Editor’s Note: As the season gets closer, our Silver Screen and Roll staff is going to be taking a closer look back at every player on the Lakers for a refresher on stuff we may have forgotten during quarantine. Think of this as the 30-second clip reminding you of what happened during the current season of your favorite TV show that rolls right before the latest episode starts. Today, let’s recall what was up with Rajon Rondo.
There’s an old adage in football that every fan’s favorite player is the backup quarterback. The point guard may be the quarterback on the basketball court, but that statement couldn’t be less true when it comes to the relationship between Lakers fans and Rajon Rondo.
A year removed from being Luke Walton’s security blanket, Rondo settled in to a more natural backup point guard role for this stage of his career, serving as the lead ball handler in the minutes when LeBron James isn’t on the floor. The problem with that assignment is James is the rising tide that lifts all boats — when he’s on the floor, everyone looks better. Consequently, when he’s off the floor, as he is for about half of Rondo’s minutes, it ain’t pretty. That’s why Rondo has become an easy scapegoat for the few shortcomings the Lakers have displayed this season.
Rondo’s job is to make sure that the offense functions when James is taking a rest, but at least he has Anthony Davis on the floor for most of those non-LeBron minutes. Rondo has done reasonably well at keeping the offense afloat in these situations; per Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers score 112.5 points per 100 possessions when Rondo and Davis play without James. Rondo has become a little more sizzle than substance in his offensive game in recent years, but he can still direct an above-average offense.
The problem, of course, is at the other end of the floor, where Rondo somehow turns lineups that have Davis into worse defensive outfits than the present-day Cleveland Cavaliers. The lingering image of Rondo on defense is of him dying on a screen and calling for a switch that breaks the Lakers’ scheme, meaning he either commits a foul because he’s behind the play or the Lakers have to scramble and concede an open look somewhere else. Not surprisingly, the Lakers foul more frequently when Rondo is in the game, they give up too many shots at the rim, and they turn the ball over at a high rate, leading to easy transition points the other way.
Rondo’s shooting has steadily declined over the course of the season; his pre-All-Star true shooting percentage of 51.3% (already below league average) came down to 40.2% after the break, and it’s scary to have him on the floor during crunch time because he only made five of the 12 free throws he took during February and March. In Lakers wins this season, Rondo had a net rating of +7.7. In losses, Rondo’s net rating dropped to -21.1, making it natural (and easy) to point the finger at the 34-year-old point guard when the team struggles.
It’s worth considering if the Lakers haven’t set up Rondo to succeed because he has to handle the non-LeBron minutes. But even when Rondo plays with both James and Davis, the Lakers are outscored by 5.2 points per 100 possessions by their opponents, a worse mark than the Minnesota Timberwolves. Truthfully, I don’t understand how that’s possible. Two top-seven players in the game who otherwise blitz opponents suddenly can’t figure how out to put the ball in the basket. Even the strain Rondo puts on the team’s spacing shouldn’t be enough to neuter the effect of two All-NBA candidates.
Perhaps the strangest stat about Rondo’s season to date is that he is the only rotation player to have a negative net rating at home (-2.2) but a perfectly reasonable net rating (+4.1) on the road. Maybe playing games away from the critical eyes of Lakers fans at Staples Center will benefit Rondo’s performance.
One other reason Rondo’s production might improve during the postseason is that James’ minutes figure to increase, and the one player who has managed to make Rondo look good this season is James. The Lakers outscore opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions when Rondo and James play without Davis, primarily due to insane efficiency in transition. It’s curious that Rondo was thought to be a player who could lead the Lakers with James off the court and Davis on because of his chemistry with his former Pelicans teammate. As it turns out, Rondo is best suited to play with the other Lakers superstar. But while that diminished his value during the regular season, it may give him a second life when James is playing 40 minutes per game in the playoffs.
Unfortunately, that still leaves the Lakers with the problem of what to do when James is off the court, a puzzle that Rondo couldn’t solve in the team’s first 63 games. In Rondo’s defense, no one has really been able to address that issue in James’ 17 NBA seasons, so the Lakers aren’t alone.
Rondo has not had a good season for the Lakers, but the real problem is that he was unable to fill the specific duty the Lakers asked of him. No matter how effective the Lakers have been with both Rondo and James playing, that isn’t what the team needs from their embattled point guard. So long as Rondo struggles as the backup, his utility is limited within this roster construction.