LOS ANGELES — Everything the Los Angeles Lakers have done for the past several months has been with one goal in mind: landing one or more stars — and, specifically, LeBron James — in free agency next July.
To do so, however, the Lakers needed to give them some reason to come here. Sure, virtually every NBA player — including James — seems to either be from Los Angeles or has a home here these days, and it’s easy to be intoxicated by the combination of the beautiful Southern California weather and the history of one of the league’s flagship franchises.
When the Lakers selected Lonzo Ball with the No. 2 pick in June’s NBA Draft, they thought they had their reason. One month into Ball’s rookie season, however, the Lakers’ much-needed savior instead looks like a long-term project.
“What we know he’s going to become requires a lot of work, and a lot of growth,” Lakers Coach Luke Walton said. “He’ll get there, and there’s going to be some ups and downs on that path.”
Everything Walton said is fair. After all, his point guard didn’t turn 20 until late last month, and has only played in 15 NBA games. But the problem for Ball, and for the Lakers, is that by presenting him from the moment he was drafted as the face of the franchise, and as the Pied Piper that was going to bring marquee free agents back to the storied Lakers next summer, they didn’t allow any time for him to develop.
Instead, Ball was supposed to be the finished product. He was supposed to step on the court and transform the Lakers into a destination franchise again, as opposed to a bottom-feeder coming off the four worst seasons since the franchise moved here from Minneapolis almost 60 years ago.
That’s what made Wednesday night’s game at Staples Center against the Philadelphia 76ers so fascinating to watch, and so revealing in just how far both Ball and the Lakers have to go to get to where they want to be. There were players involved Wednesday night who looked good enough to intrigue current stars — even stars at the level of an all-time great like James.
The problem for the Lakers? Those players were Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (46 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, seven blocks) and Ben Simmons (18 points, nine rebounds and 10 assists), who led the Sixers to a 115-109 win by making one jaw-dropping play after another.
Ball, on the other hand? Well, he found himself sitting on the bench for the game’s final 16 minutes, as Walton chose to leave him there for the fourth quarter for a second straight game. In a vacuum, it’s hard to blame Walton for doing so; Ball was 1-for-9 against Philadelphia, including 0-for-6 from three-point range, and was a minus-18 in 21 minutes in a game Los Angeles lost by six.
“Usually I don’t let my shot affect me, but tonight I did,” Ball said. “I missed some layups.
“It was a bad night.”
While Ball was struggling, the Lakers only had to look across the court to see what could have been. Put just one of either Embiid or Simmons on the Lakers, and everything would look different. The franchise would have a tentpole to build everything around. They would have a young, dynamic player to attract free agents with. They would have an all-star to market to their massive and adoring fan base.
Anyone watching Wednesday night’s game would say the Sixers, with Embiid, Simmons and Robert Covington — not to mention rookie No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz, who has had his own rough start to his pro career — offer a far more appealing prospect for future contention than the Lakers. That’s even before considering that the Sixers reside in the Eastern Conference, which provides a clearer path to championship contention than the competitive West.
The Lakers, on the other hand, have Ball, who is averaging 9.0 points, 6.6 rebounds and 6.9 assists in 15 games — and, more importantly, is shooting a dismal 30.3 percent from the field, and 23 percent from three-point range. It’s reasonable to expect Ball to have some growing pains, and multiple scouts who have seen Ball play this season told The Washington Post that they expect shots to eventually start falling for him.
“He’s getting targeted right now,” one scout said. “Guys are giving him their best every night, and at some point that’s going to fade away a little bit and things will get easier for him, and things will adapt some.
“He’s got great size, elite instincts, and is a very good passer in this league. Personally, I think it’s going to be fine.”
The issue is that the Lakers have billed Ball as being the heir apparent to Magic Johnson as the leader of the next generation of the Showtime Lakers — and was granted such a title by none other than Johnson himself, who is now the team’s President of Basketball Operations.
It is this rush to crown Ball as the savior of the franchise, as much as anything else, that is the fatal flaw in the plan the Lakers have created over the past few months. From the moment the team used D’Angelo Russell, the No. 2 pick himself two years ago, to shed Timofey Mozgov’s albatross of a contract, the message was clear on two fronts.
First, Russell would not be present to get in Ball’s way, paving the way for him to be the team’s starting point guard. But just as importantly, moving Mozgov put the Lakers within striking distance of getting enough cap space to sign two players to max contracts this summer.
There’s no doubt the Lakers hope to make those two players James and Paul George, the Southern California native who has said he’d like to play for the Lakers. But both men are in the primes of their careers, and ready to win; they are going to want to go somewhere that provides them with an opportunity to do just that.
Ball was supposed to walk in and immediately look like a difference-maker, giving the Lakers the kind of talent that would then make stars look twice at a team that’s been awful since Dwight Howard left as a free agent four years ago. They thought he’d look like the kind of talents Simmons and Embiid have proven to be. Instead, he has looked miles away from making that kind of impact.
The strain is already being felt. Walton’s postgame news conference was an awkward affair, as he clearly had no interest in discussing why he’d chosen to bench Ball for the fourth quarter for a second straight game.
“Why do I think [Lonzo] had an off night?” Walton asked rhetorically. “I don’t know. He’s 20 years old, and he plays the toughest position in the NBA. Ten-year all-stars have off nights, so of course our young players are going to have off nights, as well.
“That’s the way it works in our league, and like I said, Brandon [Ingram] had an off night the game before and someone will have an off night tomorrow . . . tonight it didn’t seem like he had it, so we went with someone that did.”
Again, a perfectly reasonable stance to take for any young player. But Lonzo Ball is being positioned as more than that, and Wednesday’s game showed that there is a steep learning curve ahead — one that the Lakers, by their own doing, can’t afford to wait for him to complete.
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