Last season, the injury bug bit the Los Angeles Lakers hard, and the position group that suffered most was their point guards. Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball both played under 50 games, and of those 50 games, they only shared the court 10 times.
Outside of Ball and Rondo, the Lakers only had one other true point guard on their roster at the time: Alex Caruso, but he was on a two-way contract and didn’t start seeing regular playing time with the senior team until March. By then, playoffs were already seen as a long shot for Los Angeles.
This season, the Lakers have no shortage of bodies at the point guard position, as they prioritized signing combo guards like Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook and Troy Daniels in free agency. They also re-signed Rondo and Alex Caruso, the latter of whom signed a fully-guaranteed NBA contract for the first time in his career this past summer.
But while the Lakers have good numbers at point guard on paper, it’s quickly becoming evident that the depth they have is actually pretty shallow.
At the start of the season, the Lakers were getting solid and consistent production from their point guards, most notably from Rondo and Bradley.
Going into December, Rondo was one of the most reliable shooters the Lakers had, knocking down 44.8% of his attempts from behind the arc on 3.2 attempts per game. While few people expected him to hang around 45% for the season, the hope was that he’d convert his wide-open 3-point attempts. In the month of the December, that hasn’t been case.
In Rondo’s last 12 games, he’s made just 34.6% of his wide open 3-point attempts, and 33.3% of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts. What’s worse is that he’s become reluctant to shoot the 3-ball at all as a result of his dip in efficiency.
If Rondo isn’t knocking down his 3-point attempts at a high clip, he offers the Lakers very little outside of ball-handling, a skill that’s only valuable to the team when LeBron James isn’t on the court, and even then, Rondo’s ball-handling is negated by his slow decision making. It’s for those reasons that Rondo is posting the second-lowest offensive rating (104.8) on the team in December, only behind the Lakers’ current starting point guard, Avery Bradley.
Going into the season, there were concerns about which version of Bradley the Lakers were getting: the reliable 3-and-D guard that thrived with the Boston Celtics, or the shell of that player that has made stops in Detroit, Los Angeles and Memphis over the last three years. So far, they’ve seen both of those versions of Bradley.
Even before Bradley’s cold December started, he was among the worst offensive players on the Lakers, shooting 48.4% from the field, including a lowly 28.6% from behind the arc. The only player on the team that shot worse from 3-point range to start the season was Alex Caruso, who made just 27% of his attempts from behind the arc through his first 14 games.
The reason Bradley kept his spot in the starting lineup, though, was his defense. Before December, Bradley was posting a defensive rating of 98.6, which was only second to Caruso’s defensive rating of 96.3. Bradley’s perimeter defense was a big part of the reason the Lakers were the No. 1 ranked defense for most of October and November. In fact, in the 13 games Bradley missed with a hairline fracture, their defensive rating fell from first to 10th.
However, in the nine games that Bradley’s played since making his return on Dec. 11, he’s been a negative on both ends of the floor for the Lakers. Not only has Bradley shot worse from the field (34.9%) than he did to start the season, but he’s also looked lost on defense. As a result, the starting lineup of Bradley, Danny Green, James, Davis and JaVale McGee posted a net rating of -5.9 in December. Meanwhile, that same lineup with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in place of Bradley has posted a net rating of +5.4 in 123 minutes together.
So is the solution to their point guard problems to move Caldwell-Pope back into the starting lineup? Not exactly.
While the numbers suggest that Caldwell-Pope is a better fit with the first unit, the same can’t be said of Bradley and his fit with the second unit.
The Lakers have played seven different lineups with Rondo and Bradley in the backcourt. Of those seven lineups, six have a net rating of -10 or lower. On the season, the two-man lineup of Rondo and Bradley has posted a net rating of -13.
Alternatively, lineups that feature Caruso with one of Rondo or Bradley in the back court have a positive net rating. That’s because, generally speaking, Caruso has been a more impactful player on both ends of the floor than Rondo and Bradley have for the Lakers this season, and he’s only getting more comfortable in his role.
After a successful December, Caruso has leapfrogged Rondo and Bradley in field goal percentage, assists per game, assist to turnover ratio, steals per game and overall box plus-minus. Once just a funny meme, Caruso has quietly established himself as one the key parts of the guard rotation, and he may see his minutes increase sooner rather than later.
The problem with Caruso, though, is that he’s best utilized as a secondary ball-handler, even though he’s shown growth as a primary ball-handler since the start of the season. The same can be said of Caldwell-Pope, which is why they’re both such great fits alongside James.
What the Lakers need to round out their point guard rotation is someone that can handle the ball, make plays for others and create shots for themselves. If that guard isn’t going to be Bradley, Rondo, Cook or even Daniels, the front office should begin to explore trades for a guard that does fit that description. Bradley and Cook make a combined $7.7 million, which is enough for them to be legitimate players in the trade market. And critically, unlike most of the players on the Lakers’ roster this season, neither Bradley nor Cook have some sort of implicit no-trade by virtue of re-signing on one-year deals via Bird rights, so the front office doesn’t need their permission to find them a new home.
Conversely, Rondo does have such a clause in his contract, and also has a great relationship with the two most influential players on the roster. For those reasons, don’t expect him to be dealt.
Ideally, the solution to the Lakers’ point guard problem would come internally, but unless rookie Talen Horton-Tucker makes a giant leap in the second half of the season, they’re going to need outside help. Whether it’s via the trade market or the buyout market, don’t be surprised to see the Lakers pursue a point guard or, at the very least, a versatile playmaker, because what they have in their rotation right now has left them with obvious flaws that need to be addressed. If Rob Pelinka and the front office can pull it off, they’ll close the last real hole in this roster.