This past summer, the Los Angeles Lakers re-signed Rajon Rondo to a 1+1 deal for the veteran’s minimum and no one understood exactly why. Yes, Rondo had the seal of approval from both LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but his fit with the former was horrendous last season.
In the 35 games the two-man pairing of James and Rondo shared the court last season, they posted a defensive rating of 110.9 and an overall net rating of -5.4. No two-man lineup featuring James that played more than 500 minutes together last season posted a lower net rating.
Rondo was no spring chicken on his own, either. Last season, he posted the worst defensive rating on the team (113.3) and was ranked No. 436 out of 514 players in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, according to ESPN. Additionally, the Lakers had -8.1 efficiency differential with Rondo on the floor last season, per Cleaning the Glass.
Locker room politics aside, it made no sense for the Lakers to bring Rondo back. But now, 22 games into the season, they have to be happy with their decision.
Not only are James and Rondo thriving together, posting a remarkable +16.3 net rating in 12 games and 147 minutes they’ve shared the floor, but Rondo is having a bounce-back year himself.
After the Lakers’ win over the Utah Jazz — a game in which Rondo tallied 14 points, 12 assists, 9 rebounds and 2 steals — LeBron James talked to reporters about the impact Rondo’s had in his second season (via Spectrum SportsNet):
“He’s shown why we brought him back. And why he wanted to come back and why I wanted him back. He’s just one of the most cerebral players I’ve ever played against in the past… I know what he’s capable of, I know what he’s thinking. There’s not too many guys where you can just play the game without saying anything to them, and me and ‘Do kind of have that chemistry… It’s a beautiful thing.”
Defensively, Rondo’s not what he used to be, but offensively he’s as good as he’s ever been, shooting a career-high effective field goal percentage of 55.9% and draining his 3-point attempts at 50% clip (34 total attempts). Per Synergy, Rondo is in the 100th percentile in unguarded catch-and-shoot 3-point efficiency with 2.5 points per 100 possessions. It’s small sample size, sure, but it’s about as big of a sample size as anyone has this season.
Vogel spoke highly of Rondo’s shooting during the preseason, saying he thinks that Rondo can become a great shooter late in his career the same way Lakers assistant Jason Kidd did, but he believes Rondo’s best attribute is still as a floor general (via “The Official Lakers Podcast”):
“He definitely does look to push the pace, but he keeps us organized, and that’s what great point guards do. They quarterback the action, they make sure they’re getting us into stuff where everybody is touching it and he does a great job with that. He’s got one of the best IQs maybe ever to play the game, and he’s one of the best passers to ever play the game. He’s given us a great lift there, he’s been great for our confidence factor.
“His impact is measured in swag more than statistics, and we know that the games are going to our way when he’s in there. He gives me a lot of confidence in what we’re doing on the basketball court, and he’s shooting the ball a lot better than he has in the past. He shot 36% from the 3-point line the last four years, so I came in and I told him that’s a respectable number and, he’s got the green light to pull the trigger when the defense sags off him like they’ve done throughout his career, and he’s off to a good start in that regard too.”
Rondo’s ability to initiate the offense and make open 3-point shots has made it possible for Vogel to play Alex Caruso off-ball next to Rondo, where Caruso can thrive as a secondary playmaker and a cutter while also picking up Rondo’s slack on defense. They’ve posted a +12.8 net rating in 120 minutes together.
Whether Vogel has unlocked Rondo or Rondo’s simply just more focused, he’s been great. If the Lakers are going to compete for a championship this season, he’ll need to continue to be great or, at the very least, get up for the postseason.