“Bean burritos again, huh?”
While Tanxiety is sweeping across the fanbase of the Atlanta Hawks, they’ll sit shoulder-to-shoulder at Philips Arena, tonight, with fans of the Los Angeles Lakers (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Spectrum SportsNet in La-La-Land), one of several organizations whose fans are suffering from a bout with Tank Fatigue.
Hawks fans will come to understand this in a year or five, but it does wear fans out to hear, one year after the next, that everything is riding, once again, on the ability to draft the likes of Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, and Brandon Ingram in forthcoming drafts, that the next heralded collegiate wiretap subject is all that it will take to bounce back into legitimate playoff contention. Never mind what was decreed in the seasons prior.
Once said draftee arrives in town, Savior Watch goes into effect, where all the hopes that the old rookie doesn’t veer off into Mediocreville or Busttown, gets shifted and foisted onto the new guy. Everything from a rookie’s shot mechanics to his Snapchats get monitored and scrutinized intensely, playoff-starved fans desperately seeking signs of a clear corner-turning toward super-stardom.
The present Flavor of the Year, of course, is Lonzo Ball, who plays his first game at Philips Arena tonight. Ball missed 15 games leading up to the All-Star Break to heal an MCL sprain, and he was rested on Saturday (second night of a back-to-back for the Lakers) as part of his injury management plan.
Coach Luke Walton’s club doesn’t have to sweat over lottery positioning this season, a product of the organization’s all-in gamble in 2012 to try pairing Kobe with whatever remained of Steve Nash. So rather than pressure to lose with youth on the floor, there is pressure to win, but not to do it with detritus like Luol Deng, Corey Brewer, or Channing Frye on the floor.
Up until now, the Lakers have gotten about as much production, from one year to the next, out of their non-lottery selections (new Cavs Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Ivica Zubac, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart) as they have from their more touted rookie prizes. But this isn’t acceptable any longer. Los Angeles (25-34, 7.5 games behind 8-seed Denver, 10-5 in last 15 games) is under the gun to somehow make a mad dash toward the playoffs, and Walton must find a way to do it with his newest prize pupil, Ball, leading the way.
Everything has been Lonzo-centric all season long, but especially now. How does Walton work Ball back into a steady rotation, with Ingram (18.3 PPG, 5.6 APG this month) playing arguably the best basketball of his short career in a point guard role? With All-NBA second-teamer-turned-panic-button victim Isaiah Thomas (17 points @SAC off the bench on Saturday) insisting he deserves to be a starter, no matter the circumstance? With the 6-foot-5 Hart (8.0 RPG, 48.7 3FG% this month) rebounding out of his mind, even more effectively than Ball (3rd among all rookies in RPG)? With Georgia native Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (season-high 34 points, career-best 8 3FGs @ SAC) emerging as a go-to guy?
On top of all that, can Walton pull it off without drawing unwelcome Big Baller Beef, yet again, from Lonzo’s pops? Los Angeles is coming off consecutive wins over a pair of lottery-bound teams (vs. Dallas, at Sacramento) to start their post-Break schedule, and they intend to make it a trifecta tonight. Lonzo was instrumental to the Lakers ending a nine-game slide back on January 7, his team-high 10 rebounds, three made triples, and six assists helping Los Angeles cruise past the visiting Hawks, 132-113. But if the returning Ball isn’t the player making a splash, soon, and/or if his team regresses, the Lakers’ staff and brass run the risk of having to stamp out another PR fire.
Turnovers (15.3 turnover%, 5th-worst in NBA, just behind the sloppy Hawks’ 15.4%) and sketchy defense (119.6 opponent PPG in last 5 games) have long been problems for the oft-erratic Lakers (1st in pace). Ball and the Lakers’ young stars must mature and stabilize themselves quickly, particularly tonight, if they intend to end Dennis Schröder (27 points, 10-for-19 2FGs @ LAL on Jan. 7) and the Hawks’ home game streak versus Western Conference clubs at eight.
While KCP helps patrol the perimeter, Los Angeles’ interior defense must be strong enough to keep Schröder and John Collins (15 points in 21 bench minutes @ LAL) from piling up points in the paint (LAL opponents 48.4 paint PPG, 2nd-most in NBA) at their expense.
The Lakers’ fans have tired of being Processed meat, and they’re eager to see if they indeed have the Next Magic / Next Kobe on their hands, or at least if they have enough quality talent to entice a free agent superstar to wander onto the team this summer. The time for the Lake Show is now. Their tank has reached the end of the road, and the purple-and-gold-clad fans at The Highlight Factory need to know: Are We There, Yet?
Let’s Go Hawks!