LOS ANGELES — The Lakers season is winding down, well short of their playoff goal. It wasn't supposed to be this way at 31-38, not with LeBron James in town and a roster filled with young players poised for stardom.
Injuries and chemistry took care of those hopes. And while the season at hand was the greatest loss, right behind it was the development those young players were supposed to make with James. Few lost more than second-year point guard Lonzo Ball, sidelined since he suffered an ankle injury in a Jan. 19 loss to Houston and ruled out for the rest of the season.
On the court, Ball needed time to adjust to playing alongside a superstar like James. Gradually, though, the two began to build a rapport, with Ball proving to be a willing and active screener to help James get open lanes to the basket. The 2017 No. 2 overall pick made his biggest mark defensively, with relentless activity, great hands and sharp instincts.
"He's an impact player on that side of the ball," a Western Conference executive said. "I'm surprised he's that good defensively. Coming out of UCLA, that was a question."
In the 34 games Ball and James played together this season, the Lakers won 20, per NBA.com. That's a 58.8 winning percentage, which projects to 40-ish wins through 69 games played. It would put the Lakers in range of the Houston Rockets (43-26), Portland Trail Blazers (42-26) and Oklahoma City Thunder (42-27), fighting for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Over that stretch, whenever James and Ball shared the court, the Lakers had an offensive net rating of 105.8 points per 100 possessions, a positive 3.1 with the team's 102.7 defensive rating. In comparison, the tandem of veteran point guard Rajon Rondo and James has an offensive rating of 101.4, a defensive rating of 108 and a minus-6.6 net rating.
Injuries prevented Ball and James from seeing what they could have become. James' strained groin Christmas Day cost him 18 games (including one for "load management"), during which time Ball and his younger teammates managed only six wins. Brandon Ingram will miss 30 games (currently out with deep vein thrombosis but also sidelined earlier with a sprained ankle and suspension for fighting). Rondo has missed 34 games with hand injuries.
That's a lot of playmaking sitting in suits on the bench.
In that light, it shouldn't come as a shock the Lakers rank 22nd overall in offensive efficiency at 107.4. That's not enough when your defensive rating sits at 109.1. That wasn't supposed to happen with James on board, but even he has felt the impact of Ball's absence.
With Ball hurt, James' individual rating has remained solid offensively at 109.8 but has plummeted on the defensive end (111.3) with a net of minus-1.5. The numbers also indicate the Lakers have scored at a far more efficient rate when James is not paired with Rondo. That's true of James without Ball as well, but the difference defensively is stark. The James/Ball defensive rating of 102.7 would be better than the top-ranked Milwaukee Bucks' 104.6.
Individually, Ball is still an unfinished product with some obvious flaws. When he misses a jump shot, it might be a leaden brick or complete air ball. His awkward shooting form appears as if it stems from his early days as a youth, developed before he had the arm strength to hoist the ball far enough with proper technique.
If Ball is to become a truly valued complement to James, he has to be more of a scoring threat to help space the floor. He doesn't have to reach Stephen Curry levels, but a steady 38 percent clip from three-point range would be a boon for the Lakers.
Ball improved as a finisher at the basket, helping boost his overall field-goal percentage from 36 percent to 40.6 percent this season, but that still isn't much to get excited about. If he can find a balance between drives and three-pointers, perhaps he can score at close to a solid 45 percent. He's already a willing passer (to a fault), but if he can't be a reliable scoring threat, teams are going to play off him.
This season's extended absence, following the 30 games he missed as a rookie (which preceded offseason knee surgery that sidelined him through the start of training camp) has put Ball behind in his development to fellow draft classmates such as Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, De'Aaron Fox, John Collins and teammate Kyle Kuzma.
To be fair, Ball's absence was only one of many that have conspired to send the Lakers spiraling out of the playoff picture. That the Lakers reportedly offered nearly the entire roster, including Ball, to the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis ahead of February's trade deadline was a morale killer.
Los Angeles likely will revisit talks with New Orleans over the summer, and with recently fired general manager Dell Demps out of the decision-making picture, his successor may have a greater interest in a Lakers offer.
If so, Ball and his $8.7 million salary would be needed to make a deal with the Pelicans work, although he could be rerouted to another franchise in a multiteam deal. (In February, ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk reported that Ball's father, LaVar, doesn't want his son to play in New Orleans, which could complicate matters further.)
But if the Lakers move on from Davis and land another ball-dominant guard like Kyrie Irving, Ball's 6'6" frame would be a good complement defensively. One of Ball's strengths is that he doesn't need the ball to affect the game, but he would need to master the catch-and-shoot three.
If the Lakers land someone like Kawhi Leonard instead, keeping Ball would allow L.A. to run two foundational defenders out on the court alongside the individual scoring prowess of James (of course, Leonard isn't too bad a scorer, either).
In truth, Ball's skills could work alongside just about any star available this summer, whether it be Klay Thompson (one of the game's elite perimeter defenders) or Kevin Durant. Ball can play with any of them—more so if he can become a true floor-spacer himself.
Regardless of his destination, the 21-year-old needs a productive summer to strengthen both his body and his skills.
When healthy, Ball has shown he can be a positive force, but both he and the Lakers have a lot of development ahead of them if they hope to come anywhere close to meeting their great expectations.