Luke, Lonzo, & the Lakers look lost!

Are Luke Walton, Lonzo Ball, and the LA Lakers on the precipice of seeing their season go down the drain like last year?

I’m not pushing the panic button yet but I’m starting to have serious concerns that Luke Walton, Lonzo Ball, and the Lakers are on the precipice of watching what we hoped would be a break-out season go down the drain like last year.

To put it mildly, the Los Angeles Lakers are a mess. The team has lost 5 of its last 6 games and is coming off a disappointing loss to the Phoenix Suns that dropped their season record to 6–10, which is 11th best in the West and a long way from the 10–10 record that seemed within hope just a week ago. And things aren’t getting easier as the Lakers next face the Denver Nuggets, who just dropped a season high 146 points on the New Orleans Pelicans.

To make matters worse, head coach Luke Walton essentially called out his struggling and polarizing rookie point guard Lonzo Ball for walking away from a potential scrum between the teams near the end of the Suns’ loss instead of standing up for his teammates. “Someone on our team talked with him,” Luke said, without disclosing who it was. “It’s all part of the learning process.” His teammates “know what that looked like isn’t what Zo is about.”

Frankly, the last thing Lonzo needed right now was Luke calling him out. I’d feel differently if the game were not already over for all intents and purposes or if the incident was the result of a cheap shot on a teammate, but criticizing Lonzo’s leadership for walking away from a sour grapes scuffle at the end of a lost game is ridiculous. That’s what Luke should have said. As Lonzo said, “It’s the NBA. People ain’t really gonna fight, so I ain’t trying to get no tech.”

While it was good to see Lopez and Kuzma have Lonzo’s back, what we’re seeing right now is the incredible pressure on Lonzo Ball taking its toll, trying to crush and break him. Whether he can take the pressure and come out as a diamond or a lump of coal is going greatly impact the Lakers’ future. The Lakers cannot afford for Lonzo Ball to be a bust. That’s why Luke needs to do everything possible to reduce rather than increase the pressure on Lonzo.

One thing that seems perfectly clear right now is no NBA rookie has ever faced the unbelievable pressure Lonzo Ball has had to shoulder this season. It’s also equally clear, no matter how mature and even keeled Lonzo is, that the pressure has gotten too him. He’s completely lost confidence in his shot and the once supportive media is now proclaiming him to be a draft bust and not even the best rookie on his own team with the ascent of Kyle Kuzma.

All the hoopla about Lonzo’s odd shot aside, we’re talking about a player who shot over 41% on almost 200 threes at UCLA, including many beyond the NBA 3-point line, just shooting 22.7% on 75 NBA attempts so far this season. This is more than just a slump and more like a total collapse of confidence that could very well not be able to be fixed until the offseason. Worst of all, Lonzo’s shooting has started to affect the other elite areas of his game.

Then there’s the Laker team’s dismal league worst 28.7% 3-point shooting, almost 5 percentage points lower than the second worst shooting team. Even removing Lonzo and his 22.7% 3-point shooting, the Lakers are simply the NBA’s version of the “gang that can’t shot straight.” The solution per head coach Luke Walton is to focus on attacking the rim and shoot fewer threes, a questionable strategy at best when teams are already clogging up the paint.

That strategy will get its first and hopefully last test tonight when the Lakers face the Denver Nuggets, fresh from splashing 18 of 35 3-pointers totaling 54 points while crushing the New Orleans Pelicans and their bruising front court duo of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis. The Lakers lost the 3-point war with the Suns by 18 points, making just 7 threes to the Suns’ 13. If the Lakers only make 7 threes tonight, they will likely lose by more than 30 points.

Luke’s problem is he was never a shooter. You can’t “not” shoot your way out of a slump. Anybody who is a shooter or who knows shooting will tell you that. The Lakers’ problem is not that they don’t have the shooters. It’s that their shooters are not shooting well. Only Clarkson is shooting better than expected. KCP, Lopez, Kuzma, Lonzo, and Hart are all shooting poorer than expected. The answer is not to stop but to practice more and keep shooting.

Shooting is all about confidence and telling your players that the team is going to cut back on taking threes until they hit a higher percentage is not how you instill confidence in shooters or help them break out of a shooting slump. The Lakers have capable 3-point shooters Luke needs to build up rather than tear down the confidence of his team’s shooters. Luke would be better advised to let his players shoot their way out of their shooting slump.

If the Lakers lose as expected at home versus the Nuggets tonight, they will be 6–11 with 4 games left in November versus the Bulls, @Kings, @Clippers, and Warriors and 13 games left in December versus @Nuggets, Rockets, @76ers, @Hornets, @Knicks, @Cavs. Warriors, @Rockets, @Warriors, Blazers, Wolves, Grizzlies, and Clippers. The Lakers will likely be underdogs in 13 of those 17 games and could easily finish the calendar year 10–24

Considering the Lakers were 12–24 as of the end of 2016, a 10–24 start to what was hoped would be a break-out season be a crushing disappointment and would eliminate all hope of making the playoffs and make it hard for the Lakers to match last season’s tanking fueled 26–56 season. We still have a long way to go and the Lakers could certainly rebound and finish strong and their strong defense and the emergence of Kuzma are certainly huge pluses.

So what specifically can the Lakers do to keep this season from going down the drain like last season? First of all, Luke needs to reduce the pressure on Lonzo, even if it means playing him less or, God forbid, even bringing him off the bench. And most important of all, he needs to have Lonzo’s back 100% all the time instead of allowing incidents like the scrum at the end of the Suns’ game to get blown out of proportion and add even more pressure on Lonzo.

Second, Luke needs to realize the Lakers’ 3-point shooting problem is not that they don’t have shooters but that their shooters are not shooting well. The solution is more practice and giving the players the freedom to shoot their way out of the slump. Emphasize taking only good high percentage shots but make sure the players don’t to hesitate to pull the trigger when they get a wide open shot. The goal should be to create and shoot more open threes.

Third, the February 8th trade deadline could also turn out to be one of the most active in years with players like Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins possibly on the block. The Lakers had hoped to be sellers to move Randle and maybe Clarkson for maybe cap space, a pick, and Deng’s bad contract. They might be wise to be buyers this time and try to land a star via trade because it appears they may still be too young to attract two elite players in free agency.

I still believe the Lakers are on the right path to return to championship contention. I still believe Lonzo Ball will be the Lakers’ next great point guard. I still believe Luke Walton will be the Lakers’ next head coach to win a championship. And I still believe the Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are the right duo to run the Lakers’ front office. It’s just going to take longer than everybody thought it was going to. Time now to get ready for reality.