An argument can be made that Rajon Rondo is a perfect summation of what went wrong with the Los Angeles Lakers this season. He should never have been signed, got hurt, but did just enough to apparently convince Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka that their experiment of putting ball-handlers around LeBron James is not just one giant, wet fart noise.
But it was a fart noise. James’ description was apt. Rondo may as well have been blowing raspberries as part of his closeout routine to shooters this season. And yet, after another loss and another night as a net-negative in the 20s in box plus-minus, Mike Bresnahan of Spectrum Sports offered up a prediction that should terrify everyone:
He specifically said they liked how he mentored Lonzo and went on the road to be around the team while he was hurt.— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) April 3, 2019
Now, most of the younger guys on the team have indeed pointed to Rondo as an important voice in the locker room —though my counter to even that is that young athletes will almost never call out their older counterparts.
But okay, let's allow for the possibility of him being a positive presence in the locker room, because more important than pointing out his flaws as a mentor is how easy it is to point out his flaws on the floor. And not even just as a player in a vacuum, but specifically on this team.
Rondo is a ball-dominant point guard who doesn’t care to defend (the Lakers hold a worse defensive rating with him on the court — 112.3 — than any other player who was on the opening night roster) and can’t space the floor. Yes, statistically, he’s shot the ball well this season — much better than anyone could have possibly hoped. But the way those shots and the rest of the counting stats he’s racked up have come has legitimately hurt the team.
For example, with 3-point shooting specifically, 54.3 percent of the threes has made have been unassisted — more often than not as a result of his defender going under the screen and leaving him so open that he kind of has to shoot. But those shooting numbers — even while being better than we likely could’ve hoped for — are empty stats.
Rondo isn’t offering up floor spacing as a result of his good shooting. Teams leaving him so wide open that it seriously hinders everyone else around him on the team. If he regresses next year while defenses employ this same strategy (which, they will), he will likely become one of the league’s absolute worst offensive players.
So if he’s terrible on defense and inefficient on offense, then, what exactly does he provide? And I swear on all things holy if you say leadership...
The other concern is the kind of role he would be offered on the Lakers specifically. If he was on a team with an analytically-driven front office and a coach on the same page in that respect, chances are he’d play a role that fits his game as it currently stands. But Magic Johnson isn’t that kind of team president, and chances are the coach he hires won’t be either.
Though even to that point, the Lakers will likely have three players who will all be more efficient with the ball next season (LeBron, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and whoever they use their cap space on). Any time the ball is in Rondo’s hands, it isn’t in those guys’, and thus the Lakers become easier to guard.
Combine that with Johnson's antiquated take on how basketball and the position of point guard should be played, and Rondo’s return is another disaster waiting to happen. Rondo would likely be seen as enough support behind Lonzo and the team probably wouldn’t employ (let alone rely on properly) a second backup point guard. Sort of like this year, or even worse, a capable backup would be available (like Alex Caruso) but would be stuck behind Rondo because of his veteran leadership. Sort of like this season.
We’ve seen this play out for two straight seasons and quite honestly, another might kill me.
Over the last 10 games, Caruso has played 24.3 minutes per game and held a +9.8 net rating. During that same span, Rondo has played 32.7 minutes and held a -9.1 net rating. Now, sure, Luke Walton probably gave up on this season a while ago and is only doing a favor to someone he likes a lot personally, but still, there is no reason whatsoever other than locker room politics that Rondo should be getting more minutes than Caruso, but that’s exactly how it could play out next year when Magic (a former point guard) hires a former player who would value that same veteran-ness as head coach.
Look, this season was damned basically no matter who the backup point guard was. Same can be said about last year, too. But in both cases, when Lonzo went down, he was replaced by guys who probably shouldn’t have been in the NBA, let alone starting for the league’s marquee franchise. Tyler Ennis isn’t even in the NBA any longer and Rondo would follow in his footsteps if not for accomplishments in years prior.
These margins matter, though, especially if Lonzo can’t figure out a way to stay healthy and James’ injury woes continue into next year. Yes, a lot of the work in the margins can be taken care of or masked by whoever the Lakers use their cap space on, but the better that player becomes, the higher expectations get for a team that fell desperately short of them this year.
Magic can explain away this season with injuries all he wants and by several accounts, that’s going to be the theme of his exit interview in a couple weeks. But it’s thinking like this, as echoed by Bresnahan, that severely hampers a season even before it gets underway.
At media day this season, Rondo said Johnson had been pursuing him for two years before he finally agreed to come last summer. Pursuing him for a third consecutive summer given what we’ve seen this season would be an egregious mistake.