Column: After LaVar’s latest criticism, Lakers must decide whether it’s worth it to remain in the Ball business
LaVar Ball publicly feuded with President Trump after his son LiAngelo, a UCLA student-athlete, was detained in China on suspicion of shoplifting in November. (Jan. 9, 2018) (Sign up for our free video newsletter here http://bit.ly/2n6VKPR)
There was nothing particularly surprising about LaVar Ball’s latest attack on the Lakers; it is generally understood he’s a blowhard joke of a father who will go to any lengths to promote himself on the backs of his children.
More alarming was son Lonzo’s reaction.
In his latest attempt to sell his sorry shoes, LaVar mounted a direct attack on Lakers coach Luke Walton from 6,000 miles away in Lithuania on Sunday morning, claiming during an ESPN interview that Walton had lost control of the team, nobody wanted to play for him, nobody connected with him, blah, blah, blah. There were no facts, no evidence; it was simply more brand-building braying from the leader of the basketball Kardashians.
Except, well, um, Lonzo didn’t dispute it.
Presented with his first chance as a Laker to choose between his father’s foolishness and his employer’s reputation, the kid chose his father.
When asked whether he was fine with Walton as his coach, Lonzo said, “I’ll play for anybody.’’
I’ll play for anybody? Those are the words of a rookie whom Walton has constantly encouraged and empowered? That is the statement from a supposed team leader to a locker room under siege?
A day later, on Monday afternoon, fellow rookie Kyle Kuzma responded much differently, saying, “Luke is my guy. I love playing for him … we stand by Luke.’’
The message from Lonzo was as flat as his jump shot, and now this ongoing drama grows even thicker. The Lakers have to wonder how much the father’s loud and constant discontent is affecting the son, worry that maybe some of it is coming from the son, all of which is building toward a very serious question: Is Lonzo Ball worth it? Do the Lakers really need to stay in the Ball business?
LaVar seems beyond restraint, Lonzo isn’t either strong or mature enough to shake off his influence, and together they are creating unnecessary rumbling under the feet of a young team not yet rooted enough to withstand it.
At this muddled moment, there seems to be only one way the Lakers can regain control of a nasty narrative that is swallowing their rebuilding efforts and damaging their hopes of attracting top free agents. They need to meet with LaVar Ball and tell him if he doesn’t shut up, they will trade his son.
History says the meeting won’t go well. They’ve already met with LaVar once about quieting down and it didn’t work. Enriched by the millions of eyeballs that focus on his every word — which leads to his constant coverage by media that quotes him because it’s good business — this fame hound will not soon be silenced. LaVar is not only growing ever more desperate to maintain his profile in the wake of a sneaker business currently receiving an “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau, he’s also searching for more ways to wring money from his two younger children as they wilt in a Lithuanian gym.
He’s a good player, but not a transformative one. He’s not their best rookie; that’s Kuzma. He’s not a future cornerstone; that’s Brandon Ingram. He makes the Lakers better, but how much better, and at what cost?
How many great free agents are going to want to play for a team whose every move could be publicly questioned by one of the player’s parents in barbs that are consumed by millions? How many great free agents will want a point guard who is unwilling to stand up to that parent?
An equation often used by sports executives in judging controversial players is, does their production surpass their distraction? In Lonzo Ball’s case, he would have to be a LeBron James-type rookie for his production to even come close.
If they could step back in time to last June, here’s guessing many in the Lakers organization wouldn’t draft Lonzo Ball. Not only has he not been as good as players such as Jayson Tatum or Donovan Mitchell, but he’s been such a hassle that the Lakers might have been better off with a dozen other lesser talents.
I remember talking with Magic Johnson on draft night. It was the first time he promised he could keep LaVar Ball quiet. He has promised it several times since. It hasn’t worked, and now it’s on Johnson to figure how to fix it once and for all. It’s on Johnson to clarify his role as the face of his franchise and show he is engaged and involved.
Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka are not commenting on LaVar Ball’s latest quotes because they don’t want to be seen as engaging with a no-credibility fool, but they still need a way to show their support for Walton — in a way that does not respond to LaVar but goes beyond a pat on the back for the coach. The team needs to see it. The future free agents need to see it.
Walton is not the problem here. He is growing with the team. He is doing his best to juggle winning with development and preparation for this summer’s free-agent class.
LaVar Ball is the problem here and, sadly enough, by extension, so is his son. And if you don’t think getting out of the Ball business can be good business, just check out the lighter mood in Westwood. When LiAngelo Ball dropped out of UCLA earlier this fall, the Bruins quietly celebrated. It was like a burden had been lifted.
Lonzo Ball says he’ll play for anybody, huh?
Maybe the Lakers need to give him, and his father, that chance.