When Lonzo Ball found out he would miss at least the next 4-6 weeks for the Los Angeles Lakers after an MRI revealed a grade 3 ankle sprain, he was understandably distraught.
Or, as head coach Luke Walton put it...
“He’s emotionally devastated right now,” Walton told reporters at the Lakers’ shootaround on Monday morning. “It’s unfortunate. He was starting to play really good basketball.”
Ball was playing what some around the Lakers considered the best basketball of his young career so far, making his injury a particularly devastating one for him and the team.
“I think he knows how much we need him and he feels a responsibility for our team,” Walton said. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to him today, but yesterday he was pretty down.”
It seems Ball’s spirits may have improved since he and Walton spoke, as teammate Kyle Kuzma told reporters that when he spoke to Ball, his mood had gotten better because the diagnosis was more optimistic than initially though.
“He’s in good spirits right now. He thought it was going to be worse than what the outcome was, but he’ll be back in no time,” Kuzma said.
Until Ball gets back on the floor, he’s right to fear that the Lakers will miss what he brings to the team. Over the last 14 games the Lakers have played without LeBron James, the team is 3.9 points per 100 possessions better when Ball plays than they are when he sits, according to NBA.com.
There is also this, from before the fourth quarter of a game in which the Warriors obliterated the Lakers:
The Lakers are -49 in the 62 minutes they've played since Lonzo got hurt.— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) January 22, 2019
Ball was the Lakers’ relentless pace-setter and one of their few natural facilitators, and it won’t be easy for the Lakers to replace him.
“When you lose a playmaker like Lonzo it’s going to be tough. One of the biggest keys to our offense is pushing in transition,” Kuzma said. “Already missing two of our better playmakers definitely puts us in a little hole, but it’s the same thing everybody always preaches. It’s that next man mentality, next up. It’s a team game.”
That may be true, and it’s also the right thing to say. It also may not matter, and even Kuzma was willing to admit that none of the next men up can replicate exactly what Ball brings.
“Obviously you can’t ever make up for somebody’s presence. You just try to put a band-aid over it or put some duct tape on it,” Kuzma said. “That’s the best analogy I can give you.”
The Lakers will likely get James and Rajon Rondo back over the next week, which is a hell of a piece of duct tape to make up for Ball’s absence. Still, it’s worth noting that it isn’t only offensively where the Lakers will feel Ball’s absence.
Over the last 14 games, the Lakers are never worse on defense than when Ball sits, hemorrhaging 111.2 points per 100 possessions while he’s on the bench (compared to 103.2 when he plays, according to NBA.com).
The steadying presences and skill of James and Rondo will help compensate for that in other ways, but how will the Lakers try to plug the gaping hole Ball’s absence leaves in their defense? Kuzma says they have to do it collectively.
“We have to communicate a lot more. Lonzo is a great defender in this league and he’s done a hell of a job the past two years of covering up a lot of mistakes, whether that’s getting steals in the passing lanes, picking up 94 feet, staying on bigger names and shutting guys down,” Kuzma said.
“It’s kind of up to the team to kind of (make up for it) collectively.”
The team will be doing so for a while, and Walton is just hoping that when Ball gets back he’ll be able to pick up right where he left off.
“I think he was in a really good groove,” Walton said. “We’ll get through it, he’ll come back and we’ll continue where we were.”
Things might not be quite that simple, but for now all the Lakers can do is hope they are, because they don’t have any other options.
For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.