It’s rare for the private workings of a locker room to become as public as those of the Los Angeles Lakers did over the weekend. Even more rare is for the source revealing the discord to be 5,873 miles away from said locker room.
LaVar Ball, in Lithuania with his two youngest sons, LiAngelo and LaMelo, told ESPN’s Jeff Goodman on Sunday that Lakers head coach Luke Walton “doesn’t have control of the team no more. They don’t want to play for him.”
Ball referenced Walton’s rotation management during last Friday’s 108-94 loss to the Hornets as an example. “Lonzo looked good, but he also looked disgusted,” Ball said. “He was ready to play. Four minutes left in the first quarter, he dunked it, getting in a flow and Coach sits him down. [...] Now game goes from four points to 10 to 15 to 20. [...] If he’s ready to play, let him play. Don’t try and monitor no minutes, put on restrictions.”
(As Goodman points out, the Lakers did not drop to a 20-point deficit after Lonzo was substituted out in the first quarter. It was a four-point game when Walton took the rookie point guard out; it was a four-point game when Lonzo re-entered less than five minutes later, at the start of the second.)
But the ESPN story’s other nuggets—LaVar confidently predicting that LeBron James will decide to join the Lakers in his upcoming free agency this summer, that Walton is the wrong coach for James, and that Los Angeles should “get rid” of everyone, and sign LiAngelo—have caused shockwaves.
On Sunday, before the Lakers’ 132-113 win over Atlanta, Walton responded to Ball, saying that he did not believe he had lost control of his locker room. “He’s not bothered by what LaVar says as long as it doesn’t impact or bother Lonzo Ball,” ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk reported.
When asked about his decision to sit Lonzo during the end of the first quarter, Walton replied that Lonzo’s “dad was talking shit, so I took him out early.” After a long pause, Walton clarified that he was kidding.
LaVar has a well-documented history of speaking out against his son’s coaches. Most recently, he made the decision to homeschool his youngest, LaMelo, during his sophomore year at Chino Hills High School, after disagreeing with coach Dennis Latimore. He blamed UCLA coach Steve Alford for LiAngelo’s shoplifting fiasco in China, and withdrew him from school before the middle son played a game in Westwood.
But in the NBA, the choice to yank Lonzo, or transfer him elsewhere, is not an option for three more seasons. And, per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne, firing Walton is “not even a conversation.”
The larger discussion—one that has been constantly unfolding since LaVar entered the national spotlight—is about whether or not to ignore him altogether. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle has already criticized ESPN for pursuing LaVar and deciding to publish his comments. Other coaches around the league, per Sam Amico of Amico Hoops, are planning to ask their franchise’s media relations personnel to “revoke credentials” of basketball reporters that interview LaVar.
But considering Lonzo’s close relationship to his father and the effect LaVar could have on Lonzo’s future, the patriarch of the Ball family is relevant to the NBA, and banning reporters from talking to him is effectively preventing reporters from doing their jobs. LaVar’s quotes will find an audience whether or not he is interviewed by high-profile outlets. If LaVar’s words hold no merit, it is the responsibility of the Lakers’ front office to defend Walton. That especially falls on the franchise’s most public executives, GM Rob Pelinka and president of basketball operations Magic Johnson, who have been unusually vocal on countless other subjects (sometimes, in the case of “wink-winking” at Paul George, too vocal) since assuming their current roles in February 2017.
There is a tough decision ahead for Lonzo Ball. Either he will have to speak out against his father and support his coach, or continue to undermine Walton with silence.