'The Kid Could Stop All of It': NBA Execs Think Lonzo Should Tell Pops to Chill

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterJanuary 15, 2018

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 12:  Tina Ball, LaVar Ball, LaMelo Ball, LiAngelo Ball and Lonzo Ball attend the Los Angeles Lakers Vs New York Knicks game at Madison Square Garden on December 12, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by James Devaney/Getty Images)
B/R

LaVar Ball, the outspoken father of the Los Angeles Lakers' No. 2 overall pick and presumptive franchise cornerstone, Lonzo, has hopscotched along the line of propriety for months now, crossing it with outrageous statements only to jump back by suggesting he was kidding or misunderstood.

There is no retreating, however, from his latest comments about Lakers players not wanting to play for head coach Luke Walton.

While Ball emphasized to ESPN's Jeff Goodman "that's what I see on the outside sometimes," concerns about how much LaVar is speaking for Lonzo and impacting his game have arisen in some quarters of the NBA.

"What player or coach can trust saying anything around the kid when they know it can end up in public?" one Eastern Conference general manager told B/R.

An Eastern Conference vice president agreed. "It doesn't do anybody any favors," he said. "Not the team, the fans, nor Lonzo. You can't walk this one back."

While the Lakers front office, coaching staff and players have not turned on their rookie teammate for his father's indiscretions, a league source said, they are not happy about them.

"They are frustrated that he can't stand up to his dad, but they really like him," the source said.

Lonzo separating himself from his dad is the solution to everything, several league executives said.

"The kid could stop all of it," the VP said. "All he has to say to the media is, 'He doesn't speak for me. If you want to talk about the Lakers, speak to me, don't speak to my dad.'"

The Eastern Conference GM went a step further. He also sees Lonzo standing on his own as essential to him reaching his full potential as a player.

"If the kid is ever going to be a real player that is taken seriously, he will have to put his dad on ice," he said. "My guess is it will take a number of years before that happens."

For now, only a talent of Lonzo's caliber would make putting up with LaVar worthwhile, the top executive of a Western Conference team told B/R.

"Are you more valuable than your problems?" the executive said. "With Lonzo, he's probably more valuable. ... The more narrow the gap in talent, the more you look at other factors. If a guy is a late first-round pick, are you willing to take on the same problems? Probably not."

Though the Lakers recognize Lonzo Ball's talent, they have yet to see the No. 2 overall pick find consistency as a shooter or a playmaker.
Though the Lakers recognize Lonzo Ball's talent, they have yet to see the No. 2 overall pick find consistency as a shooter or a playmaker.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Handling family members and friends of a professional athlete who are eager to exploit the celebrity, exposure and opportunity of being associated with said athlete is nothing new for organizations or the executives who run them. LaVar Ball is merely exploiting that access to previously unimaginable extremes and with seemingly complete disregard for how it might affect his son or the Lakers.

"How different would [Lonzo's] path be if he wasn't having to put up with this bulls--t?" one longtime Western Conference GM said.

For whatever reason, the trajectory of that path has been more modest than expected. LaVar predicted Rookie of the Year honors for his son along with the Lakers making the playoffs, but Lonzo is not even viewed as the Lakers' most dynamic rookie—that would be Kyle Kuzma, the No. 27 overall pick and team scoring leader—much less the entire league's at the midway point of the season. At the moment, the Philadelphia 76ers' Ben Simmons, the Utah Jazz's Donovan Mitchell and the Boston Celtics' Jayson Tatum are jostling for that honor. The only factor preventing that from being a hotter topic is that No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz also hasn't lived up to expectations so far.

Part of Lonzo's problem stems from his sometimes passive play, which has been striking considering his role as the team's primary playmaker. If the Lakers are disturbed about anything in regard to Lonzo, it's that, sources say. Some of his hesitancy can be attributed to woeful shooting—34.9 percent overall, 29.8 percent from three-point range, 48.0 percent from the free-throw line—that has produced the lowest point production per shot among the Lakers' top 10 rotation players. (He's the only one scoring less than a point per shot, per ESPN.)

But as a point guard with superior size (6'6"), passing (7.1 assists per game) and ball-handling (2.6 assists-to-turnover ratio) skills, Ball is still capable of putting his imprint on a game in other ways if he chooses. At times, he just hasn't.

The aforementioned Eastern Conference GM attributes some of Lonzo's passivity to LaVar's outspokenness.

"The dad has verbally fought all his fights for him," he said. "The kid is in the habit of retreating and saying, 'OK, I guess he's got this.' The parent is trying to out-do the kid. You could argue that LaVar is a bigger name than Lonzo. There's a tragedy in that, and we're watching it unfold."

And while no one with the Lakers is blaming Lonzo for his father's impetuousness yet, the same GM predicted they will at some point.

"Whatever Lonzo's ceiling is as a player, he's going to have to divorce himself from his father if he's going to reach it," he said. "That act is going to wear out. His teammates are going to get tired of it. This isn't AAU basketball. Lonzo is going to have to cut him loose."

LaVar Ball said he felt the Lakers' drafting of Lonzo was the first step toward seeing all of his sons playing for the franchise.
LaVar Ball said he felt the Lakers' drafting of Lonzo was the first step toward seeing all of his sons playing for the franchise.Allen Berezovsky/Getty Images

LaVar has been critical of Lonzo's teammates before, but with the Lakers, he has focused most of his criticism on Walton, blaming him for Lonzo's inability to lead the team to wins at the pace LaVar predicted before the season. The Lakers are currently two games out of last place in the Western Conference, more than a half-dozen games behind the two teams tied for eighth, the Nuggets and Blazers. 

No one inside the league shared LaVar's optimism that his son would lead the Lakers to the playoffs this season. Nonetheless, he escalated his attack Sunday, telling Goodman that Walton had lost control of the team and that "the players don't want to play for him." Walton downplayed LaVar's remarks, even joking after the Lakers' win over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday that he subbed out Lonzo early because "his dad was talking s--t." 

Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, president of the NBA Coaches Association, was not as amused. He defended Walton as "a terrific, young coach" and blasted ESPN for publishing LaVar's comments.

"Two years ago, he took a veteran team and led them to 24 wins in a row, which is an amazing accomplishment," Carlisle said, referencing Walton's work as interim coach for the Golden State Warriors while Steve Kerr dealt with health issues. "Off of that, he earned the Laker job. To have to deal with these kinds of ignorant distractions is deplorable."

The Western Conference executive, however, touted the suitability of team president Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka for dealing with someone such as LaVar. Pelinka was a longtime player agent before joining the Lakers' front office shortly before the 2017 draft. Johnson led the Lakers' Showtime era and is well-known for making LaVar-esque bombastic statements, such as predicting well before Lonzo's first NBA game that his jersey would hang in the Lakers' rafters one day.

"If you were going to find a pair to deal with someone like LaVar, you couldn't find a better one than Rob and Magic," the executive said. "Rob has been dealing with the temperamental friends and family members his entire life as an agent. Magic knows flash—what it's about, what it does. He and LaVar have a few things in common. Rob and Magic are perfectly capable of dealing with someone like LaVar." (Neither Johnson nor Pelinka could be reached for comment.)

While Ball reportedly told Magic Johnson he trusted him with the development of Lonzo, he has been unable to refrain from criticizing coach Luke Walton.
While Ball reportedly told Magic Johnson he trusted him with the development of Lonzo, he has been unable to refrain from criticizing coach Luke Walton.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

In July, Johnson and LaVar both said the father's hands-on approach would not continue with the Lakers, according to ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne.

"He just said it's marketing," Johnson said. "That's what he had to do to market not only his son but his brand. Before I met him I had already thought that. I knew what he was doing."

LaVar told Shelburne that he said to Johnson, "I trust you with my boy. I just got a great feeling that you guys are going to take Zo to a whole other level."

The elder Ball's criticism of Walton, though, has put the Lakers' front office in a difficult position.

Multiple executives across the league expected Johnson and Pelinka would eventually replace Walton, largely because he was the choice of their predecessors, not theirs. If they do now, though, Magic and Pelinka look like they're bowing to LaVar, who already has presented himself as the de facto GM, all but guaranteeing the Lakers would draft Lonzo and that LiAngelo and LaMelo will soon join him.

There are also indications that players around the league have taken note, souring their view of the Lakers as a free-agency destination. One Eastern Conference executive overheard his players saying they had no interest in going to the Lakers "and having some old man criticize us and the team." 

"This is a tough one for Rob," the Eastern Conference VP said. "There isn't a page to turn to in the handbook that tells you how to handle this."

In early December, the Lakers instituted a rule that reporters covering the team could not interview friends and family members in the section reserved for them after games. It was unofficially tagged in media circles as "The LaVar Ball Rule" with the belief LaVar's postgame criticisms of Walton inspired it.

The Lakers learned last week, though, that LaVar doesn't have to be in L.A. to be a distraction. Having pulled LiAngelo and LaMelo from their respective schools—UCLA and Chino Hills High—to play for a professional team in Lithuania, he was overseeing their first games for BC Prienu Vytautas when he fired his latest salvo at Walton.  

The Lithuanian experiment hasn't earned LaVar any admirers in the NBA, either. Two executives spoke from the perspective of being fathers as well as talent evaluators.

"The dad is a clown," said the Eastern Conference GM. "A full-fledged, certified clown. I feel bad for the kids. You pull your 16-year-old out of high school and you send him to Lithuania? Do you think the kid had a say in that?"

Said an Eastern Conference team president: "LaVar would be a hard one to accept. When you're front and center because of your kid's success, that's wrong to me."

The rival Pacific Division GM sees the entire Ball operation feeding off of Lonzo's success alone.

"I have a great deal of empathy for the kids," he said. "I feel sorry for them. This is working for Lonzo, but let's say, best-case scenario, he has a double-digit career—what happens after that? Is LaVar putting all three kids in a position to succeed? Is this about developing the kids or building up the brand?"

Considering the GM made those remarks before LaVar suggested the team had quit on Walton, dragging Lonzo into the crosshairs with him, even Lonzo isn't free of his father's interference. Which raises the question: Is the Ball family approach to big-time basketball working for anyone but LaVar? 

   

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.   

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