton told reporters, “I know our front office and the organization has my back.” Afterward, when asked why he took Lonzo out of the game early to get him more run with the second unit, Walton jokingly replied, “His dad was talking s–t, so I took him out early.”
This is becoming old hat for the Lakers, who’ve seemingly been putting out at least one LaVar-sparked fire every month. In late November, he told Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus that the Lakers were “soft” and “don’t know how to coach my son.” One week later, LaVar met with Lakers team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka, who asked him to “tone down some of his public criticisms” of Walton “and help create a more positive atmosphere around his son,” according to ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne.
Time for a plan B.
With a never-ending tornado of drama swirling around him due to his ever-present father, how much nonsense are the Lakers willing to tolerate from LaVar before they decide Lonzo is no longer worth the trouble?
“What’s happening now,” a rival team executive told Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports, “is that every team’s fears about drafting Lonzo are coming true.”
Much like Donald Trump, LaVar is who he is. No drastic pivot is forthcoming. He isn’t going to suddenly disappear from public consciousness one day. Multiple news outlets have sent reporters to Lithuania to follow the exploits of Lonzo’s two younger brothers, LiAngelo and LaMelo, as they begin their professional careers with Prienu Vytautas. LaVar will have no trouble finding an outlet to voice his opinions, no matter how nonsensical or off-base they may be. (Sound like a certain sitting U.S. president?)
Following his sitdown with Johnson and Pelinka earlier this season, he told Shelburne, “I’m going to say whatever I want to say, however I want to say it. And they said, ‘LaVar, come and talk to us first.’ So that’s fine, too. But I am going to say, to plant a seed, ‘Let’s look for this now.’ They may not want to hear that, but it’s going to be successful if you listen to what I’m saying on that fact, that I know what it takes for my son to run like this.”
In early December, the Lakers began enforcing a policy prohibiting reporters to “congregate in a section of the arena among family and associates of players after games,” according to ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes. That hasn’t prevented LaVar from forcing his way into headlines at a moment’s notice, though. By drafting Lonzo, the Lakers made a deal with the devil—they’d have to deal with LaVar, too, for better or worse.
Through the first half of Lonzo’s rookie season, the results haven’t justified the cost. The Lakers are a dismal 12-27, tied with the injury-ravaged Memphis Grizzlies for the worst record in the Western Conference, despite entering the season with heightened expectations. Through his first 33 games, Lonzo is shooting 35.3 percent overall, and opponents outscore the Lakers by 3.9 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court.
While the early returns from Ball’s rookie season have fallen short of the hype—which Johnson and Pelinka helped fuel alongside LaVar—it’s still far too early for the Lakers to abandon ship on the No. 2 overall pick. Six months ago, Johnson was espousing Ball as his heir apparent, begging him not to break all of his team records. Just because he hasn’t dominated from Day 1 doesn’t mean all hope is lost in Lakerland.
Heading into Tuesday, Ball was riding an eight-game streak with at least two made three-pointers in every outing. Over that stretch, he averaged 15.0 points on 44.0 percent shooting, 7.3 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks in 35.6 minutes, numbers that would have him in contention for Rookie of the Year if stretched across the entire season. He ranks fourth among all point guards in ESPN.com’s defensive real plus-minus despite playing for a Lakers team with a league-average defense.
Ball still has kinks to work out from his game, but what 20-year-old rookie doesn’t? Even if his ceiling falls short of a top-10 overall player, it isn’t difficult to imagine him making appearances in the All-Star Game someday, particularly if he refines his shooting stroke to become more consistent from three-point range. The passing ability that made him such a highly sought-after prospect remains dazzling, and he ranks second among players 6’6″ or shorter in rebounds per game, trailing only reigning MVP Russell Westbrook. He’ll be a walking triple-double sooner rather than later.
Unless his father turns over a new leaf, he’ll have to be.
LaVar’s histrionics put that much more pressure on Lonzo to develop into a franchise cornerstone. According to ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, “There are already rival team executives saying they will not touch Lonzo if he is available in the future. Free agents will not want to come to a team that seems like it can be thrown into chaos by one of the players’ parents.” The Lakers’ dream of signing both Paul George and LeBron James in free agency this summer could be dead on arrival, in no small part due to the ongoing drama surrounding the Ball family.
And if the Lakers do strike out on their top free-agent targets—whether it’s James, George or DeMarcus Cousins—it’ll be on Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma to help restore this once-proud franchise to its previously lofty heights.
Is it worth enduring the LaVar headache? Lonzo’s development over the coming weeks and months will go a long way toward answering that question.