If You Thought the Lakers Would Be Better Without Lonzo Ball, Think Again

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterDecember 29, 2017

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 27:  Julius Randle #30, Lonzo Ball #2 and Larry Nance Jr. #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers look on from the bench in the fourth quarter of the game at Staples Center on December 27, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images). NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — Rookie point guard Lonzo Ball may be a polarizing figure, but the Los Angeles Lakers badly miss him on the court.

Perhaps it's the LaVar Ball effect, but his son is heavily scrutinized for his weaknesses, most notably an inability or reluctance to score. While Lonzo Ball had started to look more comfortable with his jump shot in recent games, he's currently sidelined with a sprained left shoulder, suffered on Saturday in a 95-92 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers

Ball will be reevaluated in the next couple of days, but the Lakers have looked awful without him. They fell to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Christmas Day, 121-104, and then again on Wednesday to the Memphis Grizzlies, 109-99.

"This is why I think if you asked anyone in our organization all year about Lonzo's shooting struggles, we'd tell you, 'He'll be fine,'" head coach Luke Walton said. "We know how important he is to us with the way he plays ... the way he pushes the ball, the way he just hits whoever is open, every time, that's contagious."

Chris Carlson/Associated Press

What's the opposite of contagious?

Against the Grizzlies, the Lakers managed just 14 assists against 11 turnovers.

Through their first 31 games, all with Ball, Los Angeles averaged 23.2 assists a game. The turnovers were low against Memphis because the Lakers made fewer passes.

"We're not going to turn into an [isolation] team [without Ball], that's not our strength," Walton said. "We don't have guys that are ready to just go one on one."

Ball may only be shooting 34.9 percent from the field individually, but the Lakers' shooting percentage over the last two games dropped to 40.5 percent, down from the 45.4 percent with Ball in the lineup.

"Lonzo does a great job of speeding the pace up. He's a great point guard," rookie Kyle Kuzma said. "We're definitely missing him. He sets the table for a lot of us."

The defense has suffered as well, giving up 119.6 points per 100 possessions—a huge climb from the 103.2 the Lakers gave up over their first 31 games.

That's not to say Ball should be nominated for Defensive Player of the Year; however, the Lakers clearly miss him on both sides of the court.

Depth in general is an issue. Walton has turned to Jordan Clarkson to start at the point. He was solid as a playmaker against the Timberwolves, with seven assists and just one turnover, but he struggled against Memphis, with as many assists as giveaways (two).

With Clarkson on the first team, Walton has needed production from Tyler Ennis and Alex Caruso. But in eight total minutes against the Grizzlies, they combined to miss four shots with one assist and one turnover.

Ennis was more productive against the T-Wolves, with seven points in 15 minutes. Minnesota, however, went on a decisive fourth-quarter run when Walton was trying to give Clarkson a breather to start the period.

David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The Lakers only have one productive point guard on the roster. When Ball is playing almost 34 minutes again, they will have more balance. Clarkson can run the second unit for 14 minutes, with some occasional help from Ennis.

L.A. isn't exactly dominating the league with or without Ball at 11-22. It has, however, looked competitive in road wins over the Houston Rockets, Charlotte Hornets and Philadelphia 76ers. Los Angeles also gave the Golden State Warriors three competitive games in losses.

If the Lakers could actually hit a few free throws, they might have something closer to a winning record. The team is dead last in the league at 68.9 percent from the line.

"We knock them down in practice," Ingram said. "I don't know the issue."

On Thursday, Walton canceled practice to hold a team meeting, hoping to air any grievances and move forward more successfully as a unit. They've lost four straight and 12 out of their last 15.

They seem to rise to the challenge against the best teams in the league, but struggle against almost everyone else. The Lakers are a young team. It shouldn't be a surprise they have difficulty closing out games.

Looking ahead, the Lakers finish the year at home against the improving Los Angeles Clippers before visiting the Rockets and Timberwolves on back-to-back nights. The losing streak may very well grow into the New Year.

The 2018 schedule is a lot lighter than their recent gauntlet, which saw L.A. playing the Warriors or Rockets seemingly every night.

Currently six-and-a-half games behind the Portland Trail Blazers and New Orleans Pelicans, both 18-16, the Lakers may not have a playoff run in them. But if we've learned anything over the past couple of games, it's that they need Ball back on the floor to compete.

                             

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Stats provided by NBA.com. Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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