By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There’s nothing like the NBA, where the drama off the court is generally more exciting than the drama in the games. The league is as much of a soap opera as it is a competitive basketball association, and in a perfect development, the stars are aligning in Los Angeles for some of the most intriguing storylines the league has ever seen.
That is, of course, in large part thanks to LeBron James’ decision to join the Lakers — and to agree to a four-year deal, to boot. But it’s been compounded exponentially in the hours that have followed that news, as the Lakers have made a number of roster moves that don’t exactly scream “championship.” They renounced the rights to Julius Randle, who was promptly snatched up by New Orleans. And the Lakers signed Javale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo.
All three players carry with them various levels of unpredictability, but none brings the Lakers anywhere close to the level of the Golden State Warriors. Having LeBron certainly helps, but as we all witnessed with the 2017-18 Cavaliers, it’s not enough to beat the historical greatness of Golden State.
But to most of the country, it doesn’t really matter if Magic Johnson builds a winner in Los Angeles. All that matters to most of us is the entertainment factor. And the addition of Rondo to a team that already employs Lonzo Ball is a potentially legendary mix.
It’s not so much about Lonzo himself. All things considered, Lonzo isn’t usually the one who’s making headlines for the Ball name. (Terrible diss tracks aside.) That’s generally been the job of LaVar Ball, a man who believes his sons are the greatest basketball players on the planet (literally), and a man who believes everyone needs to be reminded of this reality every 25 seconds.
LaVar Ball is a man who called out Lakers coach Luke Walton in January, saying that Walton “doesn’t have control of the team no more” and that Lakers players “don’t want to play for him.” Earlier in the year, LaVar Ball said that members of the Lakers’ coaching staff “don’t know how to coach my son.” LaVar also went the extra mile and criticized Lonzo’s teammate after a loss. That’s what every team needs right there.
LaVar Ball is a walking, talking reality show. (Literally.) As evidenced by his innumerable appearances on TV and radio and print, people can’t help but pay attention to the man.
Now if you take that man, and you throw him into a situation where a hard-headed 32-year-old is going to come in and have a chance to steal Lonzo’s job? Whoa boy. That would be pay-per-view type of drama.
In case you’ve been unconscious for the past decade-plus, Rondo is what the nerdy sportswriters might call “mercurial.” More simply put, he can be a real pain in the buns. His passing vision and ability is second to none, but he’s not much of a shooter and he’s been prone to getting fiery from time to time. This is a man who mercilessly crushes little kids’ hopes and dreams by demolishing them at Connect 4.
Possibly the funniest anecdote about any athlete ever came from a 2013 Sports Illustrated feature story on Rondo. In it, Lee Jenkins explained a trip Rondo made to a Boys & Girls Club to deliver bikes and iPods and other such goodies. He also took some time to play Connect 4 with the kids, one of whom gave this comment afterwards:
“I thought he might let us win,” said a 12 year-old named Olissa. “But he was so serious.”
Amazingly, Olissa managed to beat Rondo. Reminder: Olissa was 12 years old. Nevertheless, Rondo set out to prove that such a victory was a fluke.
“I can’t believe it,” [Rondo] said. “But did you notice I played the guy five more times and won them all? I had to show him, ‘You beat me, I’ll beat the s*** out of you.'”
Yes, it’s just one story about Rondo playing a children’s game. But it’s also a fair look into the competitive spirit that burns within Rondo.
Going back a bit, Rondo has butted heads with just about every coach he’s had, from Tubby Smith at Kentucky to Doc Rivers in Boston. Two years ago in Chicago, Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg benched Rondo for five games mid-season. Rondo said the explanation given to him was that the Bulls were “saving me from myself.”
“I thought it was [bull bleep],” Rondo said at the time. “Save me from myself. I never heard that before in my life. But I guess he was trying to do the best thing for me.”
Rondo’s list of greatest hits also includes:
–Calling out Ray Allen for the stories in his book, saying, “He just wants attention.”
–Calling out Isaiah Thomas for making specific requests about a tribute video timing, saying, “What has he done? … This is the Boston Celtics. … You don’t hang conference titles.”
–Responding to a question about a photo of him eating breakfast with Kobe Bryant by saying, “Just two a–holes having breakfast.”
–Getting into a bit of a screaming match with Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, and then getting sent home by the team during the playoffs and also being denied a playoff share.
–Reveling in a victory over the Mavericks a year later:
–Using the basketball as a sweat rag before giving it back to Draymond Green at the foul line, and trying to high-five Green after a missed free throw:
—Chucking a bottle at the video screen during a film session with the Celtics.
–Giving a slightly inappropriate response when asked about the performance of teammate Anthony Davis.
–Giving the very best/very worst opening speech of all time:
And that’s only the truncated list. The full list goes on and on and on.
If there’s one person in this world who would not be amused even the slightest bit by LaVar Ball’s act, it would be Rajon Rondo. And the fact that, according to reports, Rondo could wind up in a heated battle for a starting job with Lonzo Ball? That’s just too perfect.
In a world where we already know which two teams will be in next year’s Finals, we at least have this perfect blend of volatility and combustibility. Add in LeBron’s occasional passive-aggressiveness toward teammates, and the 2018-19 Lakers — as currently constituted — may represent the most exciting basketball team of all time. And that has nothing to do with actual basketball.
Of course, given the magnitute of LeBron in the NBA universe, there’s a real chance that all of this never plays out for us to see. There’s a chance that, despite spending the No. 2 overall pick on him a year ago, Lonzo Ball is sent packing by a Lakers organization that has opted for the rebuild-by-LeBron method instead of building through the draft. And with Rondo being a much more capable pass-first point guard, who knows? Perhaps the decision to move on from Ball has already been made.
But if the Lakers do trade away Lonzo — and, by extension, LaVar — then that would just be a crying shame. Basketball spectators have known in the past four summers which two teams would be meeting in the following season’s NBA Finals. Much of the drama, uncertainty, and excitement about the league has been drained, and with the Warriors looking unlikely to take any steps back next year, that reality is as present as ever.
But a magical mixture of LeBron, Rondo, and the Balls LaVar and Lonzo? We deserve this. We all deserve this.