The 2016–17 season was a decidedly strange one for the Lakers. The year before, with the team mired in a rebuild and a season-long send-off of Kobe Bryant, marked the franchise’s all-time worst record, 17–65. As Bryant hobbled through swan song after swan song, the players we were told were the future — Julius Randle and principally D’Angelo Russell, the 2015 draft’s second overall pick — mostly did as they were apparently told: wait it out. With the second pick in the 2016 draft, the Lakers took consensus top-two player Brandon Ingram of Duke. Led by Ingram, Russell, and Randle, the 2016–17 season seemed like it might be the beginning of a new, younger, mostly less bombastic Lakers squad.
In hindsight, it seems obvious that this plan was never going to work in L.A.: The gritty reboot was acceptable only while its blockbuster predecessor was still in syndication. With Bryant gone, the Lakers were suddenly what they hadn’t been in a long time: boring. The 2016–17 Lakers won 26 games in a season marked chiefly by front-office dysfunction and inexplicable late-season victories. Bad, it seems, was palatable to the post-Kobe Lakers; boring was not.
We now know it was a one-off. This, after all, is a franchise that had Kobe, Shaq, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Wilt Chamberlain before them — and then brought Magic back as an executive despite his lack of experience in such a role. The Lakers like a star, and they made room for one, shipping Russell (and Timofey Mozgov) off to Brooklyn in exchange for Brook Lopez, leaving a point-guard-shaped hole behind him. Lonzo Ball couldn’t even bring himself to sound remorseful about being the one to tear that iteration of the Lakers down before it could begin: “It’s just how it works,” he told reporters.
Now that Los Angeles has selected Ball with the no. 2 pick in Thursday’s draft, the inevitable match feels like destiny. Lonzo Ball was made for the Lakers; the Lakers readily remade themselves for him.
Perhaps you find Lonzo off-putting. Maybe it’s the nerve of his family to launch a brand before Lonzo has even established whether he’s going to be a star in the NBA, the audaciousness of naming it something as single-mindedly ridiculous as “Big Baller Brand,” the insolence of rolling out a pair of unknown, untested shoes for $495. Maybe it’s that we are obliged to talk about the Ball family, both due to LaVar Ball’s heady insistence on being part of the show and his son supporting him in it. “When your last name is Ball,” LaVar told the Daily Bruin last year, “what do you think you’re going to do — ball until you fall.”
It’s difficult to look away — and that is an accomplishment in and of itself. What the Balls have done, up to and including positioning a 19-year-old amateur as a villain to be loathed and feared by the entire league, is remarkable. It’s impressive. What does it matter that the $495 shoes, made and sold by people who have never made or sold shoes before, might be bad? Kim Kardashian West makes tens of millions of dollars a year from her apps. The correct response, after jealousy, is probably admiration. Wouldn’t you do it if you could? Wouldn’t you sell emoji of yourself for $2.99 a pop? Wouldn’t you make a logo out of your last name and try to get it into the hands of anyone with money to spare?
With Lonzo, some of the intrigue comes from the appearance of a sort of haughty self-awareness in his trolling. It’s a knowing quest for our attention, for our applause, for our groans, with a vicious understanding of how to work the 2017 attention marketplace. He’ll make fun of his dad in a Foot Locker commercial; he’ll point to the team he wants, and he’ll get it.
It helps that he is, in fact, a joy to watch on the court. In addition to being one of the most productive players in the country as a freshman at UCLA, he has a kind of preternatural feel for the game, constantly making unexpected plays that seem obvious after the fact. If all the fussing over him feels overblown, it’s perhaps only slightly so.
Meanwhile, his father surrounds himself with bodyguards and cameramen, apparently in the midst of filming a documentary. On June 3, the Lakers leaked that they didn’t love Lonzo. “Team isn’t convinced he’s a star and remains concerned about LaVar,” wrote Yahoo Sports’s Jordan Schultz. They seem to have been convinced.
Ball isn’t humble. He doesn’t want to be, and perhaps he doesn’t need to be. What could be more Los Angeles than that?