LOS ANGELES — It was a cruel twist of fate that the unveiling of the Los Angeles Lakers' rebuilt roster, its mega-hyped Lonzo Ball era, had to come when it did.
As L.A.'s two NBA teams warmed up two hours before the game, the Staples Center Jumbotron was beaming images from Chicago of the city's baseball team, the Dodgers, capturing its first National League pennant since 1988. They played "I Love L.A." before tipoff, but it sounded off, like it was being broadcast through a series of rusty tin cans connected by string.
While the inexperienced Lakers were falling behind the Chris Paul-less Clippers, they replayed the final out of the baseball game. A crowd expecting slick passes and offensive pyrotechnics but given the exact opposite, woke up for a moment to chant "Let's Go Dodgers."
If the Lakers want to stay the kings of the L.A. sports scene, they might have to try a bit harder.
The 108-92 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers was the sort of sloppy, disjointed game that offered very little promise of a new beginning but was full of reminders of the last half-decade in the wilderness.
Ball, the savior-to-be, recorded his first foul before his first basket—way before his first basket. He slashed DeAndre Jordan under the hoop at the 10:27 mark of the first quarter. His opposite point guard, new Clipper Patrick Beverley, purchased some pricey Los Angeles real estate and made a home inside Lonzo's head all night. The veteran antagonist crowded Ball on an inbound, which led to Beverley taking a shove from the rookie. Then, Ball gave up possession on a backcourt violation.
"He's a good defender. I just tried to get the offense going," Ball said of his first taste of the NBA's physicality.
He eventually made a basket—a three-pointer off a screening action that resulted in DeAndre Jordan switching onto Ball and being stranded on an island of misfit centers. If he didn't make that shot, L.A. fans might have run on the court to try themselves.
Despite all the preseason chatter, Ball looks his age. But that's neither surprising nor a cause for panic.
The crosscourt lobs were a hair off, the pocket passes in the lane a bit late. Even when those miracle heaves connected, the Lakers often could not finish. Jordan Clarkson missed a bunny with less than two minutes left in the third quarter, and the frustration on Ball's face was unmistakable.
For someone so used to being an elite playmaker, to not have that transcendent connection with his teammates yet, it must hurt more than any layup that bounces off the side of the backboard or a bricked jumper.
"The way he plays the game, it's such a feel thing for him," coach Luke Walton said of Ball's first night. "I think he was feeling it out."
As disappointed as Ball is, the Lakers faithful are doubly so. This is supposed to be the year they snatch respectability back. No more shadow tank jobs. This is the team, for better or worse, blown defensive assignments and all.
By the fourth quarter, the boos rained down. A fumbled pass to Julius Randle, who then proceeded to get dunked on at the other end, finally set them off.
Ball was minus-14 during his time on the court, and his teammates shot only 40.7 percent from the field. Some of those misses could have been dimes for the rookie. "He made the right passes eight, nine times. We missed shots, open threes," Walton said.
The Lakers' other exciting rookie, Kyle Kuzma, made the team's growing pains sound like a simple fix. "Worry about playing hard. If you do that, all the little things fall your way," he told B/R.
The effort was there tonight, but it wasn't enough. If any optimism can be taken from this game, Lakers fans can look to last season. They beat the Rockets by six in the 2016-17 opener, a full-on mirage before the ugly year that led to the second pick in the draft that landed Ball.
But what you must be asking yourself now, after the schadenfreude wears off, is where was LaVar? Where was the braggadocious patriarch while his son struggled in his debut? Who knows? LaMelo made an inconspicuous arrival midway through the fourth quarter, with the outcome no longer in question. If the Big Baller takes a back seat to Lonzo's exploits on the court, as he probably should, the focus will remain on what the Little Baller can do on the court.
Without the grandstanding and cameos on Monday Night Raw, the questions will get louder. How ready should Lonzo Ball be? Should the amount of slack we give him be equal to or greater than the amount of expectations placed on his shoulders?
Walton seems unfazed by Ball's struggles: "He likes to take his time and not force things." The clock is ticking, though, and Los Angeles is famously impatient—especially when it's time to get in traffic.
Lakers fans, bolting for the exits with five minutes left in the game, were treated to the throaty screeches of Clipper Darrell taunting them for the shambolic performance.
The most damning part of it all? LaMelo left early, too.
And he doesn't even have school in the morning.