Three games is a small sample size, and that sample size loses a bit of weight when you take into account that the games that were played were meaningless scrimmage games in which the Lakers were the clear favorites every time out. That being said, there were some positive takeaways from those scrimmage games, and the biggest positive came as a result of the team removing one of its biggest negatives.
Frank Vogel has done a great job of staggering LeBron James and Anthony Davis — so much so that he hardly ever plays a full, five-man bench unit. When Vogel has played a full bench mob, though, the results have been discouraging.
The five-man unit that’s played the most minutes without LeBron James or Anthony Davis consists of Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Dwight Howard. That lineup has posted a point differential of -3.5 in the 53 possessions they’ve played together, according to Cleaning the Glass, which is strange because they 124.5 points they’ve averaged per 100 possessions makes them one of the most efficient offensive units in the NBA. The defensive end is an entirely different story.
In the 53 possessions the aforementioned five-man unit has played together, they’ve allowed 128.1 points per 100 possessions, which, in layman’s terms, is really, really bad — like, one of the worst defensive lineups in the entire league bad.
When a unit struggles as mightily as that one has, the blame can’t be pinned to just one player, but it can’t be ignored that there’s only one player in that unit that’s been a negative on both the offensive and defensive end this season, and that’s Rondo.
In his second season with the Lakers, Rondo has posted a point differential of -6.8, which is the worst point differential of anyone on the team that has logged more than 300 minutes this season. As a team, the Lakers are 4.9 points better per 100 possessions on the defensive end with Rondo off of the floor, and 1.9 points better per 100 possessions on offense.
Rondo isn’t the only player that has been a negative for the Lakers this season, but he’s the only player that hasn’t been a positive somewhere else. For example, Caldwell-Pope has posted the worst defensive point differential on the team this season, but the Lakers’ offense is better with him on the floor. Even Kuzma, who’s struggled to do any one thing especially well this season, has been a plus for the team on the defensive end.
What Rondo does bring is reliable ball-handling and playmaking, which, as we saw on opening night against the Clippers, is no small thing. However, in addition to Rondo, the Lakers also didn’t have Caruso available for their opening night matchup against the Clippers. If they did, the night might have ended differently.
Caruso has never been a lead guar — it’s a big part of the reason he went undrafted as a senior in 2016 — but he can operate as a secondary playmaker, which is why he worked so well alongside Rondo this season. According to NBA.com, the two-man lineup of Rondo and Caruso has posted a net rating of +5.9 in the 345 minutes they’ve played together.
The issue with that duo, though, is how reliant they are on the other three players on the floor for offense. Neither Rondo or Caruso offer the Lakers much in terms of shot creation, so unless the ball is moving, the offense can grow stagnant quickly. That’s probably why the Lakers targeted guards like Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith — both of whom can handle the ball and create something out of nothing — with their open roster spots.
While it’s only been three games, it hasn’t taken long to realize what many have suspected all season: the Lakers’ bench is better when Caruso is operating as a secondary playmaker to a player that can handle and score the ball.
Rondo has been sidelined for the three scrimmage games the Lakers have played due to a fractured right thumb he suffered at practice earlier this month, and he’s expected to be out until at least September. As a result, Waiters and Smith have played bigger roles than anyone expected early on, and they’ve made the most of their opportunities.
In three appearances for the Lakers, Waiters has averaged 13 points per game on 48.5% shooting from the field while averaging 20.6 minutes per game. In the Lakers’ last game, Waiters logged 18 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds and a steal. Waiters’ 18 points were only second to Smith’s 20 points on 6-7 shooting from behind the 3-point line.
Smith and Waiters’ confidence in their shot-making ability is unlike anything we’ve seen on this roster outside of James, Davis and Kyle Kuzma, none of whom are guards. Granted, Avery Bradley had some success creating his offense, but that wasn’t his primary role alongside James and Davis in the starting lineup.
With Smith and Waiters, the Lakers have two legitimate spark plugs off of the bench, which they arguably need more than they need a pure playmaker. Rondo’s absence has also enabled Caruso and Kuzma to take on more ball-handling responsibilities, and they’ve proven themselves capable early on.
As curious as Lakers fans were to see what Rondo would do in the postseason, the team is probably better off building up synergy between their new-look bench unit and letting Rondo be a leader from the sidelines. Doing anything else would be a mistake on Vogel’s part, unless Rondo’s role is minimal.
Every player reaches a point in their careers where they have to let other players fill their role, and with the talent the Lakers have at the guard positions, Rondo has reached his. Let’s hope locker room politics don’t get in the way of that natural progression, which is directly tied to the team’s postseason success.