When LeBron James went down with a groin injury, it was supposed to be a chance for young Lakers like Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram to show how valuable they were, and that while James will almost always be the driving force between any success his teams have, that the Lakers aren’t totally bereft of talent beyond him.
The Lakers’ first 10 games without James have... not made that case. The team is 3-7 over that stretch, and while there were points where it appeared that Ball and Ingram were starting to figure things out, the team’s overall record hasn’t reflected that.
Ball knows the young core hasn’t done enough.
“We want to win. It’s our team right now, and our team is looking at us to make things happen and we’re not doing that. We’ve just got to do better,” Ball told reporters after the Lakers’ 101-95 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Kyle Kuzma is ostensibly a part of that young core — as is, to some degree, Josh Hart — but while Hart hasn’t played well without James in the lineup and Kuzma has only shown intermittent bursts of potential, how they played without James doesn’t matter as much as it does for Ingram and Ball.
Hart and Kuzma had clearly shown already that they fit in with James on a good team, but the excuse that Ingram — and to a lesser degree, Ball — had received for their at-times poor play with James on the floor was that it isn’t always the easiest for players to figure out how they fit alongside James, and that Ball and Ingram would at least demonstrate why they were so highly touted with James out of the lineup. If they helped carry the Lakers to a few wins while they were at it and justified James’ decision to come to Los Angeles from a basketball perspective, so much the better.
Neither Ball nor Ingram have done any of those things so far, and it’s hard not to see it as an indictment of their talent in some ways. If Ball and Ingram can’t positively impact winning consistently with James or without him, then that doesn’t make them different than most 21-year-olds in the NBA. Unfortunately for them and the Lakers, that lack of impact also doesn’t make it either more palatable to keep them around with James moving forward, or help their trade value around the league trend upwards.
More immediately, it also can’t be great for their confidence, even if Ingram and Ball both said their belief in how good this young core can be hasn’t been shaken by this rough patch.
“We all just have to do more. We still have the same belief, we’re still confident in what we do,” Ingram said.
The problem is that what Ball and Ingram do has never been less clear. The excuse pointed to for Ingram’s middling play all year was that his on-off numbers looked much better when he played without James, but it turns out having teams save their best defenders to sic on James — while also focusing their scouting reports on him — made things easier on Ingram.
And as Ingram endlessly isolates away without the success rate to justify such possessions, it’s hard not to think the Lakers made a mistake by not developing the supplementary parts of his game first before trying to get him to do superstar things, and talking to him and about him like he was on such a track.
Ball’s struggles are far more obvious, and less a question of process in where the Lakers possibly erred than Ingram’s. Ball’s issues clank you in the face like one of his front-rimmed free throws.
Ball has helped the Lakers while James has been out, that much is clear, but the lack of extra scorers has also made his limitations — his lack of scoring punch, not being a spacing threat and his inability to hit a free throw — all the more glaring. For a player that was already almost universally polarizing, this stretch has likely pushed Ball’s detractors and supporters alike even further in their respective directions.
But how Ball and Ingram are developing are concerns to be dealt with at a later date. For now, the team just needs them to help keep the Lakers afloat while James is out.
“We’re the ninth seed now,” Ball said, lamenting the team’s losing record without James. “We want to turn it around as fast as possible.”
It’s jut not clear that Ball and Ingram can turn things around without James, a reality that is slowly creating an interesting dilemma for the Lakers as they look past this season and towards the next phase of their rebuild. If what they see is a future without Ingram and Ball, then playoffs or no playoffs, this LeBron-less stretch could have been more meaningful than anyone possibly imagined.
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