Should the Lakers Bench Lonzo Ball? Trail Blazers Shut Down Struggling Rookie Again

Coaching at an elite level, we are regularly assured, is an awful lot about making the tough and unfriendly decisions about individuals in order to improve the prospects of the collective.

Like benching Lonzo Ball, for instance?

On Thursday night at Moda Center in Portland, the Lakers lost for the fifth time this season, on a three-pointer by Damian Lillard as time expired. Lillard, a two-time All Star, finished with 32 points, six rebounds and five assists—the kind of numbers you expect regularly from an elite point guard eight games into his sixth NBA season.

And Ball? Ball, in his eighth game of a rookie season that has soared, occasionally, and explored the hinterland of rough promise, sometimes, was held to zero points.

Nul points, as they tell the United Kingdom at the Eurovision Song Contest, or the Brexit negotiations, as that discordant musical show has come to be known. Ball attempted two shots, according to ESPN, missed both of them, and ended the game with four assists, three rebounds, two blocks and a steal. That the Lakers pushed the Trail Blazers into the final second of the game was mostly down to Ball’s supporting cast. Brook Lopez led the Lakers in scoring with 27 points. Brandon Ingram and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope chipped in with 14 each, Jordan Clarkson too. Since he broke out with 29 points against the Phoenix Suns on October 21, Ball’s points per game have read eight, six, five, nine, 13, and nada. In the Lakers’ past two games, and past two losses, against the Pistons and Trail Blazers, Ball has played 28 minutes in each and attempted four three-pointers in total, hitting one.

"I thought he was a little too passive tonight," Luke Walton, the Lakers head coach, said after the defeat as reported by ESPN. "I think that'll continue to be [an area to work on]. The hardest thing for young players is the consistency when you just play so many games. He's so unselfish. We want him to be more aggressive with attacking the defenses. I feel like tonight was one of those nights where he was more passive with it than looking to really attack them."

Points totals can fail to tell the whole story, especially with a facilitator like the Lakers’ rookie. Ball was a plus-10 in his 28 minutes of action on Thursday night—even when he is struggling to be noticed offensively, there is evidence to suggest he is improving the players around him. There were moments against the Trail Blazers—as there have been throughout the season—when Ball flashed the kind of promise that Walton and the Lakers hope will become consistent excellence. You can watch one slick feed to Lopez in the video below.

 

 

The Lakers have stressed regularly that this season is about Ball, and the Lakers, showing off enough rough promise to convince interested parties—impending free agents among them—that the franchise is on track to contend again. The hype around Ball, though, means stat lines like Thursday night’s are going to be noticed and blown up in widescreen and feed the ravenous desire to polarize Ball’s abilities and achievements. Maybe it’s time for Walton to take Ball out from under the NBA’s sunlamp. Then again, maybe that would just increase the feeding frenzy.

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