Over the past 48 hours, LaVar Ball has done what he does best: create plenty of fire and fury.
There were his initial incendiary comments, claiming Los Angeles Lakers Coach Luke Walton has lost control of his team, and that they “don’t play for him no more” in an interview with ESPN. Then there was the firestorm created by his 20-year-old son, Lonzo Ball, who responded to a question about whether he likes playing for Walton by saying, “I’ll play for anybody,” leaving many to wonder if he shared the same opinion as his father.
Then came condemnation raining down from opposing coaches, with Dallas Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle, the president of the National Basketball Coaches Association, Detroit Pistons Coach Stan Van Gundy and Golden State Warriors Coach Steve Kerr all slamming ESPN for providing LaVar Ball with a platform. Walton himself even got in on the act, responding to a question about why he took Ball out halfway through the first quarter of Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Hawks by quipping, “His dad was talking [trash], so I took him out early.”
Through it all, though, one party has stood deafeningly silent: Lakers management. And that silence has been louder than all the other noise combined.
The fact that, two days after Ball challenged the credibility of their coach, 22-year-old rookie Kyle Kuzma is the only person within the organization to offer a full-throated public endorsement of Walton is an indictment of those in charge.
The Lakers repeatedly stick to the same line they’ve trotted out for months when it comes to the public utterances of America’s most boisterous sports parent: It isn’t worth a response, because he’s simply a family member of one of the team’s players.
That would be fine if this was, say, Kuzma’s mother, Karri, or Brandon Ingram’s father, Donald. Those parents have not claimed celebrity status nor do they have cameras following them around the world to document their every move.
That’s why the Lakers insisting that Ball is the same as any other family member is lunacy — particularly when the organization was concerned enough with his prior attacks on Walton for team President Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka to meet with him on Nov. 29 and ask him to stop publicly doing so.
How can the Lakers do that, only to then not say anything publicly to support their coach when Ball chooses to attack him again? And this isn’t the first time, either; less than a week after that powwow, Ball went on the radio and criticized Walton for his rotations and his son’s diminished fourth quarter minutes.
Doing that is one thing; saying Walton has lost control of the team and that star free agents wouldn’t want to play for him? That’s entirely another.
And it deserves an entirely different response.
Twice Sunday — at shoot around and at the game — Pelinka was requested by the team’s beat reporters. Both times he declined to speak. Monday, Johnson observed practice at the team’s facility. He, too, was requested. He, too, declined to speak.
At least one of them should have stood up in the past two days and said: “None of what LaVar Ball says has any impact on this team. Luke Walton is our head coach, we love him, and he’s going to be our coach.”
That’s it. There didn’t have to be a sermon over Ball’s latest incendiary comments, or his parenting style, or whether he should be barred from the Staples Center. And then, when Ball inevitably attacks Walton again, the Lakers could simply remind everyone they’d already said all they needed to.
As for coaches attacking ESPN for giving LaVar Ball a platform, let’s be clear: If there was no money in following the Ball family, ESPN wouldn’t have sent a reporter halfway around the world to chronicle the daily life of two teenagers playing for a run-of-the-mill Lithuanian team or give airtime to their father.
And ESPN (along with Turner Sports) is paying the NBA $24 billion over the life of the league’s current television contract — the same contract that pays both men’s salaries.
“We’re sticking a microphone in his face,” Kerr said before his team faced the Denver Nuggets Monday night, “because, apparently, it gets ratings.”
Kerr, as usual, is right. When it comes to LaVar Ball, the horse left the barn long ago. He went from “just another sports parent” to someone people want to hear from and about.
The Lakers have done Walton no favors, as the coach’s already daunting task of shepherding a young team has been made more difficult not only because of the inexperience of the roster and Ball’s ongoing commentary, but also the team’s veteran uncertainty. The Lakers have six players either in the last year of their contract or with non-guaranteed deals for next season, plus another two — Jordan Clarkson and Luol Deng — that the team would love to rid itself of to create as much cap space as possible to sign free agents this summer.
How is a coach supposed to get results from a squad that not only doesn’t have much talent, but has only a handful of players with real designs on being part of the team’s future?
That’s why the Lakers have spiraled recently. That’s why there was the need for a team meeting in late December. That’s why Sunday’s win was the first at Staples Center since before Thanksgiving. And that’s why LaVar Ball decided the time was right for another Walton broadside.
The Lakers should have backed their coach, making it clear how the organization feels about him.
Instead, they said nothing.
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