Attempting to Understand the Lonzo Ball Fascination

I will start by saying this: the Celtics are not a perfect team in their current conception. Such is the burden of being a decent team with young stars no longer on their rookie contracts. Some teams are able to work around the margins to supplement those stars, and some are not. Given the luck the Celtics have had the past four years (Isaiah Thomas injury, Kyrie Irving injuries / departure, Gordon Hayward injuries / departure, Al Horford departure, Kemba Walker injuries / departure), this is an extremely impressive position to be in. I don't think any other team has had as weird a stretch in my memory, and being able to be a contending team despite that is a minor miracle.

All that said, this is a precarious time for the team. The combination of salaries make making major additions to the team a challenge, meaning that they only get a couple shots at adding big-time talent, and the exodus of talent over the past few years means that they are a couple pieces short. This is certainly not a time to make major changes that fail spectacularly (see the 2015 Blazers).

All this leads to the fanbase hysteria around adding Lonzo Ball. Everywhere you look, people are talking about whether the Celtics can possibly add Lonzo Ball, which leads me to believe that this narrative is being pushed aggressively by some sports radio host or podcast that I thankfully don't listen to but nonetheless accrues countless parasocial relationships from rabid fans set out to whine at anything that runs contrary to the desires of their preferred radio persona. I've even heard Lonzo's name dropped in the same breath as Beal in terms of Celtic priorities. Regardless of the origin, I decided to take a deeper dive into something that I, as a frequent basketball and Pelicans watcher, did not understand in the slightest.

Lonzo Ball is a 3&D wing on the Pelicans who is a restricted free agent likely to be let go by the Pelicans due to cap constraints, though the Pelicans do have the right to match any offer sheet Lonzo earns and retain him if they desire. The Celtics, as an over the cap team, would need to acquire Lonzo via a sign-and-trade, which would leave the Celtics hard capped. As it stands, the Celtics don't have the space under the hard cap to come anywhere close to the money required to sign Lonzo, which has led many fans to offer Marcus Smart as the piece going out in a potential Lonzo trade.

First, let's get into Lonzo the player. Lonzo is a bit of a post-hype guy coming off of being drafted #2 overall ahead of Jayson Tatum and largely flopping playing out of position as a point guard on the Lakers. After being traded in the Anthony Davis deal, Lonzo was shifted to a more off-ball role next to Zion Williamson, Eric Bledsoe, and Brandon Ingram, re-tooled his shooting stroke, and found success. Lonzo finally had his breakout last year, averaging career highs across the board on offense: 14.6 points, 5.7 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 37.8% from three, and a .551 TS%, all career highs with the exception of assists, where he averaged 7.2 his rookie year. Lonzo does all this while being, on the whole, an average on-ball defender and terrific off-ball defender.

These are decent numbers, though not superstar or even all star numbers, and it all makes sense why Lonzo is a coveted free agent. He's also 23, and while his game and lack of athleticism doesn't scream upside, there may be some additional room for growth and he isn't close to being over the hill. I just don't understand his fit on the Celtics. The Celtics already lack depth at point guard, and shipping out the one proven point guard on the roster for a 3&D wing, something the Celtics already have an abundance of, doesn't make much sense to me, particularly when the move would come at the cost of a hard-cap, lack of flexibility, and diminishes the teams ability to make a big move down the line if they so chose.

Some may quibble with my insistence that Lonzo isn't a point guard, but it's the truth. Lonzo is a fine transition ball handler, but in the half court he is strictly an off-ball player. The biggest reason is that Lonzo cannot score off the dribble. While Lonzo shot 37.8% on 8.3 three point attempts per game, a large majority of those were of the strictly catch and shoot variety. Lonzo shot 40.2% on 5.9 catch and shoot three point attempts per game, but just 31.3% on 2.1 pull up three point attempts, the large majority of which came off of one or two dribble relocations, not exactly what I would call a threat to pull up. 7.5 of Lonzo's 8.3 three point attempts per game were categorized as open or wide open, meaning that no defender was within 4 feet of him. Further, Lonzo shot just 37.9% on 1.9 pull up two point attempts per game; it's not really a part of his game at all. Lonzo is also a bad finisher at the rim for a couple reasons, which may sound similar to many of the complaints leveraged against Tatum: not getting to the rim frequently enough, not finishing at a high enough rate when getting there, and not getting to the free throw line enough. Tatum last season shot 59.9% on 7.5 field goal attempts at the rim last season (league average 58.5%) and got to the free throw line 5.3 times per game, not ideal for your top scorer, but fine. Last year, Lonzo shot 55.9% on 2.5 field goal attempts at the rim last season (league average is 58.5%) and got to the line just 1.2 times per game. This is not an on-ball profile.

On top of all that are concerns about Lonzo's ability to sustain last season's play. Lonzo has known durability and ankle issues, and set another career high last season with just 55 games played. While Lonzo doesn't get to the free throw line much, his career high 78.1% from the line last season is well above his career averages. For all the talk of Ben Simmons' struggles at the free throw line this offseason, his career percentages are 56%, 60%, 62%, and 61%. Lonzo's four years are 45%, 42%, 57%, and 78%. Lonzo's three point percentages are 31%, 33%, 38%, and 38%. I buy the three point numbers more, and it is possible to assume the numbers hold because of the shot changes, but it's also possible they don't. He is coming off of career highs across the board without a clear track record of doing him what you're paying him to do. Or, in Boston's case, he has never done what they would be asking him to do.

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