Newsletter: Lakers! Drama never leaves the Lakers for long
Hi this is Tania Ganguli, Lakers beat writer for the Los Angeles Times here with your weekly newsletter.
Boy what a week it’s been.
When I considered taking this job, one thing I heard often was that no matter what else is happening, the Lakers are always interesting. For the season and a half I’ve been covering this team, any time a lull threatens (and lulls are bound to happen in an 82-game schedule) some drama surfaces.
Last season it came on the court first, when Lakers coach Luke Walton benched Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Then it came off the court, when Magic Johnson joined the fold, first as an advisor to Jeanie Buss, and then the big front office shakeup happened.
This season a lot of the theatrics have come courtesy of the status-quo-shaking Ball family, and that’s what happened this week.
We’ll start there, then move on to other happenings from the week.
Timeline of this week with the Ball family
-- Early Sunday morning ESPN published a story in which LaVar Ball said Walton had lost the team, that nobody wants to play for him, and that he’s too young to be the head coach of the Lakers. This came from an interview conducted by Jeff Goodman, the reporter they have embedded with the Ball family in Lithuania. LaVar Ball, his wife Tina and one of his brothers are all there with the two youngest Ball children – LiAngelo and LaMelo – who are playing professional basketball in Lithuania.
-- The Lakers don’t usually have shootaround on Sundays because the games are earlier. They typically do their on-court prep work a couple of hours before the game to avoid forcing the players to go back and forth from home so much. This past Sunday, though, they had their yearly Staples Center shootaround, with some season ticket holders as guests. That gave me and others covering the team the opportunity to find out the answers to some important questions: 1. Did this bother Luke Walton? 2. Was this affecting management’s thinking in any way? And, most importantly, 3. Does Lonzo Ball agree with his father?
-- Walton said it didn’t bother him and that he planned to talk to Ball about it at some point. He said he has received assurances from Lakers management that his job is safe. “I feel very secure in my job status right now,” he said. “We talk all the time. They’re 100% behind and supporting what we’re doing.” Walton’s biggest supporter in the building is controlling owner Jeanie Buss.
-- Lonzo Ball spoke second. I asked if he thinks Walton has lost the locker room and he said no. Ball was asked if he likes Walton as his head coach, and that’s where his responses raised some eyebrows. “I’ll play for anyone,” he said. Pressed, he added: “My job is to play basketball. I don’t decide who coaches.” Not an endorsement of Walton, not an indictment of Walton. Essentially, Ball declined to choose sides.
-- We requested general manager Rob Pelinka, who attended shootaround, but he declined to speak.
-- The narrative began to shift. Walton did not get any public support from his organization but during the course of the day, Walton heard messages of support from coaches around the NBA. Rick Carlisle, the Dallas coach and president of the coaches’ association, breathed fire toward not LaVar, but ESPN. He objected to the network giving LaVar a platform. He said as one of the league’s partners (ESPN pays to broadcast NBA games), it’s the network’s responsibility to have the coaches’ backs. There is a blurry line between ESPN’s journalism operation and its game broadcast operation. Later, the coaches’ association released an official statement.
-- That night, the Lakers beat the Hawks, the worst team in the NBA, snapping the nine-game losing streak that had irked LaVar Ball to begin with. Walton took Lonzo out of the game earlier than normal and joked that it was because his dad was “talking ….”
-- On Monday, Magic Johnson returned from a trip to Michigan where he celebrated his parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. The Lakers declined to make him available, but at some point in the day he spoke with Walton.
-- Kyle Kuzma became the strongest voice in support of Walton. “Luke is my guy,” Kuzma said after Monday’s practice. “I love playing for him. I’m sure most of us love playing for him too. We just got to stay locked in as a family and listen to the people that really matter in our lives, basketball lives. That’s everybody in this organization. A lot of times you have losing streaks, you can go home and listen to people and let them be in your ears, but the people that really matter are the people in the Lakers organization. We stand by Luke. I know the front office does.”
-- Aaron Mintz, agent to the sometimes frustrated Julius Randle and the traded-away D’Angelo Russell, told me he strongly supports Walton. “He’s really connected with my guys and created a culture where I feel these guys are being developed really well as young players in the NBA,” Mintz said. “Any NBA coaching job is difficult and each has its own unique set of challenges. I feel Luke and his staff have been doing an excellent job from what I’ve seen representing Julius and D’Angelo. I think Luke is doing an incredible job and is definitely the right guy for this team.”
-- Bill Plaschke wondered in a column if the Balls were worth the trouble.
-- And that, for now, is where things stand. LaVar Ball is still in Lithuania, Walton’s team is winning some games, and the Lakers front office remains publicly silent on where they stand.
What else happened this week?
-- The losing streak hit nine games with a loss to the Charlotte Hornets. Kuzma said the team was playing like garbage, and he wasn’t kind to himself either. He said he wasn’t playing as hard as he should have been.
-- The Lakers waived Andrew Bogut a few days before his contract would have become guaranteed. Bogut wants to catch on with a playoff team and had his contract become guaranteed that would have become more difficult.
-- We thought that might have increased playing time for Ivica Zubac, but it did not.
-- Since Lonzo Ball’s return to the lineup from the shoulder injury that caused him to miss six games, Brandon Ingram has played really well. He’s scored 22, 20 and 15 points, making 22 of 34 shots. He’s been engaged, he’s been running more. Ball’s return made his job that much easier.
-- Kuzma has been coming off the bench and that’s caused Walton to manipulate Ball’s minutes to get him with Kuzma more often. When Walton joked that he took Ball out of the Hawks game early because of what his dad said, the real answer was that he wanted to take Ball out early enough to bring him back soon with the second unit.
The Lakers play the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday night and then will hit the road again. They’ll face the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and Oklahoma City Thunder on the road.
All times Pacific
Thursday vs. San Antonio, 7:30 p.m., TNT
Saturday at Dallas, 11 a.m.
Monday at Memphis, 2:30 p.m., TNT
Wednesday at Oklahoma City, 5 p.m., ESPN
Until next time
All things Lakers, all the time.
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