There are five minutes left in the game, and the Lakers are struggling to keep a lead. What was once a controlled, double-digit cushion is now 8 points, and shrinking by the possession. Their offense is stalling out and their defense is bleeding dribble penetration, allowing shots at the rim and kick-outs to open shooters. LeBron is on the bench. Anthony Davis is on the floor, but trying to cover too much ground defensively, and offensively he’s setting screens at the top of the floor that don’t generate any sort of functional shot for him or a teammate. A quick glance at the box score shows that Davis is a +5 on the night, but LeBron is a +17. Danny Green is a +9, KCP is a +12, and Alex Caruso is a +10. Kyle Kuzma is -8. Rajon Rondo is a -13. You’re muttering expletives to yourself.
Everything I typed above is, basically, made up. Kind of. We’ve all seen Lakers games play out in this exact fashion this year, but the details above aren’t from any actual game. So, even if it feels like this describes a game vs. the Grizzlies or the Suns or the Pelicans, I just rattled that stuff off the top of my head. Except the expletives. Those are real.
Earlier this season, I wrote that Rajon Rondo could be a useful player for the Lakers in the right sized role. I wrote that he offers a certain blend of skills and attributes the players on this team, outside of LeBron James, lack. In my heart of hearts, I still believe this to be true. The idea of Rondo playing 10-15 minutes a night — rather than the 20-24 he does most games — feels like a more tenable situation; it feels like something he could manage better and still bring value in.
Where the premise of my piece was wrong, though, is in the idea that the right sized role for Rondo exists on this team. I have come to the conclusion that it does not. Rondo cannot play 8-12 minutes a game because the team does not have a secondary bench playmaker — particularly on the wing — who can take the ball out of Rondo’s hands to better distribute the burden of running the team’s offense when LeBron isn’t playing. And they do not have a player who the coaching staff trusts to replace Rondo completely.
This has led to an over-extended Rondo who is asked to do too much, and try to play to a level he cannot consistently reach at this stage of his career. Rondo is no longer able to generate good shots in the half-court offense by simply running a pick and roll, or by winning in isolation via dribble penetration. His athleticism is too diminished, and this cascades into harder decisions multiplied over too many possessions.
Rondo still has the ability to play chess while orchestrating the offense, but his skill set has been reduced from bishops and rooks to mostly just pawns. You can still put the defense on its heels or counter them for an advantage with pawns, but you cannot win game after game that way.
This is where the conundrum lies. The Lakers have to play Rondo; they need a player with the skills that Rondo possesses.
But, they also need that player to be better than Rondo can currently be. Without that player on the roster, they turn to Rondo and hope for the best. When they get it, like they did for a good stretch of minutes vs. the Knicks on Tuesday night, everything is fine. When they don’t, they have to either hope they can stay afloat during his time on the floor, or cut his shifts shorter and cobble together more minutes at his spot by plugging in Caruso or Bradley, or by simply extending LeBron for more minutes than they’d like him to play.
In the bigger picture, these solutions are not ideal. I love Alex Caruso and, if it were me, at this stage I’d simply play him instead of Rondo and live with some of his warts offensively in order to reap the benefits of his superior defense, hustle, and physical tools. That said, Caruso’s best role is probably still playing next to LeBron rather than replacing him in bench lineups where the burden of organizing the team’s offense and playing pick and roll in a bunch of possessions does not put him in the best position to succeed. Bradley brings similar concerns.
As for playing LeBron more, if it were the playoffs, sure. In the regular season, I do not endorse that approach. The Lakers have tried, and mostly succeeded, at keeping LeBron’s minutes down to a level where he’s averaging the fewest minutes per game of his career. A prolonged post-season run — to say nothing of keeping him as healthy as he can be while trying to play in as many games as possible in year 17 — almost surely means keeping things this way.
Which brings me back to Rondo. Until a full time replacement can be found, the Lakers need to find a way to make things work as best they can. There are things in both the lineup data and on tape that tell us smaller things the Lakers can do better while Rondo is in the game and LeBron is out which can, hopefully, serve as guides to improving.
For example, a key factor to finding success in Rondo-based lineups will be playing faster in order to avoid fully formed half-court possessions. Rondo’s limitations as a shooter and scoring option in the half-court too often lead to drawn out possessions where he ends up over-dribbling and probing for an advantage that never materializes. This creates the stagnant sets that lead to the types of scoring droughts that Lakers bench units have been producing of late.
There’s stats that back this up, too. In the minutes that Rondo, Davis and Kuzma share the floor, the Lakers have a net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) of -4.9 in 152 minutes this season. Compare that to the net rating of +6.4 in the 175 minutes when Kuzma and AD share the floor and Rondo is out of the game. But while the net rating is a concern, the bigger stats that stand out to me is that in those minutes that Kuzma and Davis have played together without Rondo, the Lakers’ pace and assist rate both go up.
Two of Rondo’s strengths are supposed to be his ability to generate and maintain tempo and his penchant for creating assist opportunities by passing teammates open into positions to score. If both of those things suffer when Rondo plays with Kuz and AD in comparison to when they play without him, I’m going to point to Rondo as needing to be better in these specific ways.
I understand that Rondo is not going to be able to replicate LeBron’s ability to threaten the rim, or match his overall skill as a shot creator for teammates. However, Rondo can dedicate himself to pushing the pace on every possession, and he can make the extra effort to move the ball quickly in possessions to leverage his passing skills in ways that go beyond hunting direct assists.
These might not seem like big things, but tweaks of this nature can help grease the wheels towards more productive offense overall when Rondo is in the game. That’s frankly what the Lakers need right now, because, as it stands, Rondo is the only other point guard they have on their roster. Like it or not, he’s going to play, because the Lakers need someone who can do the things that he brings to the table. They just need him to do it better, or they need to find someone who can.