Lonzo Ball

LeBron James, Lakers embark on arduous process with a thud

LeBron James, Lakers embark on arduous process with a thud

LeBron James on Thursday night delivered a nifty, no-look, behind-the-back bounce pass that helped define his unique court vision and knack for finding the open man amid the frenzied chaos of a NBA basketball game. 

Only this time not one of James' new Los Angeles Lakers teammates stood in the path of his offering that ultimately went out of bounds for a turnover during a 128-119 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers at the Moda Center.

"I expected (Kyle Kuzma] to pop and he rolled," James said.

Such bumbling, and there were several, illustrate the chasm between where the Lakers are and where they want to end up. This is what happens when you take one of the greatest players of all time and stick him in the middle of a team filled with veteran castoffs and young players with boundless potential but very little in the way of tangible preparedness to play on James' level. 

So went the debut of LeBron James 4.0. The most hyped free agent since his last go around at this four years ago, is attempting to revive one of the NBA's most storied franchises in what would be his greatest trick ever should he help deliver a 17th NBA title to the Lakers and first since 2010. 

It's a journey that is going to take time. So much so that the Lakers, including James and coach Luke Walton, expressed zero shock at Thursday night's outcome or in how inconsistently they performed. It appeared almost as if each player almost expected the pot holes and speed bumps that made their regular season debut together go anything but smoothly. 

Patience is going to be the word of the day everyday until the Lakers figure this thing out. 

"That's all I've been preaching since the season started, since we got to work that it's going to take patience from our team, from all of us," James said. "Just to figure out one another. Figure out what we're good at. Figure out what we're not so good at. How we can be better at it."

James, not known for his patience in such situations, might need to exercise more than he ever has before, and do so knowing that at age 33 his basketball biological clock is ticking. 

During his first stint with Cleveland (version 1.0) that began in 2003, James, then 19, was the youngster asked to carry a team unworthy of his greatness. He did so to one finals appearance that ended in a sweep to San Antonio. The second incarnation (2.0) occurred in Miami where James, 26, orchestrated the union of himself and peers, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, leading to two NBA titles, but only after the Heat failed miserably in a finals loss to Dallas. Seeking redemption for ditching his home state team, James returned to Cleveland at age 30 to lead a younger set of stars in Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to a title (3.0). Now with the Lakers (4.0), James, 33, finds himself attempting to help raise an even younger core group dotted with some strategically selected veterans void of much past success in terms of winning other than point guard Rajon Rondo. 

So, James, how long will this chemistry experiment take to reach fruition?

"Not as fast as you guys think it's going to happen," he said. "I always kind of compare it to instant oatmeal. It's not that fast. It takes a while for the chemistry to get to where you can close your eyes and know exactly where your guys are."

We saw glimpses Thursday of where the team hopes to be but with more regularity and production. These Lakers want to run just like their president of basketball operations, Magic Johnson's Showtime Lakers did in the 1980s while winning five NBA titles. Los Angeles produced 34 fast break points against the Blazers with two coming off of a steal and dunk by James early in the game. 

"Great pace," reserve guard Josh Hart said. "We like playing at that pace."

This team is certainly built to do so. 

James, of course, is a fearless, powerful, yet graceful open-floor force. Point guards Lonzo Ball and Rondo like to propel the action forward.  Kuzma and Brandon Ingram can certainly fill lanes and finish. However, the team shot horribly from three-point range (7 of 30), but Walton said he was cool with the looks the team got and expects those shots to fall as the season goes along. Defensively, the team was a mess, botching rotations through poor feel and communication. The rebounding also needs work.

"We had some good, we had some bad, which is expected for a game one," James said. 

Nothing that went down alarmed Walton.  

"First game," he said. "We'll be able to learn a lot from that."

The number one lesson of all will be how to play with James. Please James. Satisfy James. Live up to James' expectations. Essentially, be what James needs them to be in order to win. 

The younger players already recognize the impact of having a dynamic and intelligent player such as James on the court drawing attention from defenses while also being more than willing to share the ball. 

"It gives me easier baskets," Ingram said. "It puts me in better spots around the basket. He gets me easier shots than I've ever had before."

Said Ball, "It makes it easy because everybody is focused on him. We're the supporting cast...We get open shots. It's not really hard to play with him."

For this program to flourish, James must take the clear reverence these young players have for him and use his influence to bring them along at the proper pace. The trick is that, for example, Ball and Ingram are far less advanced than Irving and Love were when James returned to Cleveland. 

"It's still early," James said. "We're literally less than a month in...We've got to go through some things. Go through some adversity and see how guys react to it. See what gets guys going."

Walton, just 28, will likely lean on James through this process. 

"I'm glad he's on our team. He's pretty good at the game of basketball," Walton said with a smile. "The way he can kind of control and lead from the court, it's impressive."

Walton also expressed admiration for how well James engaged with the younger players. 

"He keeps the guys calm, especially on the road in a hostile environment when the other team is going on a run he has a calming way about him," Walton said.

James remaining calm will allow this team to work through its issues without feeling overwhelmed. He said the best teacher is experience, of which he has more than everyone else on the team by far. The key, he said, is not expecting excellence overnight while still demanding the team's pursuit of excellence on a daily basis.

"You control what you can control and what I can control is how I lead these guys and how I prepare everyday," James said. "I come in with a championship mindset and preaching and practicing excellence every day. I believe that will wear off [on the team]."

Magic Johnson has said that he constructed this team to be good in the playoffs by being capable of running, playing defense and letting James close. An eye toward the 2019 postseason is the goal, not looking sharp in what remains of 2018. James said he would constantly preach patience and following the process to his team until, it all comes together.  

"You'll know when it happens," James said. 

If it does, these Lakers could be something to behold. 

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The Lakers are getting what they deserve from LaVar Ball

The Lakers are getting what they deserve from LaVar Ball

The youngest pair of the Ball kids are in Lithuania, taking a stab at pro basketball far from home. Why do I think this has no chance of working out well?

Of course, ESPN has a crew following the Ball family, much to the chagrin of a lot of people. In fact, Golden State Coach Steve Kerr spoke for many Monday about the coverage of Old Man Ball:

“I was thinking about ESPN, and they laid off, I don’t know, 100 people,” Kerr said. “How many people did they lay off over the last year? Well over 100, many of whom were really talented journalists covering the NBA. So, this is not an ESPN judgment, it’s a societal thing more than anything. Where we’re going is we’re going away from covering the game, and we’re going toward just sensationalized news. It’s not even news, really. It’s just complete nonsense. But if you package that irrational nonsense with glitter and some ribbon, people are going to watch.

“So, I talked to people in the media this year. I said, ‘Why do you guys have to cover that guy?’ And they say, ‘Well, we don’t want to, but our bosses tell us we have to because of the ratings, because of the readership.’ Somewhere, I guess in Lithuania, LaVar Ball is laughing. People are eating out of his hands for no apparent reason, other than that he’s become the Kardashian of the NBA or something.”

I tend to agree with Kerr but I also understand that if news outlets, blogs or websites don't give people what they want, they will soon be out of business. And the public is fascinated by the loud-mouthed father and his impact on his talented sons.

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Caught in the crossfire of all of it is Los Angeles Laker Coach Luke Walton, pretty much an innocent bystander. The Lakers had to know what would happen when they drafted this kid -- his father's  meddling behavior was no secret. I think Walton has done a very good job with his young Laker team this season but, of course, the elder Ball has alleged that Walton has lost control of the team and players don't want to play for him.

Yes, a lot of NBA parents would like to blame coaches for the problems their kids are having -- and I'm guessing if they start popping off about it, there will be a microphone in their face, too. But this guy is a rare one in that he doesn't seem to understand the impact his antics are having on his children. And that makes him news whether we like it or not.

The biggest problem in Los Angeles, though -- and the reason people are actually listening to the Old Man -- is that the Lakers themselves set the  bar way too high for their performance this season. I was sitting in the Thomas & Mack Center last summer when the Lakers beat Portland for the summer-league championship and the celebration, in front of a pro-Laker crowd and NBA-TV, was way over the top. And the centerpiece of all that was an overly excited Magic Johnson proclaiming, "The Lakers are back!"

Ugh. No way. It's the freaking summer league. And Magic should have known better. But summer league helped create an unrealistic expectation that Ball was going to be an immediate superstar and that the Lakers were ready to contend for a playoff spot. And when expectations aren't met, people always look for scapegoats. The elder Ball found his -- the coach -- and it's just his way to take the heat off his son, who hasn't had the kind of season the Lakers obviously expected from him.

Fans, searching for who to blame, are ready to latch onto the coaching narrative because they never want to blame players.

And it became Luke Walton's job to try to meet those lofty expectations with a team and a point guard not ready for such a task. He deserves better and I don't blame the media or LaVar Ball. The Lakers set themselves up for this and they did their coach wrong by it.

Lonzo Ball's jump shot seems to prove his dad isn't the "best coach ever"

Lonzo Ball's jump shot seems to prove his dad isn't the "best coach ever"

After watching Lonzo Ball in summer league I was interested to see him in person again last week.

But he was pretty much a no-show against the Trail Blazers. Damian Lillard outscored him 32-0, which you know by know. But I'm not here to tear him apart. I think he's going to be a very good NBA player, one who pushes the pace and sees the court. He;s unselfish and is willing to take responsibility for his actions on the court.

But oh my, that jump shot. It appears nobody on the Lakers' staff has touched it since the summer and at some point, I think he's going to have to put in some work on it. There have been plenty of successful NBA players with funky shooting mechanics, but I cannot see how this kid will ever reach his potential with a shot that takes so long to load and is so far from linear that it's always going to be very fragile. You can read Charles Barkley's take on the shot here, with video, and Chuck is correct.

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What amazes me about the way the kid shoots, though, is that he's coming out of the basketball factory of his father, LaVar, the self-proclaimed "best coach ever." This man actually does seem to believe that he has the cheat code to creating basketball players. But when your son hits the NBA with a shot that broken, it certainly reflects on the "coach" who has approved those mechanics -- and is still approving them:

"Oh, ain't nobody tinkering with his shot. He's going to shoot the same way, comfortable, like I said, who cares about his shot," he said.

Lonzo will eventually settle in at a decent percentage if he continues to shoot that way. The good NBA players put in so much work that improvement is inevitable. But until he lines that shot up better, he's not going to ever reach his potential as a shooter or a player. At some point, somebody on the Laker staff is going to have to tell the old man to go sit on the sidelines and shut up while they do some renovation on that jumper.

But do you think that will happen?



Trail Blazers made right move taking Swanigan over Bell

Trail Blazers made right move taking Swanigan over Bell

LAS VEGAS -- The Trail Blazers have moved into the second round of the summer league's tournament and will face top-seeded Toronto tonight at 7 o'clock in what I like to call "The Tourney Nobody Really Cares About Winning."

Unless you win it, of course. Then you can tell your fans that it's a sign their franchise is on the right track.

And that could possibly be true, of course. But winning the title could also just mean that you got a team together quickly and went to either Orlando or Salt Lake City summer leagues before coming here and so your team has spent a lot of time playing together. Or maybe you have four or five players from your regular-season team here. Or perhaps you just had good luck picking up some experienced free agents to play for your summer team. Or even more rare, that you actually care about winning the tournament -- which isn't common.

As you can see, I'm not big on this tournament, which seems to me more of a money grab than anything else. Most teams have already had enough games to get what they want out of this little carnival of turnovers and would prefer to not risk further injury to key players.

But it is a chance to see some of the new players heading into the NBA this season. I haven't had enough opportunity to see them all for a long enough period to make any major judgments but I have a couple of thoughts I'll share:

The first thing I want to talk about is Jordan Bell, because a lot of Ducks fans are already going off the deep end about how Portland should have drafted him instead of Caleb Swanigan. Um, no. I don't think so.

Bell is probably going to be a very nice off-the-bench contributor for the Golden State Warriors. He'll rebound, block a shot or two, hustle all over the floor and he's going to profit from playing in a great system alongside some terrific players who will probably make him look a little better than he is. But after watching both Bell and Swanigan here, it's hard for me to say Bell should have been picked ahead of Swanigan.

Swanigan is the more skilled player. More well-rounded. He can do most of the things Bell can do and also make shots from distance. And he's more than two years younger than Bell -- which means he probably has more room for improvement and a couple of more seasons in his career. He's also bigger than Bell and the one question left with Bell is how he's going to operate against bigger, more experienced players once he reaches the NBA.

Nothing against Bell. I like him. I think he was a very good choice for the Warriors, who will make good use of him. But in terms of eventually being a starting player and major contributor I think most people here would take Swanigan.

More Thoughts From Summer League

I'm anxious to see more of Lonzo Ball. He's such an interesting player and, I think, difficult to assess at this point. Yes, he can pass -- but he's not the clever, tricky sort of passer I expected. He is not flashy to any great degree. And that's not a knock on him. He makes the right reads and delivers the ball appropriately.

But he also seems just a little slower than I expected. It will be interesting to see what tempo the Lakers will play with him at the helm. And yes, his shooting form is terrible. His old man, LaVar, seems to act as if he's created the perfect player in Lonzo but I can't believe that's the best he could do with the the kid's shooting mechanics. It is more of a set shot than a jumper and takes a little while for him to load.

That said, he seems to have the "it" factor they love in LA. He's got a star quality about him. And it's going to be fun to see if he can make good on all the expectations the Lakers have for him.

And maybe he will even add a summer-league championship ring to his resume. As if there is such a thing.

I'm not certain that every NBA franchise wants to have to listen to Old Man Ball

I'm not certain that every NBA franchise wants to have to listen to Old Man Ball

I'm not sure whether we should laugh or cry at all the preposterous stuff LaVar Ball is saying about his basketball-playing sons -- and even himself.

Here's a compilation of some of the things Old Man Ball has said recently and you can make your own decision about which is the most ridiculous. For me, it was the latest remark:

“Back in my heyday, I would kill Michael Jordan one-on-one."

How in the world am I supposed to buy into all the wonderful things he says about his basketball-playing sons when the man makes a stupid statement like that one? He played one season of basketball at Washington State and averaged 2.2 points per game. There is delusional and there is DELUSIONAL. LaVar is the latter. And it's obviously not confined to his own basketball talents.

This man once famously said his son Lonzo is better than Steph Curry:

“I have the utmost confidence in what my boy is doing. He’s better than Steph Curry to me. Put Steph Curry on UCLA’s team right now and put my boy on Golden State and watch what happens.”

Here's the thing about that: Even if his kid IS better than Curry, what's the point in saying it? Why put that pressure on his oldest son? If he's that good, he'll prove it.

People tell me that the dad's plan is to make sure his kids get attention through his remarks. But come on, they are going to get plenty of attention if they're as good as he says they are. And I'm not sure any teenager needs to hear all this stuff. To me, it's all about getting some attention for himself.

You can look back at parents/coaches like Richard Williams and Earl Woods and say that Ball's kids have a chance to be every bit as good as their dad says they will. Or you can look back at the sad story of Todd Marinovich and his father, Marv, and shake your head.

But there are unintended consequences to all the attention the daddy is getting. Basketball is a team sport, unlike tennis and golf, and these kids have to fit into a team. A franchise, even. I am hearing there are some NBA teams that are worrying about what kind of a problem LaVar would cause if they draft Lonzo. What I'm hearing is that if the kid is judged to be about the same ability as another player, the other player is more likely to be drafted first because of the possible pain in the backside the elder Ball could turn out to be.

You don't want this guy in the ear of the media if his son doesn't get to play as many minutes as LaVar thinks he should. Or he doesn't start right away. Or... whatever. NBA coaches have enough problems without this guy yelling at them to use his son in a different manner, get him more shots, etc. The father makes a lot of noise and I'm not sure coaches and general managers in the league want to put up with it.

And over time, I'm not sure what it's going to be like for young Lonzo to try to live up to his father's lofty and very public expectations. As good as Steph Curry? Well, if he falls a little short of performing like a two-time MVP will he be a failure? Probably not to you or me... but to his father?

It's going to be very entertaining to see this story play out over the next three or four seasons, as sons No. 2 and 3 show up at UCLA and then, the NBA. And at some point we'll find out the truth about that old NBA truism, "Ball don't lie."


Pac-12 player of the week Dillon Brooks should also be player of the year

Pac-12 player of the week Dillon Brooks should also be player of the year

Oregon junior forward Dillon Brooks received his third Pac-12 Player of the Week award of the season today. Next week he should receive the conference's individual award that matters the most. 

The Pac-12's coaches should overlook raw statistical numbers and award Brooks conference player of the year in the days following the Ducks' final regular season game Saturday at Oregon State (5-25, 1-16). It's not a slam-dunk by any stretch, but the case for Brooks will be difficult for anyone to ignore. 

A national player of the year candidate, Brooks is the best player on the conference's best team. No. 6 Oregon (26-4, 15-2) is a win away from clinching at least a share of the Pac-12 regular season championship with No. 7 Arizona (26-4, 15-2).  The Ducks hold the head-to-head tiebreaker thanks to an 85-58 win over Arizona at home on Feb. 4. 

Last week Brooks averaged 18 points on 52 percent shooting while leading the Ducks to a sweep of California and Stanford in two games that were much closer than they should have been.

During the team's 68-65 win Wednesday at California, Brooks had a team-high 22 points, including a game-winning three pointer with two-tenths of a second remaining. He scored seven of his points in the final three minutes of the game.  

Brooks scored 14 points with four assists during UO's 75-73 win at Stanford (14-14, 6-10), on Saturday. 

The Ducks, a No. 1 seed in last year's NCAA Tournament after claiming both the regular season and tournament championships, have a chance to do the same this year, and that's thanks mostly to the play of Brooks, who overcame two foot injuries to get UO into this position. 

Statistically, his numbers don't jump off of the stats sheets as much as his play. Brooks' 15.6 points per game ranks 10th in the conference. He is shooting 51.7 percent from the field (15th) and 42.3 percent from three-point range (6th).  His 2.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game, however, certainly aren't impressive.  

Last year, Utah forward/center Jakob Poeltl, now in the NBA with the Toronto Raptors, received the Pac-12 player of the year award over Brooks after averaging 17.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game. Poeltl's numbers overshadowed Oregon's team success with Brooks as the lead player averaging 16.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists.

That shouldn't happen again even though there is some tough competition. 

The two leading scorers in the conference are Washington freshman Markelle Fultz (23.2) and Arizona State senior Torian Graham (18.3). But their teams are under .500, so they shouldn't receive much consideration. Brooks would put up similar, if not better numbers on their teams. 

Stanford forward Reid Travis has probably the best all-around numbers, averaging 17.7 points (third) and 8.8 rebounds (5th). But the Cardinal weren't a threat this season. 

UCLA freshman forward T.J. Leaf (16.8 points and 8.7 rebounds) has been impressive but he will surely be overshadowed by UCLA freshman guard Lonzo Ball (15.8 points, conference-leading 7.6 assists and 6.2 rebounds).

In fact, the flashy and talented Ball, a sure high lottery pick should he decided to turn professional this summer, is the likely favorite. The No. 3 Bruins (26-3, 13-3) are a national title contender and Ball, two-time player of the week, is their leader. His all-around numbers, which includes 1.9 steals per game (second in the conference) can't be ignored. 

That said, Brooks' impact can't be solely judged by statistics. He clearly has the ability to do more in all areas but hasn't needed to on a Ducks team that spreads the wealth around.  

Plus, the injury factor can't be overlooked. Brooks, who missed his team's first three games before returning on a minutes restriction that lasted another eight games, has averaged just 23.2 minutes per contest while playing 25 minutes or less in 14 outings. Give him another 10 minutes of action per game and his scoring, based on shots per minute, would jump to around 20 points per night. 

Ball, by comparison, has averaged 35 minutes per game. 

The boost Brooks could need to overcome his statistical inferiority to other contenders could come from his two dramatic game-winning shots, the one at Cal and the three-point basket he made to defeat Ball and the Bruins, 89-87 at home on Dec. 28. 

Without those two moments, the Ducks would not be one win away from earning at least a co-championship. 

That fact, and Brooks' overcoming injuries to lead his team to a likely conference co-championship, make him the conference's player of the year. 

We will find out next week if the conference's coaches agree.