The Los Angeles Lakers are finding life without LeBron James to be more difficult than they thought. Coupled with the injury to Rajon Rondo, the Lakers have a leadership void and a giant-sized superstar vacuum that need to be filled. While Kyle Kuzma has shown that he is moving towards filling one or both spaces, sophomore guard Lonzo Ball and third-year forward Brandon Ingram have struggled to grasp either of them.
With a 23-21 record and barely hanging on to the eighth seed in the Western Conference, can the Lakers count on Ball and Ingram to rise to their potential or have the Lakers waited long enough for them to become the stars that they were expected to be?
Injuries to James and Rondo
Going 3-7 since James and Rondo went down with injuries during a Christmas Day win over the Golden State Warriors, the boys from Tinseltown are spiraling downwards with head coach Luke Walton struggling to find a lineup that works well. One of their worst losses during this stretch came in their last game at home when they lost 101-95 to the Cleveland Cavaliers (8-35 prior to the win) who had lost their previous 12 games.
James and Rondo provide this young team with a voice on the floor and in the locker room, something that the reserved Ball and Ingram are unused to. In an interview with ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk, Ball talked about the difficulty of losing their most vocal leaders.
“It’s just a big void to fill,” Ball said. “LeBron and Rondo are arguably two of the best leaders ever. Having both of them out, that’s two of our main guys who are talking on the court. It’s new for me. It’s new for B.I. [Brandon Ingram]. Kuz [Kyle Kuzma] probably talks the most out of all of us.”
Rather than talk, Ball believes that setting an example first is his default before he voices his opinion.
“… For me, it’s more about action,” Ball added. “I don’t think you can talk if you’re not doing your job. So, it starts with that for me, and go from there.”
The problem with this “walk your talk” leadership is that Ball has rarely walked so he has barely talked. For the season, Ball is averaging 9.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.5 steals. Since Christmas, his averages have been 11.8 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 1.4 steals.
The biggest difference has been in his points and steals numbers, but the scoring has been wildly inconsistent. During that stretch, he’s had some of his best games of the season sandwiched between some of his worst. He’ll score 20, 19, 17 and 21 on some nights and he’ll have three, zero, five and seven points on others. Sometimes, you just want to scratch your head as to why Ball can’t seem to figure out what it takes to play with aggression every game.
The ability to perform at the highest level night in and night out is what separates the good players from the great ones and this is one quality that appears to be missing from the 21-year old guard.
There are times when he plays to the potential of being drafted with the second overall pick in the 2017 draft. During these moments, it’s almost as if he will be the second-coming of Jason Kidd. At other times, he plays like the last pick in the draft. You just don’t know what you’re getting from the talented guard out of UCLA on a game-to-game basis.
The jury is out on what his ceiling truly is. While Ingram has three seasons under his belt, Ball is really only just a few months into his second season. Though he has had several forgettable games under his belt, he has shown that he can bounce back from a bad game and play with fire the next night.
After not making a single basket from the field or the free-throw line against the Minnesota Timberwolves two weeks ago, he followed that up with 21 points, seven rebounds, five assists and two steals the next night in a win against the Dallas Mavericks. Ball is an enigma in that he plays with passion one night and then reverts to passivity the next. Like I said, you never know what to expect from Ball from game to game.
Rather than believe that Ball will ever have a career close to Kidd’s, perhaps the best he can ever be is Michael Carter-Williams — the rookie version. In his first year in the league, Carter-Williams averaged 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.3 assists, taking home the 2013-14 Rookie of the Year award. His stats have gone down since then, but if Ball can channel Carter-Williams’ rookie-year performance for most of his career, he’ll be a valuable commodity in the league. In fact, it’s possible that he could be better than Carter-Williams eventually. Whether that’s as a Laker still remains to be seen.
Ingram scored 20 or more points in five of the past 10 games with a high of 29. His season averages of 16.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists jumped to 18.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists per contest over the same period.
Much like Ball, however, the 6-foot-10 Ingram has shown flashes of brilliance interspersed with headache-inducing games in which he doesn’t seem to be know how to attack the defense. This is already his third year in the league and yet the comfortable level of playing in the pros hasn’t kicked in up to now. As suggested by The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, Ingram is a misused talent who needs a change in the way he is utilized.
According to O’Connor:
“the Lakers skipped on grooming Ingram’s defense, playmaking, and off-ball skills—which players like Paul George and Kawhi Leonard had to hone early in their respective careers—and instead jumped ahead and forced him into a lead on-ball scorer role. By doing this over his first three seasons, Ingram built habits that have him looking to score first and pass second, but this season has suddenly thrust him into a situation where he should be picking his spots and finding opportunities within the flow of the offense. That’s a jarring transition to make.”
The Duke alum is only 21 years old and he has time to find his place in the league. The problem is, he may not find that time while playing with James on the Lakers. Among all the players on the roster, Ingram was the one most expected to shine alongside the four-time Most Valuable Player. Instead, he is struggling to find his groove with James on the floor with him.
The LeBron James dilemma
The addition of James is forcing every young player on the Lakers squad to grow up faster than they would like. It has placed expectations on the team that they never had a year ago. They can’t just be good enough, they have to be at their best every game to match James in order for them to win or else the loss will be on their shoulders. No longer can they afford to take their time to develop into their best selves, they are now being called upon to make plays that will decide whether they come closer to becoming a playoff team again.
James only has four years on his contract and Lakers management, particularly current president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka, expects at least a championship or two within the duration of that deal. The question is whether Ball and/or Ingram will blossom into stars with the added challenge presented to them. So far, that has not been the case.
It was expected that with their leader sidelined, the young players including 23-year olds Josh Hart and Kuzma, will step up their games. Though no one believed that the Lakers would win all of their games, many were anticipating the kids to get better every game the more that they played without James. Instead, the Cavaliers loss highlighted just how immature the young players still are and that has been more apparent with Ball and Ingram. The loss to the Cavaliers showed just how far both are from becoming the future of the franchise.
Trade Ingram or Ball or Both?
In an episode of ESPN’s The Jump, Kevin Arnovitz said that Ingram’s trade value has decreased.
“You talk to executives around the league, you definitely feel like Ingram’s value, the possibility, the ceiling, has been lowered a little bit in the imaginations in some of the teams around the league,” Arnovitz said.
However, former Celtics player and soon-to-be Hall of Famer Paul Pierce was quick to ask how valuable Ingram truly is right now.
“Where do we really value Ingram at?” Pierce asked. “Do we think you can get a franchise player for him? Maybe if you packaged him with a good piece but the Lakers don’t have that piece.”
“I think it’s hard because sometimes it’s about the situation you’re in, the coach. The perfect example of that is Victor Oladipo. He went to Orlando, he went over to Oklahoma City, then he goes over to Indiana, he’s an All-Star, a superstar, probably the best two-guard in the Eastern Conference. He was a top pick. We all knew the potential was there but it’s about who is going to unlock that and maybe that’s Brandon Ingram’s situation.”
Sedano, however, countered that Oladipo may be an outlier and that not all players can become like him when given another opportunity elsewhere.
Prior to the season’s start, Ingram was highly thought of as someone who could be on his way to becoming an All-Star, if not this season, then maybe next year. But the 10-game stretch without James in the lineup has hit everyone with the reality of what he is right now — that he’s not a franchise player and there’s a chance that he may not ever reach that potential at all.
At most, perhaps he could be a fringe All-Star, someone who can be a very good player who never makes it to a single All-Star team much less reach all-time great status. That’s how he looks right now.
Ball’s value as a trade piece has more than likely diminished as well. His unwillingness to embrace the added responsibility that was thrust upon the team recently has shown us that he may not have the qualities of great players after all. He can be a very good playmaker and that may be his only ticket to having a long career in this league.
If the Lakers are looking to trade either Ball or Ingram or both, the timing may not be right at this time since they are unlikely to get any player of value. But there may be a chance that a team such as the Washington Wizards may take a flyer on both players in exchange for Bradley Beal as they seek to rebuild during the summer. That depends largely on whether or not Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld is one of those executives that Arnovitz cited in his statement earlier regarding Ingram’s trade value.
Ultimately, the decision to wait on Ball and Ingram to reach All-Star status will rest on the shoulders of Johnson and Pelinka. If they want to win a title within the next four years, their next step can either be to wait until after the playoffs to evaluate what to do with their two young players or they can choose to deal both of them even if their value isn’t as high now.
A team’s championship window can only be open for so long before it closes. For the Lakers, it’s only guaranteed at least four years since that’s the duration of James’ contract. After that, it’s not a guarantee that the Akron native will decide to stay in L.A. Sure, Ball and Ingram may prove us wrong and they will become superstars someday. But the situation they are in with the championship expectations may not be the most ideal situation for them to be in.
For the Lakers to win a championship and for Ball and Ingram to become the superstars they were expected to be, a separation may be best for both dreams to become a reality. Otherwise, no one wins if they force this relationship to work.