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  • You can't fight fire with fire when it comes to LaVar Ball. Rather than stoking the flames, Magic Johnson and the Lakers made a savvy decision by not saying a word.
By Andrew Sharp
January 12, 2018

LaVar Ball's merits as a public figure are debatable, but it's undeniable that he has a real skill for making everyone mad online. This week, after Ball questioned whether Luke Walton had lost the locker room—"The guys look like they don't want to play for him. But that's [just] what I say. The guys probably want to play for him as hard as they can."—the fuse was lit all over again.

Rick Carlisle launched a crusade for fair and balanced coverage of NBA coaches in media. Steve Kerr questioned our priorities as a society. Stan Van Gundy promised to ignore ESPN interview requests when the network airs a Pistons game later this month. For his part, Lonzo Ball offered a meek statement—"I'll play for anybody"—while Kyle Kuzma's defense of his coach was more forceful. Walton himself joked that he took Lonzo out of a game because, "His dad was talking s--t." 

One person we didn't hear from was Lakers president Magic Johnson. General manager Rob Pelinka stayed silent as well. And in the vacuum they created, there were a number of questions about whether silence from the Lakers' management was the right decision.
 
The Washington Post asked, "How can the Lakers [warn Ball about criticizing Walton earlier this year], only to then not say anything publicly to support their coach when Ball chooses to attack him again?" A Lakers blog wrote, "Mitch Kupchak understood when it was time to make an appearance, even if it was to merely say nothing." And ESPN's Ramona Shelburne concluded, "Silence only makes [Ball's] voice louder and helps grow the seeds he's trying to plant.". 

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Do the Lakers Have a LaVar, Lonzo or Luke Problem?

It's completely reasonable to expect an NBA team to defend its coach from baseless attacks of a public critic—particularly if they already have a history with that critic—but I think it would've been the wrong play for the Lakers for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, this isn't a normal critic.

There could be a separate conversation about evolving technology and skewed incentives, and why Ball has been inescapable on every major sports outlet (SI, ESPN, Bleacher Report, Fox Sports 1, SB Nation, Vice, etc) for the past year. This post and this post (subscribers only) explain the phenomenon well. And I think a lot of the resentment for LaVar Ball stems from the recognition that his relevance is indicative of an ongoing defect in media and technology. While basically harmless when the victim is Luke Walton, his impact has disturbing implications for society on a general level. Steve Kerr explained this point well. 

It's impossible to say how the landscape will evolve in the future, but if anything's going to change, it will take a while. In the meantime, there is one certainty: if Magic Johnson or Rob Pelinka were to reprimand LaVar Ball in public, we would be hearing about this for months.

Publicly feuding with the team president or team GM would legitimize LaVar's newsworthiness in ways that monthly ESPN appearances never could. Magic dismissing Ball's criticisms wouldn't add clarity to the story or bring the Lakers any closer to a resolution; it would inject new life into last weekend's coverage and probably create a dozen new layers as things unfold from there. It would create complicated questions for Lonzo, and demand just as many awkward answers from Walton. 

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If the relationship with LaVar Ball deteriorated in public, it would leave the team with almost no good options. In that scenario, they could either continue planning the future around the kid whose famous parent resents the team, or they could try to trade him, but do so with vastly diminished leverage—because the entire league would know they have no choice but to move on. By remaining neutral, the Lakers retain their flexibility. While it's unlikely they'd ever trade Lonzo specifically because of his dad, they could decide to trade him for other reasons—"LeBron doesn't want to play with a 20 year-old point guard" reasons"—so protecting his trade value is important regardless.

Maybe you think that Magic could play it diplomatically, but that's naive too. Whatever Magic said, it would instantly be framed as a feud with LaVar, because, well, look at the past week. That waffling Ball quote at the beginning of this article was somehow framed as a call to fire the coach. At the risk of sounding like Kyrie Irving, this is how the media works now, at least with this story.

Even if you think LaVar and the Lakers will suddenly be covered rationally, there's an even more basic reason to refuse to engage: Who is taking LaVar seriously? Has anyone—any respected voice in the entire basketball world—come out and questioned Walton's future in the last week? Who should Magic be looking to convince? What is there to gain? 

The Lakers are currently juggling a rebuild around draft picks, a roster full of trade assets, and plans to chase free-agent stars this summer. They don't need to make this equation any more complicated than it already is.

The team has been a mess for more than half a decade now, and I can't blame anyone who reads front office inaction as complacency. For the last few seasons in L.A. that criticism was spot on. But it wasn't this week.

Whether the Lakers can stick with this restrained approach remains to be seen, but it's been successful so far. On Thursday night, Lonzo finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists, and the story was about basketball again. The Lakers got their third straight win, and while there will definitely be a lot more losses to come, the future is still fairly bright. It looks like the team hit on all three first–rounds picks last June with Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Lonzo. It's also becoming clearer and clearer that Brandon Ingram is a future All-Star, while every other contract on the roster is either a) expiring, b) Luol Deng, or c) workable as a trade asset before a summer that could require a lot of flexibility and creativity.

Watching columns swirl around Magic and Pelinka all week and following the game Thursday night, I thought about that juggling act, the First Take bait they refused to take this week, and what everyone seems to be missing as the year unfolds: there's a chance these Lakers are much smarter than anyone realizes. 

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