Rajon Rondo’s return date from his strained calf has been a moving target. It was originally thought he would only miss a few games, and then it was reported he might see time in the Lakers’ Sunday night matchup with the Raptors. Those timelines have come and gone, however, and while Rondo is said to be progressing and inching closer to a return, he remains out...for now.
Rondo’s return, whenever it comes, is likely to come with a certain amount of consternation from a large segment of Lakers fans. Rondo, ever a divisive figure, seems to carry more cachet within the team’s locker room than he does in fan circles. And to be fair, both sides can be right.
Rondo can be both a respected leader whose reputation as a big-game player with smarts and playmaking skill resonates with teammates and he can be a player some fans would rather see on a different team; a subpar defender whose impact on the floor can be exaggerated by boxscore stats that stand in direct contrast to what some advanced metrics say his effectiveness actually is.
As these divergent sides war and disagree, what cannot be argued is that some of the key skills Rondo brings to the table are ones that align quite well with what the Lakers currently lack in their guard rotation. A pass-first point guard who can organize an offense, capably handle ball pressure, and run a pick and roll to create good shots for teammates is not a skill set the Lakers have in abundance outside of LeBron James. This bears out in some numbers that show the Lakers lack of offensive effectiveness when LeBron is out of the game.
Through the Raptors game, in the 121 minutes that LeBron has been off the court, the Lakers have an offensive rating of 89.7, according to NBA.com. To put this number in context, this is nearly 10 points worse per 100 possessions than the 99.3 offensive rating of the Knicks and their NBA’s worst offense. If you’re wondering why the Lakers rank 20th overall in points per game and in offensive efficiency, this is the root of the issue. The Lakers simply cannot score at an effective rate when LeBron is off the floor, even when he’s being staggered with Anthony Davis.
Rondo, for all his faults as a player, can and should help in this area — particularly in lineups where he’s paired with Davis. Rondo and Davis have chemistry from their time in New Orleans that should translate to Los Angeles. This can be true in the half court, where Rondo — still one of the more gifted and creative passers in the league — can pick out Davis for finishing opportunities when he’s on the move or slashing into creases of the defense, but, more importantly, should also translate to how they can connect in transition.
When Davis is on the court without LeBron, the Lakers are playing at a faster pace than when the duo share the floor, but the team’s percentage of points coming out of fast break chances goes down. When they were teammates in New Orleans, one of Rondo’s specialties was seeking out Davis in transition and setting him up for easy baskets on the run, capitalizing on Davis’ ability to outrace opposing big men on rim runs or when filling the lane like a wing.
Consider too, now that Kyle Kuzma has returned, in the 33 minutes Davis and Kuzma have shared the floor without LeBron, the Lakers have played at a pace that would lead the league if extended over the course of a full game, but have only scored a single fast break basket.
If looking to optimize Davis and, based on some of the early returns after his return from injury, Kuzma, there are specific ways that Rondo can really help here, and it would be disingenuous to deny this. On the flip side, however, it would also be insincere to present Rondo as some all-fixing solution who does not bring his own concerns.
Rondo’s ball dominance and instinct to control all aspects of how his team’s offense flows can be problematic, particularly because of his individual flaws as a player. Rondo can too often hunt assists at the detriment of making the more straightforward pass or, worse, search for said passes instead of taking an open shot for himself that would come within the flow of the offense.
Further, Rondo’s reputation as a poor shooter compromises spacing, often leading to clogged driving lanes and primary scorers having to navigate secondary defenders who are all too happy to abandon Rondo earlier in possessions than they would vs. more capable scoring threats. And while there have been reports that Rondo’s shown marked improvement as a shooter in practices, until that translates to game action, defenses will be happy to treat Rondo like a 6-foot Ben Simmons.
Defensively, there are even more issues. Rondo’s reputation far outpaces his ability to defend at this stage of his career. Intermittent effort and a tendency to point and direct traffic at the expense of making a rotation or fighting through a pick are an all to frequent occurrence. Rondo is also averse to mixing it up with bigger players, particularly on switches or when helping the helper requires he do the dirty work of boxing out and tussling with a big man. These are the little things the Lakers have been excelling at en route to the league’s second-ranked defense, and if Rondo continues what is now a years-long trend of not actively doing them, he could easily have as much (or more of) a negative impact defensively as he could positively influence the team’s offense.
In sorting through the collision of these issues, Frank Vogel will have interesting and potentially difficult decisions on his hands on a night-to-night basis. Determining the best personnel groupings, how to deploy those in a workable rotation, and how much leeway to give Rondo in the context of these groupings comes with implications both in the form of on-court performance and off-court politics.
As noted above, Rondo has a weight and respect on the team — including with coaches. Fighting against that in order to dole out the right sized role instead of simply grandfathering Rondo into larger minutes is something Vogel and his staff must be actively mindful of — not only in how it can positively impact on-court results, but in how it could negatively impact locker room dynamics.
The best approach, particularly as he makes his way back into the rotation, might end up being a shift or two a game, playing minutes without LeBron on the floor, but with Davis and/or Kuzma. Replicating the types of successful lineups Rondo played with in New Orleans could serve as a useful guide here, building out groups anchored by Davis, with shooting at the PF slot, and wings flanking him who can shoot and offer defensive versatility. One type of lineup could be Rondo, Alex Caruso, Danny Green, Kuzma, and Davis. This is just one iteration, but it’s potentially a good starting point that could put Rondo in the best position to play his game while helping to boost those of his teammates and not infringing on the skill sets of the players he shares the court with.
I think the big takeaway here is that Rondo can (and maybe even should) be a useful piece for these Lakers. But that usefulness does not come without caveats. His strengths can be as helpful as his weaknesses are hurtful and it will be on the coaches — via lineup construction, size of role, and leash to perform within it — to best manage it all in a manner that helps elevate the team. Additionally, it will be on Rondo, the player, to accept his role and play to his strengths, but, even more importantly step outside of some his more ingrained habits to provide what this team actually needs and not just what he thinks they do.
If there can be a meeting of the minds and Rondo can live in the middle of the Venn diagram where offensive playmaking and defensive effort overlap, the Lakers may end up with a type of player they’ve sorely missed in these first nine games, even as they’ve surged to a 7-2 record. If that cannot happen, though, things can go poorly to the point that real decisions will have to be made about how much, if at all, Rondo should play.
We should all be hoping for the former, even if it’s fair to wonder if the latter is just as — if not more — likely.