LOS ANGELES — Lonzo Ball’s mistakes aren’t treated like normal mistakes: they reverberate like earthquakes throughout arenas and across social media networks.
If he double-clutches before launching a herky-jerky three, the entire crowd braces for an airball and then groans once it happens. If he soft-touches a pass on the perimeter, he puts his head down in dismay as the play goes the other way in transition, inspiring the same defeated reaction from the courtside seats to the balcony. If he lets up on a defensive assignment—like he did in the moments before the Patty Mills game-winner—the replay is mercilessly picked apart on Twitter. And God help him if his father or one of his brothers messes up; he’s catching strays when that happens, too.
But Ball’s most frustrating moments—his intermittent confidence in his shooting stroke and his mental lapses—shouldn’t define him. And they shouldn’t send him back to the bench once Rajon Rondo returns from his suspension against the Spurs on Saturday either.
Ball’s gifts, unlike his gaffes, are subtle. While most 20-year-old, high-lottery point guards are prone to hijacking the offense, he’s more often guilty of over-passing than overdribbling. The 2017 No. 2 pick has exquisite timing: he intuitively knows the precise moment to attack a coasting defense with a hit-ahead pass, to feed a cutter through traffic, to dive down on a big with a hard double, to surprise a tired ballhandler with a full-court trap, and to bracket a big so he can win a contested rebound. Ball sprays his shots all over the place when he overthinks, but he’s an adequate—or better—threat from the perimeter when he just lets it rip.
“He’s a very cerebral basketball player,” said LeBron James. “If he’s playing aggressive basketball and thinking shot-first, everything else opens up for him.”
Lakers coach Luke Walton was noncommittal when asked about the looming decision to start Rondo or Ball at point guard, saying that he first wanted to review the Lakers’ win over the Nuggets on Thursday night. “I'll go home and watch the tape tonight and get on the plane [Friday] and talk to my coaches,” he said. “We'll evaluate everything.”
A re-watch of L.A.’s 121-114 home victory will reveal some standout moments for the second-year guard. Down the stretch, Ball made three key defensive plays: poking free a turnover, getting a stop on Nikola Jokic in the post after a switch, and drawing a charge on Jokic by fighting through a screen. Offensively, he earned loud cheers for sizing up Jokic for a pretty step-back three in crunch time. He also made multiple brilliant passes and helped L.A. get up and down throughout the game.
“[Ball] has some of the quickest hands in this league,” James said. “A lot of people always try to discredit him offensively, but they never give him enough credit for what he does defensively. Tonight he had five steals. Every game he’s getting two, three, four steals, and deflections and all those things that help us get out onto the break.”
While there is a strong argument for starting Ball over Rondo based on their individual merits, this feels like a no-brainer once one considers rotational fit and organizational direction.
Already this week, Walton has replaced guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with Josh Hart in the starting lineup. Hart has been better in all facets than Caldwell-Pope, and his shooting and energetic defense make him one of the most valuable members of James’s supporting cast. Pairing Hart and Ball together makes a lot of sense: they are interchangeable on the defensive end, Hart’s dependable shooting helps compensate for Ball’s perimeter inconsistency, and their combined energy fits well with Walton’s breakneck vision. All parties would both benefit from playing Ball and James together; Ball is comfortable playing off James, he won’t press when he does get touches, and their combined power creating and converting fast-break opportunities is perhaps L.A,’s greatest strength.
“I thrive in transition,” Ball said, after posting 12 points, six rebounds, eight assists and five steals against Denver. “Any time I can get a steal or a rebound and push it, it will help me out a lot.”
Meanwhile, Rondo is a cleaner fit with the Lakers’ second-unit personnel and a more logical stagger option with James. If Rondo leads a second-unit with Caldwell-Pope, Lance Stephenson and Kyle Kuzma, the pecking order is clear. Rondo is the clear lead ballhandler, keeping Caldwell-Pope in a narrow three-and-D role, preventing Stevenson from turning this season into one extended heat check, and force-feeding Kuzma as the sixth man scorer. When Rondo plays alongside James, he’s stuck in a deferential role. In a starting lineup with James, Brandon Ingram and Hart, Rondo’s ball-dominating playmaking is superfluous, any leadership presence he brings to the table largely gets lost in James’s shadow, and his unreliable defensive effort poses problems L.A.’s bigs aren’t equipped to solve.
Moving Rondo to the bench is bound to ruffle his feathers. Outside of his rookie year and a chunk of his one-year stint in Chicago, the four-time All-Star has started throughout his 13-year career. But it took just two games for the Lakers to experience Rondo’s legendary volatility for themselves when, spitting mad, he threw multiple punches at Chris Paul. For L.A., his absence has been a blessing in disguise, as it has given Ball more runway and undercut the notion that Rondo is necessarily a central driver of this team’s success. Instead of collapsing without Rondo, LA has kept on chugging.
Ultimately, the Lakers need two things to happen if they are going to make the most out of James’s four-year deal: 1) one or two of their young core pieces must develop into stars or near-stars, and 2) they must land a superstar via trade or free agency.
Rondo doesn’t factor into either of those equations: his game is fading, and his trade value is negligible. Ball, however, clearly factors into both. If he emerges as a pace-setter, an All-Defensive candidate, and a more reliable floor-spacer, the Lakers would have another piece that could help attract free agents and/or serve as a central chip in a high-profile deal. One way or another, the best version of James’s Lakers involves Ball maxing out his potential as soon as possible.
When training camp opened, Rondo claimed the starting job by default, as Ball was still recovering from an offseason knee surgery. Now that both players have had a chance to start games, to close games and to play with various lineup combinations, there should be no incumbent advantage. If Walton wants to ease into the move out of respect for Rondo’s experience or out of caution due to Rondo’s stubbornness, that’s understandable. It could be tempting to take a deliberate approach, given the imperfections in Ball’s game and the high likelihood that he will relapse into some of his bad habits at inopportune moments.
Even so, the long-term endgame at point guard for the Lakers has become crystal clear over the last three games, and Rondo has no one to blame for that except himself. Ball should start, and it’s now a matter of “when,” not “if.”