LOS ANGELES – As NBA teams evaluated Lonzo Ball last spring, the discussion inevitably shifted to his grandstanding father. Teams loved Lonzo’s size, his moxie, the court vision that could eventually elevate him among the elite. They believed Lonzo had the tools to be a great player — even though several wondered if LaVar Ball would somehow gum it up.
“What’s happening now,” a rival team executive told Yahoo Sports, “is that every team’s fears about drafting Lonzo are coming true.”
The Lakers are in a tailspin, undermanned, inexperienced losers of nine straight before Sunday’s 132-113 win over Atlanta, and here comes the NBA’s premier carnival barker to pour salt on an open wound. On Sunday, LaVar Ball — in Lithuania with his two younger sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, who are preparing to make their pro debuts with Vytautas Prienai — told ESPN that head coach Luke Walton had lost the Lakers, that Walton “doesn’t have control of the team” and “nobody wants to play for him.”
The Lakers thought they muzzled Ball last month, when public criticism of Walton forced a meeting with Ball, team president Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka. Ball declared everyone on the same page then, yet the Lakers recent skid has renewed his attacks, driving a wedge between the second-year coach and L.A.’s young star.
Lonzo downplayed his father’s comments — “He’s a grown man,” Lonzo said. “He’s going to say what he wants. I can’t do [anything] about it.” — while Walton said he believes his job is secure. Indeed, the Lakers are satisfied with the job Walton is doing, a team source told Yahoo Sports, and have no intention of firing him.
“I know they have my back,” Walton said of the Lakers’ front-office personnel. “My concerns are coaching our team and prepping for games and working with what gives us the best chance of winning. I know our front office and organization. They’ll do whatever they have to do on their end of it, but I’m not spending my time trying to figure out what they’re all doing about it. I just know they’ll take care of it.”
Predictably, the NBA coaching fraternity rushed to Walton’s defense. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle blasted ESPN’s decision to publish Ball’s comments, calling Walton “a terrific young coach.” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer told Yahoo Sports he was “totally impressed” by Walton and called LaVar’s criticism “unfortunate in a lot of different ways.” Walton said he heard from several coaches today, all offering support.
“It’s all the same idea,” Walton said. “It’s our job to, as coaches, to coach our team, to not be concerned with parents, with what other people outside the organization think. A lot of them have shown support as far as they know what it’s like to coach young teams and from what they see in how hard our young group plays. They really like our young team and the way that they compete.”
If there is a certainty to the fallout of LaVar’s outburst, it’s this: He won’t get what he wants. Firing Walton, even after the season, will be seen as the team bowing to LaVar’s public pressure and would only empower him further. Johnson can’t, and perhaps the only way to back his coach is to draw a hard line with the man going after him.
“It’s time for Magic to take the gloves off,” a longtime NBA executive told Yahoo Sports. “I would call [LaVar] in and tell him, ‘No more.’ I would tell him that the next time he disrespects the organization, he will have his family privileges pulled at the arena. I’d also let him know that I was going to tell the media how I feel about his comments, and that we met and he was told no more.”
As the Lakers’ season slips away, Johnson, Pelinka and Walton must find a way to rebuild the culture. The Lakers were never built to win — LaVar’s suggestion that L.A. is “a good team” that would be winning if not for Walton is laughable — rather they are focused on player development. Warm weather and a Southern California lifestyle are enticing to free agents, but none is interested in coming to a team in disarray. Lonzo oozes potential but with Jayson Tatum — taken one pick after Lonzo last June, and carrying none of the baggage — looking like a perennial All-Star in Boston, there has to be some among the Lakers’ brass wondering if Lonzo was really worth it.
Walton says he will sit down with Lonzo, and it’s unlikely L.A.’s mild-mannered coach will let LaVar’s latest round of criticism linger. But midway through Lonzo’s first season, LaVar has shown no interest in toning down his rhetoric. It’s LaVar vs. the Lakers now, and who knows what happens next?
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