Today we dive deep on the player at the top of many a free agent wish list.
Good morning, and a belated Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there! Before we get to our Lonzo Ball deep dive, a reminder to all the partial subscribers out there: sign up!
On to the news..
🗣 News & Notes ✍️
🏀 Knicks Godfather/President of Basketball Operations Leon Rose finished 4th in the league’s annual Executive of the Year award voting, with Phoenix’s James Jones taking home the trophy. Rose received one first place vote:
Once Thibs got COTY, it was a stretch to think Rose was seriously in the running here, if he ever was at all. Regardless, a 4th place finish is nothing to scoff at. Not bad at all for a first-timer.
🏀 Woj reported that the Celtics are trading Kemba Walker, the 16th pick in the 2021 draft and a 2025 second-rounder to Oklahoma City for Al Horford, Moses Brown and a 2023 second.
This is essentially a salary dump for Boston in which they get back a player they know they like in Horford and an intriguing young piece in Brown. It’s a complicated trade to analyze because while Horford is “bad” money in his own right, the Celtics know exactly what they’re getting and seem to be OK with that. His partial guarantee of $14 million in 2022-23 also matters here, although I have a hard time seeing anyone swallowing this number, even using the stretch provision.
Really, this is an indication of just how much Walker’s value has fallen, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. $73.6 million over two years is a lot of dough for a 31-year-old, 6-foot guard with a bad knee. Walker has always been a notch below the Steph/Dame/Harden/Paul/Kyrie group that he counts as peers, and that’s when he was fully operational.
My guess: he starts the year in OKC to prove he’s healthy, and then if he looks the part, maybe a bit of a market for his services develops.
🏀 Congrats to the Hawks, for continuing to shock the world and beating Philly last night. Trae Young is a special player, but the qualities that make him special are brilliantly amplified by the players around him. New York doesn’t have anyone on that level, but even so, it’s encouraging to see a well-constructed roster with one star and a lot of darn good players make it this far (and I’m not sure they’re done quite yet).
As for the Sixers, getcha’ popcorn ready, because this should be fun.
🏀 Lastly, Brooklyn was eliminated from the playoffs on Saturday night. I don’t have much to say about this other than that it brings me great joy, which is probably the best compliment I’ve ever given the Nets. You made me care enough to root against you. Kudos.
The more I think about why the eldest Ball brother is atop many people’s free agent point guard wish list, the more I realize it’s more about what everyone else isn’t than about what Lonzo Ball is. To wit:
Kyle Lowry: too old
DeMar DeRozan: can’t shoot; isn’t really a point guard; also kinda old
Spencer Dinwiddie: coming off injury, can’t shoot, and kind of a dick
Dennis Schroder: can’t shoot, is highly inefficient, and wants the bag
Devonte Graham: restricted; not a great facilitator
Kendrick Nunn: ditto
Cameron Payne: can we trust the sample size? What is he as a starter?
Reggie Jackson: are we seeing his ceiling? Not really a facilitator.
TJ McConnell: can’t shoot, looks like the ball boy
Lonzo doesn’t have any of these pock marks other than that he’s restricted, but there’s the sense that New Orleans’ frugal ways will rear their ugly head this summer, and that he can be had, somehow, some way. More on that in a bit.
Aside from that though, Ball checks a lot of people’s boxes:
Can shoot: Increased 3-point percentage for three straight years, and just under 38 percent the last two years (including last season on significant volume)
Versatile / Doesn’t need the ball: Can initiate the offense but also doesn’t have to to be useful. This is seen as a positive on a team with the likes of Julius Randle, RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley.
Two-way player: Couldn’t prevent New Orleans from having a bottom-10 defense, but he brings good size, smarts and skill to the position.
Age: Just 23 years old.
Upside: His improvement from behind the arc and from the line (44 percent over his first two seasons, 56 percent in his third, and 78 percent last season) suggests continued growth through his prime.
In broad strokes, these are the sort of things you’re looking for in a free agent signing for a team whose core players are 26, 23, 23, 22 and 21.
But the notion that Lonzo Ball can be New York’s answer at point guard is a fraught one. For the reasons why, we need to go big picture for a sec.
The classical definition of a point guard is someone who has the ball at the beginning of an offense possession and then distributes it where it needs to go. In the league today though, we know it’s not quite that simple, at least if we’re talking about the majority of the league’s point men.
More often than not, a starting point guard in 2021 will be able to create some sort of matchup advantage. Some are obviously better (and more efficient) at this than others, but almost every team has someone that at least passes for a reasonable facsimile of an offensive engine at point. It’s why the Bulls went to great lengths to shoehorn Coby White into a role he wasn’t ready for. It’s why the Magic forked over $50 million to Markelle Fultz on the mere chance that he could recapture some of what got him drafted first overall. It’s why the Lakers upended their championship roster to go get Dennis Schroder.
Teams that don’t have this are desperate to get it, and no one is more desperate than the Knicks, which is why we’re sitting and talking about the prospect of handing a massive sum of money to Lonzo Ball.
Here’s the only problem: For all the stuff Lonzo does, creating matchup advantages isn’t one of them, not in the half court at least.
As a lead ball handler, you essentially have two major weapons in your arsenal to bend the defense: the pick and roll, and the 3-pointer. Let’s start with the pick and roll, where as a passer, Ball is perfectly fine:
You’ll notice that after Lonzo darts right, Bismack Biyombo shows hard to wall off Ball’s drive. At that point, he hits the rolling Jaxson Hayes with a perfectly timed and placed bounce pass that results in a relatively easy finish. This is good!
Zooming out for a moment, New Orleans scored 4.4 more points per 100 possessions when Lonzo played than when he sat, so he seems to have a markedly positive effect on the offense. While it’s true that most of those possessions came with Zion Williamson on the floor, even without Williamson, New Orleans had a 112.9 offensive rating under Ball’s watch, which is still a borderline top-10 number. The flip side is true as well; the Pelicans scored 117.8 points per 100 possessions with Lonzo and Zion, but only 114.1 with just the big guy.
Again, all wonderful stuff. The issue comes with the fact that defenders won’t always be as eager to jump out as Biyombo is above. Lonzo doesn’t have much by way of counters to snake his way into the paint, nor is he adept at the sort of short midrange floaters that Trae Young used to bury the Knicks a few weeks ago.
That’s part of the season why Ball finished only 3.6 possessions per game as the pick and roll ball handler last season. That was the second lowest number of any nominal starting point guard in the league, ahead of only LA’s Reggie Jackson. Jackson, of course, played alongside Kawhi and Paul George, just as Ball watched Zion and Brandon Ingram spearhead most of the offense.
Is there a possibility that Ball will show us more of his bag if he’s tasked with greater responsibility? Sure…
…but the numbers say he also has a long way to go.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Ball hit 37 percent from the short midrange and 39 percent on long twos. Those numbers rank in the 32nd and 44th percentile for his position, respectively. The long twos number is encouraging though. For Ball to become the best version of himself, he’ll need to at least keep defenses honest when they leave him by his lonesome with such opportunities (think about how much those 16-to-18 foot makes opened up the game for RJ throughout last season).
From closer in, Ball has also had his moments…
…but he only made 20 non-garbage time buckets from between four and 14 feet this season, which is among the lowest numbers in the league for a starting point guard.
At the rim, the numbers get even more scant. Only 18 percent of his shot attempts came in the restricted area, which was good for the 20th percentile league wide, and that doesn’t even account for how often these looks came in transition, which is a higher number for Lonzo than most.
Those transition buckets helped prop up Ball’s conversion rate at the rim (59 percent, which is good but not great) but watch any commensurate sampling of his half court attempts from close range and you’ll see that finishing isn’t a strength. No one knows this better than Ball himself, which explains why he only drove the ball 5.0 times per game, good for 141st in the NBA.
Tom Thibodeau demands that his lead guards put pressure on the rim early and often, believing that even missed shots bring the ancillary benefit of offensive rebounds and put-backs (see: Payton, Elfrid), so this alone may be a deal breaker for Ball’s chances of ending up in New York.
But Thibs also repeatedly said how important outside shooting was for expanding the Knicks offense, which brings us to the other way that Lonzo can create matchup advantages: the three. Here, again, there are encouraging results if you want to squint a bit:
This is nifty little sidestep, but it’s about the closest thing you’re going to get from Ball when it comes to the fancy stuff behind the arc. The vast majority of his triples came off the catch on kick outs from the Pels bigger playmakers, evidenced by the fact that 83.7 percent of his triples were assisted.
For comparison’s sake, this is a little higher than Julius Randle’s number (79.4 percent) and nowhere near as high as Reggie Bulluck (97.5) or RJ Barrett (97.6), but also far higher than Immanuel Quickley (61.0). In short, Ball’s proficiency and volume from the outside (8.3 attempts per game, good for 13th in the league) will help open up the Knicks’ offense, but not nearly as much as your primo defense-benders.
All of this is to say that if Lonzo Ball is the ignition for your offense, you’re probably going to spending a lot of time in the shop, but that’s also where the conversation gets more complicated. In Randle, the Knicks already have a guy they’re comfortable running their offense through who is likely better in that role than anyone they can get this summer. My guess is they’re also counting on continued progression from RJ in that area as well, to the point that if they’re going to push Barrett further down the totem poll, it’s only going to be for a star. Again, that doesn’t appear to be in the cards.
But even with improvement from Barrett, a Knick offense led by these two still isn’t any match for the gauntlet of playoff basketball. So what’s the priority? Bring in one of the imperfect fits I listed above to give the offense more of a jolt? Or pay the asking price for Ball in the hope that he can be a part of the long term core even though he doesn’t necessarily cure what ails New York at the moment?
The tenor of this newsletter may seem like I’m leaning towards the former, but I’m not so sure. Deficiencies aside, there just aren’t a ton of guys in the league who give you at least three 3-pointers and five dimes per game:
The first four (who obviously should not be confused with Ball’s player type, but still) are max guys and VanVleet is making over $20 million annually and earning every penny. Graham’s market will play out this summer, but because of his size, you have to play him at the point, and there are holes in his game that limit the ceiling of any team he runs.
As we’ve just detailed, those same holes exist for Lonzo, but his size and defensive acumen helps you avoid the question of “if he’s not running the show, why is he out there?”
That also doesn’t mean he’s worth north of $20 million a year, which you have to figure is where his market starts. The Pelicans may be cheap, but given the recent news that Zion and Brandon Ingram like having Ball as a teammate, David Griffin isn’t going to let Lonzo walk for a fair number. It’s just as unlikely that Ball’s camp would settle for a more reasonable figure, this being a seller’s market with likely competition for his services.
I’ve long suspected that the way Lonzo ends up a Knick is in a sign and trade involving one of New York’s picks in this draft. In this scenario, my guess is he’d still wind up with something in the four years, $84-92 million range.
Before you scoff, some final considerations:
Have we seen his ceiling, and can Ball be more consistent? Back in May, Lonzo became just the sixth player ever to score 30 points, hit eight threes, pull down 10 boards and dish eight assists in a game, joining James Harden, Paul George, Steph Curry, Jason Kidd and Antoine Walker. The next night? 3-for-18 overall, 1-for-9 from deep, seven points. The night after that? Another 33, going 7-of-13 from deep. In other words, who the hell knows.
The Zion question. It has to be mentioned. The Knicks already have one Williamson carrot in Barrett, and in signing Ball, they’d get another one. Should this be a consideration? Honestly, how can it not be?
How tradable is the contract? Looking around the league at guys making in the low 20’s who are more supporting players than leading men, you’ll find Harrison Barnes ($22.2 million), Fred VanVleet ($21.2 million) and Malcolm Brogdon ($20.7 million). These players would all net at least a first round pick in a trade should their teams ever look to move them. Even if Ball is a lesser caliber of player, at the very least, you have to figure the deal would be movable.
Is there a more palatable alternative? I’ll get more into some of the names listed above as the summer moves along, but without question, there are arguments to be made for several.
In the end, I’m OK with Ball at the number he’s likely to get, for three main reasons. First, he will make your basketball team better. Is he perfect? No. But he’ll help you, and he’s a Swiss army knife. And he’ll make life easier for guys like Randle, RJ, Quickley and Obi. There is no lineup configuration he doesn’t fit with.
Let me preface the second point by first saying: I know we’re still living with the sting of utter offensive humiliation against Atlanta. New York’s offensive rating in the series would have been last in the NBA. It was bad. But that doesn’t mean New York should be in a rush, and in the case of Barrett and Quickley in particular, the organization should be prioritizing the long term play-making growth of both players. That means reps, and having faith that those reps will yield fruit. We’ve seen enough to believe such an effort is warranted, and Ball won’t mop up too much of their usage.
Lastly, if someone told me I could get a sub-elite 3 & D wing who can also run the offense for long stretches, and he’d cost something around $20 million per, I’d begrudgingly sign up. That’s exactly how we should be viewing Ball - not as the point guard of the future, but as an important piece of the larger puzzle.
At the same time, if they don’t wind up with him, no one should be heartbroken. Ball isn’t the be all, end all, and my guess is that the Knicks realize that, and won’t overextend themselves to bring him aboard. Nor should they.
That’s it for today! If you enjoy this newsletter and like the Mets, don’t forget to subscribe to JB’s Metropolitan. See everyone soon! #BlackLivesMatter
For some context, Trae Young led the league at 14.1, and 18 players averaged eight or more.