Shootaround (July 8) -- Ball gets started with Lakers
Plus, can the Pacers and Michael Carter-Williams turn things around?
This morning’s headlines:
Ball gets started with Lakers: The Lonzo Ball Experience is now in full effect with the Las Vegas Summer League (and he didn’t shoot very well in his debut) but actually, the process began as soon as commissioner Adam Silver called his name as the No. 2 pick. His selection just seemed like a natural, with Magic Johnson now controlling the basketball operations and Ball, a Southern Cal kid, is a rare pass-first point guard. Ramona Shelburne of ESPN took a stab at analyzing Ball and his potential impact on a franchise looking for star power and a turnaround:
For months before the draft, Magic Johnson had been 80 percent sure the Los Angeles Lakers were going to select Lonzo Ball. In his gut, Johnson felt like Ball was special — that he had the “it” factor needed to revitalize his hometown team, which was in the lottery for a fourth consecutive year. A big point guard himself, Johnson saw similarities in the 6-foot-6 Ball and his stylish, unselfish approach to the game.
But Johnson also knew that his own reputation — and the Lakers’ hopes of a rebuild that would put them back in the conversation as a destination for elite free agents the following summer — were riding on making the correct call with Lonzo. He knew he had to meet Ball’s outspoken father, LaVar, and decide whether all the hoopla and hysteria Lavar brought was really worth dealing with.
So on the Friday before last month’s NBA draft, Johnson and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka drove the hour and a half from Los Angeles to Chino Hills to see Lonzo — and LaVar — in their element.
For years, LaVar had waited for the Lakers to come calling about his eldest son. “I always felt it, that’s why my name is LaVar, LA-Var,” he says with a hearty laugh, delighting in the line he has just come up with. “It’s not ridiculous, it’s Ballicious!”
He laughs again. These lines, they just come to him now. He has been telling people Lonzo will be a Laker for 15 years, “speaking it into existence,” as he likes to say, and now it was about to come true.
“A lot of people don’t believe it because they’re like, ‘Man, how can LaVar have been so right all the time? It’s not fair,'” he says.
He’ll talk a big game (now that Lonzo is a Laker, he’s getting “I Told You So” T-shirts printed; they’ll soon be sold on the Big Baller Brand website). But when the Lakers came to his house, LaVar broke character — or caricature — and said the one thing professional hype masters never reveal.
“He just said it’s marketing,” Johnson says. “That’s what he had to do to market not only his son but the brand. Before I met him I had already thought that. I already knew what he was doing.”
But hearing it straight from LaVar’s mouth helped put Johnson and Pelinka at ease.
As Johnson recalls, “He said, ‘Earvin, look, I’m not following my son. I’m not going to be hanging out in L.A. I’m going to be training these young kids [his other sons].'”
“‘As far as training my boy, this is as far as I can take him,'” LaVar says he told Johnson. “‘I’ll leave it up to you to take him further. You can get him better with the film time and the coaching. You can take him to another level.'”
“I trust you with my boy. I just got a great feeling that you guys are going to take Zo to a whole other level.'”
It was the closing sales pitch the Lakers needed to hear. Less than a week later, they chose Lonzo No. 2 overall.graph.
If Lonzo becomes that next face of the franchise, if he lives up to what his father has said he is, and what Johnson hopes he is, the next chapter of that Lakers lore will write itself.
If he doesn’t, they’ll have to tear it up and try again.
In so many ways, this is a story about faith — a father’s faith in himself and his sons and Johnson’s faith in his gut instinct on Lonzo, who will make his debut Friday afternoon at the Las Vegas Summer League. But most importantly, it’s about the Lakers’ renewed faith in their own exceptionalism.
The franchise has always had a special quality, with Hall of Famers such as Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor among their alumni. Then in 1979, the year Dr. Jerry Buss bought the team from Jack Kent Cooke, the Lakers won a coin flip to be in position to draft Johnson, a sophomore from Michigan State, No. 1 overall.
Pacers can’t afford to win: Maybe they should have seen this coming last February when they had the chance to trade Paul George for more than what they received from Oklahoma City, but that’s all moot right now. Indiana’s best way to find the next Paul George is through the draft, or at least that’s the conventional wisdom, given how most teams are built. The wrong thing to do, according to Bob Kravitz of WTHR, is to start winning. Kravitz takes a look at the upcoming Pacers’ season and what’s at stake in the wake of the George trade:
The way Kevin Pritchard and his staff saw it, the Pacers could’ve gone in three different directions once they learned that Paul George was not coming back next year:
A. Bottomed out like the Philadelphia 76ers, could have brought in substandard players and a few lesser-known free agents and spent the next three years, or more, placing all their hope in the ping pong balls and the NBA Draft.
B. Joined the NBA arms race, traded for established, veteran players with post-season pedigrees and made a run at reaching the playoffs next season and beyond.
C. Traded for young players with what they hope is a significant upside while setting themselves up to have between $40 and $50 million in cap space after this coming season. That cap money wouldn’t necessarily be used on free agents – as we know, big-time free agents almost never come here – but it would be used to allow the Pacers to make uneven trades, i.e. trade a $1 million player for a player making $25 million. The salary cap is expected to stay flat next season, and the Pacers are set up to be one of the very few teams with the flexibility to make those kinds of moves.
Obviously, they went for Option C.
“We got two Lottery players who were part of a 47-win (Thunder) team,” Pritchard said. “There’s been speculation we want to start over. That’s not the case. We’ll be very competitive and have a team we can grow with. The Pacers don’t start at the very bottom. Very rarely in our storied history have we gone to the very bottom.”
Now, there’s only one way the Pacers could screw this whole thing up: By winning. By winning more than anybody expects them to win. By somehow making the playoffs in an Eastern Conference that has two good teams – Cleveland and Boston – and a whole lot of chattel.
This team needs to get back in the Lottery, a place they haven’t often resided in the last few decades. When they have, they’ve hit paydirt, drafting Paul George and Myles Turner. On paper, this is becoming the team Pritchard wants: Good enough to compete and grow together and be somewhat entertaining, and not good enough to make the post-season. (Well, Pritchard didn’t exactly say he wants to miss the playoffs, but you get the point).
On Friday, the Pacers introduced their three newcomers, Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Darren Collison. Then, moments after the press conference, news broke that the Pacers had signed a player who gives them some of the long-range shooting they so desperately need, Bojan Bogdanovic.
Mind you, they thought about diving into their own version of “The Process,” the interminable and painful approach the Philadelphia 76ers adopted. But neither Pritchard nor owner Herb Simon could bear the idea of presenting the fan base with a purposefully awful team that wouldn’t win 25 games. Simon, in particular, understands he needs to put fans in the seats and couldn’t wrap his head around the concept of bottoming out. The man is 82 years old; he’s not interested in a long-term rebuild or the idea of tearing the whole thing completely down.
So the Pacers took the middle road.
And it makes sense – unless they surprise everybody and somehow make the playoffs, which would be a great story and the absolute worst thing that could happen to this rebuilding franchise.
Could it all go terribly wrong? It could. It absolutely could. Half of the Eastern Conference is in the throes of a complete rebuild, so a sub-.500 record might be enough to make the post-season. What’s important to note, though, is the Pacers are trying to rebuild while adding young players while maintaining cap flexibility for next summer and beyond. Very few teams, maybe a handful, will have cap room next summer, setting themselves up for uneven trades and other teams’ salary dumps, so it’s not unreasonable to think Indiana could improve and improve quickly. Pritchard has overseen rebuilds before, taking the Blazers from 21 victories to 31, then 41, then 54, and he’s done it in a smaller market – although he says he doesn’t believe in the notion of small markets and adds, “We’ll compete with everybody.”
Carter-Williams at the crossroads: Every player fortunate enough to get drafted into the NBA would love to make history of some sort. Well, that happened to Michael Carter-Williams although not the type of history he had in mind. He became the first Rookie of the Year to fail to have his contract option picked up. That’s not a big vote of confidence and shows just how far his stock dropped since a very solid debut with the Sixers a few years ago. He’s now on his fourth team, and not only that, he signed for pennies with the Hornets compared to what other ex-rookie sensations are making (although to be fair, Tyreke Evans just signed for one year and $3 million with the Grizzlies, but he did have his option picked up). His historic journey was recently chronicled by Rick Bonnell of the Chatlotte Observer:
This Charlotte Hornets coaching staff has a strong record with reclamation projects.
Jeremy Lin was on the outs with the Los Angeles Lakers when he signed with the Hornets the summer of 2015. He played so well his single season in Charlotte that the Brooklyn Nets gave him a huge contract. Nic Batum was coming off his worst NBA season with the Portland Trail Blazers when the Hornets acquired him. A year later, he’d played so well the Hornets offered him $120 million.
Now the test is Michael Carter-Williams, the Hornets’ new backup point guard. He signed for a single season and $2.7 million, reflective of how his career has declined since being NBA Rookie of the Year in 2014.
He’s been traded twice in four seasons. His latest team, the Chicago Bulls, chose not to make him a qualifying offer to restrict his free agency. He never caught on as a Bull after being traded from the Milwaukee Bucks halfway through the preseason.
“It was hard in Chicago,” Carter-Williams said in a one-on-one interview with the Observer. “I came in off an injury (a knee bruise). I didn’t get a training camp in Chicago. I was behind a lot in the plays, in the team’s chemistry. Everything in the organization was going in a different direction.
“It’s different here. It’s a bright light for me; they know their direction and they’re looking for pieces. I think I can be a big help.”
Carter-Williams’ flaws are well-chronicled: He is a career 25 percent 3-point shooter in a league where long-range shooting is evermore important. He’s not the best pick-and-roll point guard, and that is central to almost every NBA offense.
But consider the assets: He is 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot wingspan, which allows him to defend either guard position and disrupt passing lanes. He has five career triple-doubles and flirted with a quadruple-double his first game in the NBA.
As starting point guard Kemba Walker said Wednesday, there is every reason for him to be as hungry as any Hornet this season.
“He feels he has to prove himself,” said Walker, who served as a matchmaker between the Hornets and Carter-Williams. “I don’t think there’s any other situation he should be in, but with us.”
The structure is there: The Hornets have a respected shooting coach in Bruce Kreutzer and a point-guard guru in Steve Hetzel, who helped Walker reach All-Star status.
This is a prime opportunity to get back on course, and potentially earn a lucrative multiyear contract with the Hornets or some other team in the summer of 2018.
Walker and Carter-Williams share roots in the old configuration of the Big East; Walker starred for Connecticut and Carter-Williams played for Syracuse before the Philadelphia 76ers drafted him 11th overall in 2013.
These two worked out together the summer before Carter-Williams’ rookie season. They have the same agent, Jeff Schwartz, who represents several Hornets.
So when Walker did his sales pitch – both to Carter-Williams and Hornets management – he drew everyone’s attention.
“Any time your best player endorses a player, you’ve got to listen,” Hornets general manager Rich Cho said.
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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Pistons’ move to get Avery Bradley and boot Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was actually pretty good, so says at least one fan of the decision in Detroit … The Orlando Magic are one of the few teams with cap room but are sitting out free agency for the most part … Yes, there are scouting reports on Kelly Olynyk, the newest member of the Heat, and here’s what they say about Miami’s signing … Derrick White, the Spurs’ top pick, is unusual among rookies: He’s 23 years old and also has student loan debt … This might be the longest story ever written in Minneapolis regarding Ricky Rubio, and it’s an oral history at that … The Wizards are yawning at the offer sheet given to Otto Porter, a player largely expected to have that sheet matched by the Wiz … Is it too early to start thinking about the Sixers losing one of their prized young rookies to free agency?