In sports analysis and fandom, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking in binaries, specifically when it comes to how we view players. More often than not, these individuals are thought of as either good or bad, with very little middle ground in-between.
While this is generally the easy approach to determining who we should root for, or even when figuring out how the individual performs compared to their peers, it’s also dangerously lazy to ignore other contextual factors that creates the way we — or the numbers — view players.
In a recent sit-down with Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, Vogel was asked about polarizing point guard Rajon Rondo’s poor net rating with LeBron James, and how much better the team looked by the eye test and numbers when Alex Caruso was on the floor:
MT: One question about analytics and watching film. Last year, in 2-man line up groupings, LeBron and Alex Caruso had a strong net rating if in a small sample size, while LeBron and Rajon Rondo’s rating wasn’t as high. As a coach, how do you weigh statistics to either support or debunk what you’re seeing on the film, in case it doesn’t go hand in hand?
Vogel: It’s a tool in the toolbox, it’s not the toolbox. The Rondo and LeBron stuff was a little surprising to me, because they’re obviously two of the game’s greats, but in some ways also not surprising when you look at the environment around them in terms of the team’s lack of shooting last year around those two guys. The pieces have got to fit, and we had a long conversation about that, and I actually expect it to be a complete reversal this year. I think those two guys will be great together. Obviously, LeBron really likes playing with guys like Caruso, guys that can do everything and play on or off the ball, guard at a high level. So I think that’ll be the same as well. But you look at the numbers and you ask why. Sometimes the answer is evident, sometimes it’s not. Then you look, ‘Can it be tinkered with’ to make it work if it wasn’t working.’ Those are some of the things that we’re talking about now.
While there is plenty in Vogel’s answer to digest and analyze, the question of “why?” he proposes when it comes to grasping what the data says is encouraging. Although many fans will likely mute out any argument or contextual circumstances that spin Rondo’s season in a different light, it’s tough not to be encouraged by Vogel’s rationale.
If nothing else, it means that he is willing to look at several variables when it comes to optimizing his players and his team. That’s better than being a coach who relies solely on a singular crutch, be it feel or numbers.
Vogel arguably put it best in the interview when he detailed analytics by stating that “it’s a tool in the toolbox, it’s not the toolbox.” Rondo might be the perfect case study for this idea.
Last season, the Lakers posted a net rating (the point differential between themselves and their opponents per 100 possessions) of -5.4 in the 602 minutes Rondo and James were on the floor together, per NBA.com. Blindly looking solely at this number, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that the pairing between two of the league’s best passers did not work. In fact, that may ultimately be the case.
But the question of “why” it didn’t that Vogel proposed is far more important. Using his hypothesis in the quote above, the coach mostly suggests that the duo’s environment was not conducive to their strengths. This ultimately limited their ceiling as a tandem, mainly due to the lack of floor spacing on the roster (that sound you hear is every Lakers fan furiously nodding).
After researching this, a few notable things stood out in terms of Vogel’s assessment. First, it was correct. But also, it may not have been the sole or even central source of the problem.
Yes, the Lakers did not shoot anywhere near well enough to alleviate the congestion in the paint when LeBRondo lineups were on the floor. In fact the lineups that possessed the veterans shot only 31.7% from behind the arc, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Although that may not be all that surprising considering how poorly the Lakers shot as team last season (last in the league in wide-open 3-point percentage) it should be noted that it may not have been a completely viable excuse given that of the three most frequently used lineups that contained Rondo and James, the top two both had the likes of Reggie Bullock and Kyle Kuzma within them.
Despite Bullock (who had been a fantastic shooter) capturing the stench that drapes over every player who dawns the purple and gold in recent history and Kuzma taking a noticeable dip, both are still guys who get closed out hard on. In theory that alone should have allotted some spacing potential, although their inability to convert may have ultimately made the threats moot.
Any lineup that has Rondo essentially means there will always be at least one non-shooting threat who doesn’t scare defenses on the floor. A majority of the time two, given who the team’s fives were last season and will be this go-round as well (counting Anthony Davis as a four here).
But does this mean that lineups which contained Caruso and James shot the lights out? That seems like a certainty, especially when considering that the Carusgawd shot a bonkers 48% from three.
Well, actually not. During the 302 possessions James and Caruso shared the floor last season, the Lakers actually shot worse than they did with Rondo. It’s small sample size, but those five-man groups converted their triples at a dismal 29.1% with the Bald Mamba at point guard.
This then begs the question of where the stark difference between the Caruso/James lineups’ net-rating of +9.1 versus the Rondo/James unit posting a -5.4 comes from. The answer in reality has nothing to do with the team’s shooting, but rather the gigantic discrepancy in defensive efficiency.
It does not take much film study to catch the differences in defensive effort between Rondo and Caruso. They show up in the data as well, as according to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers gave up nearly 9.5 points more per 100 possessions when Rondo shared the floor with James compared to when Caruso did. Such a huge difference defensively only compounds the offensive overlap/issues that are created when the team’s two primary ball-dominant players share the floor.
Based on Vogel’s comments, he does not seem too concerned this trend will carry over to the new year. Which, given the additional shooters signed over the summer and a spacing pick-and-pop option who Rondo has experience with, does offer up some reason for optimism.
While one can agree or disagree with Vogel’s glass-half-full views when it comes to the point guard position, he at the very least is aware that tinkering needs to occur. However, simply slapping on a fresh coat of paint in the form of subbing out bad shooters with good ones may not address the root issue of Rondo’s faulty defense.
Up until this point Vogel has charmed with his enthusiasm, and has encouraged many jaded fans with his sensible quotes. But, the true test ultimately will come when the games actually tip-off and if he gets the chance to execute what he has preached thus far.
Considering the championship aspirations — and what is ultimately at stake in relation to his job security — Vogel is going to need to combine every gut feeling, number and late night film session it takes into finding the right answers for this team. Otherwise, his philosophies on the mixture of those strategies won’t be relevant for very long.
All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.