Since being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, Lonzo Ball has played 99 games through his two NBA seasons. He’s currently dealing with a sprained ankle that could very conceivably require offseason surgery if his recovery doesn’t go to plan. He’s yet to have had an entire offseason to focus solely on development and not recovery.
With all that in mind, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka can’t afford to treat Lonzo as an unchallenged starting point guard. The risk is simply too high that he gets hurt again and the backup point guard follows in the footsteps of Tyler Ennis and Rajon Rondo, thus allowing the season to be derailed by a lengthy absence from Ball.
During a Q&A with readers, Sam Amick of The Athletic dropped an interesting nugget about Kemba Walker as he prepares for quite possibly the biggest decision of his career:
“At this point, based on scuttlebutt around the league but without direct clarity from his side, it feels like he’s more likely to leave than stay.”
So, a couple things that we have to point out before we go any further: First and foremost, this was merely a Q&A session with readers. If Amick had concrete reporting to go off of on this subject at this stage of the season, he would’ve released said information in an article headlined around that with substantial evidence and sourcing to back it up. He was asked a question and got an answer, and these things are subject to change under the best of circumstances.
Secondly, the Lakers have their sights set higher than Walker at this stage. They have to. It’s nothing against Walker, but at least at the very onset of free agency, they have to gauge their chances with guys like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. When and if they find out those two — or Kyrie Irving — aren’t interested, however, they have to move quickly to try to salvage the offseason.
In theory, they could package a few pieces from the young core and use their cap space on a player already under contract, but that kind of move will be available to them even after they gather their intel on players like Walker, Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, Klay Thompson, Irving, etc. Let’s just put it this way: If that is indeed the direction the Lakers go in, the offseason (and Magic/Pelinka’s tenure) will have been a massive failure.
Ideally, if the Lakers add a free agent (Walker, for example) to the young core, they can then also swing some kind of deal for a third all-star-caliber player — if that’s indeed the direction they want to go rather than wait to see if Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma or Josh Hart pan out. Simply trading the young core for an All-Star without signing anyone in free agency would not live up to the promises the new regime made of being able to recruit two stars upon being hired, and given their failures on the margin, falling short on a signing too is, quite frankly, enough grounds to let both Pelinka and Johnson go.
Now, as for how Walker specifically fits this roster, it’s an interesting proposition. He’s a very, very good point guard coming off his best season as a pro. He’s also only 6’1”, and that measurement might be generous as these things tend to be in professional sports. He’ll also be 29 by the time a max deal could be offered, meaning more than half the four-year deal would take place after he hits the wrong side of 30.
What makes him interesting is the injury concerns listed at the very top of this article. If Lonzo is kept on the roster but once against struggles to stay healthy, then you have an All-Star point guard to take his place. If Ball’s ankle does heal fully, he and Kemba could actually work in the backcourt together for stretches given Lonzo’s length and abilities on defense. Ball would obviously have to improve his shooting to make this work, but it’s within the realm of possibility this pairing would fare pretty well.
Though, just so we’re clear, in order for Walker and Lonzo to work together, Magic would have to update his antiquated views of the point guard position.
Walker’s 3-point percentage has been in decline the last two seasons since shooting 39.9 percent in 2017. This season, his shot has dipped all the way down to 35.9 percent, which is still fine, but a continued drop would legitimately hinder spacing for LeBron James. Combine that with the chance that Lonzo’s shot doesn’t come around and the frustrations we saw this year because of the team’s inability to knock down threes will once again drive us up the wall.
There’s also the question as to whether James will be willing to operate as a screen-setter for Walker. If he’s willing to do this more often than he’s been over the course of his career, then fine, the offense can rely on that in key moments. But if not, and Walker is relegated to an off-ball, catch-and-shoot type player, then their fit together isn’t ideal. Walker has shot merely 35.6 percent on catch-and-shoot threes this season, a number that would have to skyrocket if he is to make sense alongside LeBron — a distinct possibility given the gravity James creates with the ball if he’s surrounded by other shooters.
Walker has consistently maintained that he loves it in Charlotte. He seemed legitimately devastated when it looked like they might trade him last year. Him leaving this summer would be a result of yet another frustrating season for a franchise that appears tangled up in Michael Jordan’s oversized jeans. He would be an altogether solid signing for a Lakers organization looking for any win whatsoever.
He would also signal a need for this front office to improve their moves on the margins of team-building. Magic and Pelinka would have to show creativity to make things work with Walker that, quite frankly, they have yet to display. They also weren’t hired to do that, either. They were hired for home runs, and Walker would be more a solid double. If that’s all this new front office is capable of, their hirings make even less sense than they did at the time.