LeBron James is 35 years old. Rajon Rondo is 34. Guys at their age aren’t normally fueling teams to victory in the NBA playoffs, and certainly not consistently. But in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Houston Rockets, that’s exactly what James and Rondo have done for the last two games to help L.A. retake a 2-1 series lead after losing the first game of the second round.
The fact that James and Rondo are doing so now, as teammates at their respective ages after so many playoff showdowns between them a decade ago, makes the success all the sweeter for the pair.
“We don’t know how many opportunities we’re going to get at this level,” James told reporters on Zoom after Game 3. “Our league kind of tries to weed guys like us in our later years out of the league. You see it a lot. Guys in their 30’s, mid-30’s, they kind of try to stray away from the vets, so we take a little pride (in still playing).”
The ridiculousness of James, arguably the greatest player of all time, saying the NBA is trying to weed guys like him out aside, his larger point is clear. While James may be an exception and outlier in every sense of the words, he’s not wrong that the NBA has gone away from veterans like Rondo.
Organizations are constantly searching for the next diamond in the rough to develop on the end of their roster, the next unheralded second-rounder or undrafted young guy they can develop into a rotation player, or something more. Rondo may be a known quantity, but — as the Lakers fully saw in the regular season — he isn’t always good at this stage of his career. Whether that’s because he wanted to save his legs and energy to do what he’s doing now is a matter of debate, but it’s understandable that some executives might want to take a shot on a younger prospect that could buy them job security if they pan out.
The Lakers went away from that strategy last offseason. They do have some young players (Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso, most notably) and Anthony Davis is still just 27, but the Lakers were the third-oldest team in the league this season, with veteran contributors up and down the roster. On its face, that would seem to leave them with less room for unexpected upside, but in the playoffs, we’re seeing that the opposite may be true.
Guys like Rondo will not develop into longtime contributors. He’s likely not even going to be in the league that many more years. But they also might just be more capable of going up a level in the postseason than a younger player due to their experience and poise, something James seems to steadfastly believe.
“You have people that you can trust to be in a foxhole with you, not only from a basketball aspect, but from a cerebral aspect. The postseason is about making adjustments from game to game, and also being able to make adjustments on the fly, because things happen in real-time,” James said. “It’s easy to be like a Monday Morning Quarterback. It’s easy to watch the film on Monday after you play on Sunday and be able to look at the defender playing over the top and say ‘I shouldn’t have passed it there.’
“But being able to make adjustments on the fly and see how the defense is playing, and seeing how the flow of the game is being played, there’s not many guys in our league who can do that,” James continued. “In the postseason it’s gigantic. Having ‘Do on our side, it definitely helps.”
And as much as taking the ball out of James — one of the best playmakers in the history of the league, if not the single best — while Rondo is on the floor at times might seem to be counterintuitive (and often was during the regular season), in the playoffs, there are semi-intangible benefits to doing so.
“It frees up LeBron and AD from having to do too much,” said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. “(Rondo) has an ability to orchestrate a game like very few players that I’ve ever been around, and everybody else feeds off of his energy. But not just with the basketball. What he’s doing defensively at certain times, picking up Harden, being a real communicator on the defensive end and getting us involved, just a great two-way performance by him.”
Taking his game up a level and helping save James’ legs like he has might not be possible if Rondo were not so comfortable in these situations, and even if he can’t keep up this career-best level of play in the postseason — no, seriously, this is statistically like the best he’s ever been — he’s already outperformed his veteran’s minimum contract with how much he’s helped in this series. And barring some catastrophe down the line, he’s made James and the Lakers look right for valuing veterans so much last offseason.
“Some people are built for this moment, and some people are not, and I just think when you’ve been in your process and you’ve been building your mind and your body and your soul for the postseason, no matter the circumstances, no matter the environment, then you’re able to rise,” James said. “That doesn’t always mean that you’re going to play well, it doesn’t always mean you’re going to win.
“But at the end of the day it’s just that pride factor of just understanding that our league has kind of tried to get away from the vets,” James continued. “You don’t have that many opportunities to be a part of a great team, to be a part of great teammates. You don’t know what will happen, year to year, so you just try to make the most of it.”
James and Rondo certainly have so far. If they continue to, they might just change how the NBA community views the value of veteran players.