The 2017-18 Lakers were defined by a rookie. Amid a rebuild, they gravitated toward their most exciting asset: Lonzo Ball. The Lakers were a franchise that turned into a vehicle for one of the most boisterous marketing campaigns ever wheeled out for a rookie. From Big Baller Brand to the summer league hype to the injury to the inconsistent shooting to the family’s Lithuanian sideshow, and all the highlight plays in between, Lonzo became a cult figure out of necessity. It didn’t help that his father never met a mic he didn’t like speaking into.
Lonzo was supposed to be a franchise player. Instead, he’ll go from the forefront to the background now; the spotlight will move off of one of the most polarizing prospects in recent years. That’s what happens when LeBron James agrees to sign with your team. The Lakers are his team now.
Lonzo isn’t necessarily going to stay a Laker; the very first ripple effects of LeBron’s move are already starting to hit the shore in the form of the Lakers’ immediate additions: all misfit veterans, with Tyreke Evans (a shooter they badly need) possibly on his way. Soon enough, the All-Stars will probably come too.
Los Angeles will get to root for LeBron now, but the fans can start to wave goodbye to their lovable team of younglings, or at least this iteration of them. A Kawhi Leonard trade feels imminent, which likely means that one or more of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, and Lonzo will be headed to San Antonio. That’s the price you pay for a win-now squad.
Lonzo feels different than the rest of the young Lakers. In any reported deals for Kawhi, he hasn’t been included. Though it doesn’t sound like he’s untouchable, it’s hard to imagine him playing elsewhere.
Should he stay, Lonzo’s career would be fascinating to track. LeBron should make him (as well as anyone else wearing purple and gold) better, but Lonzo—with his uncanny passing ability and vision, good rebounding, and solid defense—should return the favor too. Ball was already passing at an All-Star level last season (7.2 assists per game), but this is LeBron we’re talking about; he’s not going to wait around for Lonzo to improve. And that’s where things get interesting. Lonzo’s shooting remains a question, even though it improved in the latter half of last season (31 percent from 3, 37 percent from the field), making him primarily a ball handler and passer, two traits which LeBron has more heavily adopted in the twilight of his career. Can Lonzo play off the ball? TBD. Will he be reduced to a role player? Probably.
LeBron’s not coming to L.A. to be an off-the-ball player on this team. He will be the hub, everyone else the spokes. He’s coming off one of his best seasons ever, after all, and Lonzo, though a solid player, is still a project.
It’s also important to note that this LeBron decision was a lifestyle move. Signing for four years will put him in Los Angeles through the final years of his prime, so it’s clear he wants to live in Los Angeles. One thing he likely won’t want to do during his golden years in L.A.: deal with LaVar Ball. Over the course of just one season, the elder Ball criticized everyone from Lonzo’s teammates to coach Luke Walton, forcing the Lakers to install rules to keep him away from reporters. He went on CNN and every possible sports media outlet to spout his opinions. His first comments about LeBron will be immediate news. It won’t matter how good Lonzo could be. If his father is an unavoidable issue, LeBron could easily call for Lonzo’s ousting.
When LeBron returned to Cleveland in 2014, his Sports Illustrated letter gave us a window into his team-building process. Andrew Wiggins wasn’t mentioned for a reason. He was traded to Minnesota quickly. By all accounts, LeBron respects Lonzo and his talents, but the question is whether the King values them enough to keep L.A.’s favorite prince around.