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'It Gets Old All the Time:' Lakers Already Sick of Lavar Ball-Walton Controversy

Dave Schilling@@dave_schillingWriter-at-LargeJanuary 8, 2018

Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball (2) and Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton in the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The Lakers must have seen this coming, the unrestrained punditry of their prized draft pick's father. You can't say we didn't warn them. After a year of LaVar Ball's proclaiming his spawn, Lonzo, as the best young basketball player of his generation (or many of those before) while his son was at UCLA, it should have been as bright and visible as Magic Johnson's smile. This moment, in which a player's dad challenged the legitimacy of his adult child's boss to a reporter, was inevitable.

So why were the Lakers not ready?

That's a question that might never have a suitable answer. The front office made an effort—from the preseason come-to-Jesus meeting to banning the media from trolling around the family room—but with LaVar as far away from Jeanie Buss as he could possibly get while still being on this planet, it's only a surprise that it took this long for him to declare Luke Walton had lost his players. Though I'd say if LaVar Ball were stranded in space, he'd find a way to broadcast his opinions back to Earth like a basketball version of Matt Damon in The Martian.

The more pressing question at this point is: Was he right? Are the Lakers a leaderless team fated to continue sinking deeper into the abyss?

It's a precarious moment in L.A. A nine-game losing streak was finally snapped on a night when the Lakers played the NBA's worst team. Sure, they still gave up 113 points to the Hawks, but they won by virtue of scoring a whole hell of a lot more. They're 12-27—in a year pegged as their first step out of the league's dumpster.

Questions about chemistry, the quality of the coaching and the talent level of the personnel are not uncommon when a team struggles this much. The entire sports media ecosystem is based on debating such things 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The coach's job is to somehow not explode and still win games.

"We have to trust each other. We have to have each other's backs," Walton told reporters after Sunday night's victory over Atlanta. "We work together. That's obviously not always going to be 100 percent true, but that's the messaging all year long: 'Don't let outside influence influence what we're doing.'"

Messaging is often all we get.

"The people that matter to what we're doing are all in [the locker room]," Walton said.

This is boilerplate stuff for a team besieged with outside distraction. Every interview Sunday night involved a player preaching the virtues of defense, hard work, etc. No one stepped out of line. There was no pouting on the bench or lack of effort. The Lakers played like a team desperate to get a win and were relieved they got it.

They're also desperate to move on from the flash flood of controversy that washed over them Sunday. The mood in the locker room was more solemn than one would expect from a team that just won. The players who hung around to talk to the press dressed in silence and dutifully went about their business. It's not because they hate one another or their coach. It's because they're tired of the heaviness of what it means to play here.

"It gets old all the time," Larry Nance Jr. said to B/R regarding the media scrutiny, a look of exasperation on his face. "But at the same time, the things that get old, the things that irritate you one game help you the next game, help you off the court with endorsement deals."

Michael Wyke/Associated Press

Nance's statement illustrated the primary cause of this drama. People like LaVar Ball can thrive by saying things that are either dripping with hyperbole or just blatantly false because of how lucrative it can be. In response to a question about his father's comments, Lonzo said, "I just play basketball."

But he doesn't "just play basketball." He stars in a web series. He sells shoes. He appears in sitcoms.

A major part of why that's possible is because of his dad. Regardless of what we're told every night, there's a world that exists outside the basketball court, and it influences the decisions players, coaches and team staff make. Lonzo Ball is, in a way, a byproduct of that—a player minted as a superstar before he even logged a minute in the Association.

This situation is notable in the history of the coaching hot seat because it's Walton, beloved in Los Angeles and esteemed by his colleagues. He's so popular that Mavericks coach and president of the National Basketball Coaches Association Rick Carlisle felt the need to come to his defense Sunday, saying coverage of LaVar Ball is a "disgrace." Rumors abound that coaches, as a group, are going to start asking team media relations departments to revoke the credentials of any journalist who dares to ask LaVar a question.

Shutting him out is not the answer. If it were, the Lakers' rule against talking to family would have been the end of this.

LaVar Ball has a cellphone, a computer and an internet connection. That's all he needs to get his message out in 2018. More importantly, the interest is there from the audience. Virtually every sports outlet (Bleacher Report certainly among them) aggregates and reports many of his public statements.

The context of what he says is what matters.

LaVar isn't in the Lakers locker room. He's not polling the 16 rostered players on the Lakers. He's not even in the country. He's lobbing these bombs from Lithuania, where his other two sons have been forced to ply their trade after LaVar pulled them out of school. That he might have some inside knowledge of this team is preposterous at best. He can get AAU coaches fired, thumb his nose at the NCAA and claim to have willed his son's professional destiny into existence. But can he change the course of an NBA franchise by himself?

Right now, it appears LaVar's powers are limited. Walton's job status is "not even a conversation," according to an ESPN source.

This is a team desperate for consistency, yearning for stability—consistent rotations, a lack of trade chatter, a vision. The Lakers held a closed-door team meeting for this very reason. This is not the first time the Lakers have had to stage-manage a media crisis, nor will it be the last. The person most keenly aware of this is Walton. He was there for the last wild days of Kobe and Shaq, the dissolution of a dynasty. He was also there for the redemption of three NBA Finals trips in a row from 2007-08 to 2009-10 and two championships.

"There's a lot of distractions outside the game of basketball when you play in a city, for this team, because of the history they have," he said. "We need to focus our energy and our minds on what we're doing. That's the message we send every day: 'Don't worry about what people on Twitter are saying. Don't worry about what this media outlet's saying or that one or your agent.'"

In theory, it sounds good. In the modern NBA, that's almost impossible.

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