LeBron James is arguably the best player in NBA history, and has played point guard offensively for his entire career, whether he’s been officially listed at the position or not. So with him on their roster, the degree to which the Lakers have any sort of “point guard problem” may be overstated, but they have at the very least spent the year in search of a “point guard solution.”
For much of the season, their answer for the 13-ish minutes James doesn’t play was to go with Rajon Rondo, to mixed results. Rondo was often the only Laker capable of getting the ball down the floor comfortably against pressure and getting good entry passes to Anthony Davis, but was mostly bad at well... just about everything else.
But whether he would have ultimately done so or not, with Rondo shelved until at least the second round of the playoffs with a broken finger that required surgery, Frank Vogel’s hand has been forced: He has to figure out the best way to get the ball down the floor and create plays when James rests. For much of scrimmages and the Lakers’ first seeding round game against the Clippers, his main answer has appeared to be Dion Waiters. But in the lead-up to the regular season resuming, both Alex Caruso and Quinn Cook made the case that they’re ready to have their roles increased as well.
“I’m comfortable playing point guard,” Caruso said last week. “I’ve played point guard since my sophomore year of high school, and this team is one of the first times where I’ve played a little more off the ball. Obviously with Rondo out I’m going to carry a little more of the load playing point guard in the second unit.”
And while Cook is mostly known as a shooter and has become semi-infamous on Lakers Twitter for his struggles to get good entry passes to Davis, he echoed Caruso’s sentiments about his own readiness.
“I’m very comfortable running the second unit. I’ve had some spurts this year where I had to and I felt I performed well. Obviously now, later in the season it’s a different type of basketball. There’s no nights off in the NBA period, but obviously the veterans of the league are here,” Cook said.
“I definitely feel confident though,” Cook continued. “I know my teammates are confident in me. I obviously wish [Rondo] and Avery were here, but it’s always next-man-up mentality. That’s what makes this team so special. My coaches and teammates, we all have confidence in each other, and we all believe in ourselves.”
In the Lakers’ first game that counted, it looked like Vogel was slightly less confident. Cook got a DNP-CD against the Clippers, while Caruso played the fifth-most minutes on the team but mostly in a supplementary role. Caruso did do a few more point guard things than normal, but ultimately finished the game with a usage rate of 14.9% and 2 assists, only marginal increases from his season averages of 13.6% and 1.8 assists, respectively.
Still, there may be games where Waiters just doesn’t have it, and the Lakers have to turn to Caruso or Cook to step up and do more of the playmaking traditionally associated with their position than the off-ball responsibilities both are more skilled at. After the Lakers’ final scrimmage this week, Vogel said he liked what all three of Cook, Waiters and Caruso brought to the table as playmakers.
“I thought all three of them had solid performances. We’re trying to touch the paint as much as possible, and making good reads when you get there. We’re trying to encourage a hard drive-and-kick mentality,” Vogel said. “I thought all three of those guys did a good job of that.”
But in the end, it will be Vogel’s actions that tell the real story here of how much he trusts each of those players, and in what role he does so. Caruso knows that even if he’s prepping to play a bit more lead guard, he has to be ready for everything.
“Game by game what’s needed is kind of different for me. Some games it’s 15 minutes and playing really good defense, and other games it’s running the point and distributing, and being aggressive offensively,” Caruso said.
“Whatever it is, I’ve kind of been practicing for that role the whole year. Rondo’s been out at times, I’ve played a little more point. Other guards have been playing and I’ve played a little less and played off the ball,” Caruso continued. “There’s nothing that I think I’m not prepared for. That might be naive confidence in myself, but as a basketball player if you’re playing at the highest level that’s the mindset you have to have.”
And while Cook’s role in the Lakers’ title chase beyond “most universally beloved teammate” remains to be seen, Vogel said that whether Caruso is playing point guard or just providing defense and finishing, he’s going to be a part of the Lakers’ playoff run.
“Alex is a vital piece to our championship aspirations,” Vogel said. “He’s just so well-rounded and excels in so many different areas that he’s kind of a jack-of-all-trades and has really been invaluable to what we’re trying to get accomplished. His playmaking is just one of those things... He’s just someone that I trust with the basketball in his hands and impacts the game in other ways as well.”
How much Vogel trusts Caruso — or is forced to — will be unknown until we see how Waiters continues to play and when Rondo gets back. But if the Lakers need them to, Caruso and Cook are willing to step up. Whether or not they’re needed is just one more part of this championship puzzle for Vogel to tinker with over the Lakers’ remaining seeding games.