After a win — his first in 18 days — to end a tense day in which his point guard’s father said he’d lost his team, while his organization offered little public support, Lakers coach Luke Walton allowed himself a moment of levity.
Why did he remove Lonzo Ball from the floor just six minutes into the game Sunday night at Staples Center?
“Yeah, his dad was talking [expletive] so I took him out early,” Walton said, then paused.
“I’m just kidding,” he said with a smile.
For a night, the Lakers offered a reprieve from the incessant negativity that gripped the franchise for two weeks. They beat the Atlanta Hawks 132-113, avoiding a 10-game losing streak, which would have tied the longest in franchise history. At 10-29, the Hawks have the worst record in the NBA. They are the only team with a worse record than the Lakers, who are 12-27.
“We gotta take it with a grain of salt, really,” forward Kyle Kuzma said. “Just one win. We gotta play that way against, no offense, better teams and really prove it.”
Said Walton: “It was nice, obviously, to get that win, to have a little bit of joy in the locker room afterward. ... It’s not like all of a sudden we have it figured out and we’ll go on a 10-game winning streak.”
Still, the win provided a pleasant note for Walton, who began the day under siege from Lithuania.
ESPN published a story Sunday morning in which LaVar Ball, who’s been critical of the Lakers’ coaching staff before, said Walton had lost the locker room and his players no longer wanted to play for him. The outspoken father is overseeing the professional debut of his two youngest sons, but is still making headlines back home.
Walton said he disagreed with the comments after Sunday’s shootaround and received support from other NBA coaches, including Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, who publicly criticized ESPN for publishing the interview. Walton said before the game he had not discussed LaVar’s comments with Lonzo, though he planned to do so.
The Lakers declined to comment, but Walton said he received assurances from team executives that his job is safe.
“I feel very secure in my job status right now,” Walton said before the game. “We talk all the time. They’re 100% behind [us] and supporting what we’re doing.”
Walton said his main concern with the comments was how they impacted his point guard.
“As long as Zo’s fine with it and Zo can come out and play and be, and it doesn’t affect mine and his relationship, then it doesn’t bother me at all,” Walton said.
Lonzo was asked if his father ever expressed to him that Walton should not be the Lakers’ coach.
The rookie replied, “That’s just his opinion.”
Lonzo was asked if he likes having Walton as his coach.
“I’ll play for anybody,” he said, and later added: “My job is to play basketball. I don’t decide who coaches.”
LaVar Ball has not been shy with his critiques of the Lakers, and they have not hidden their attempts to silence him, even pre-emptively. They’ve often bristled when reporters spoke with LaVar, long before he began criticizing their coaching staff.
LaVar Ball said earlier this season that the Lakers’ coaching staff was “soft” on his son. Not long after, on Nov. 29, Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka met with him to encourage more positive comments about the Lakers.
Six days later, LaVar gave a radio interview and criticized Walton’s rotations, including Lonzo’s lack of fourth-quarter playing time.
When word of his meeting with Pelinka and Johnson went public, LaVar said something he’s often said — that he has positive communication with Johnson.
Whatever the impact of all that might be, on Sunday night, the Lakers again tried to block it out.