The Lakers lost their first game of the second round of the NBA playoffs to the Houston Rockets on Friday night, and you didn’t have to go far on social media to see someone pointing out why. As of this article, Twitter users had sent over 51,000 tweets about Rondo during the course of the evening, and his last name was the second-most trending topic in the United States, right behind the word “Lakers.”
On nights like tonight, my mentions, this site’s comments, and tons of other places where Lakers fans go to converse are taken over by the same question: “Why is Rondo playing?” There’s a reason for the query. Against the Rockets, scored 8 points on 3-9 shooting, turned the ball over 4 times and the Lakers’ net rating was 11 points per 100 possessions worse when Rondo was on the floor than it was when he sat. He still, despite all this (and a fair amount of defensive lapses) played 25 minutes, the sixth-most of any Laker.
To be fair to Rondo, this was his first organized basketball game since the season originally shut down, and in his first time on the floor for a competitive game in months, he at the very least went 2-5 from three, a respectable rate from distance. It also wasn’t entirely his fault that Alex Caruso was in foul trouble (although some of those fouls did come from attempting to cover for Rondo). Still, his ineffective play was a continuation of a regular season trend that saw his team get 6 points per 100 possessions better every time he went to the bench.
Was all of that on Rondo? No, some of those metrics are due to him often taking the place of LeBron James as the team’s lead ballhandler, so some negative impact is to be expected; even Rondo’s biggest proponents would probably admit he’s not as good as LeBron. But the Lakers were still four points per 100 possessions worse offensively when Rondo and James shared the floor than they were when Rondo sat, which over the course of the regular season was the difference between an offense that would have ranked sixth in the league and one that would rank in the 20’s.
A ton of fans have hammered Frank Vogel for this, which is to some degree warranted. He is the team’s head coach, after all, and most of the final lineup decisions will be credited to him, whether they go well, or poorly. But even if Vogel hated everything Rondo brought to the table — which I don’t think he does, to be clear — he probably wouldn’t be able to bench him, because the Lakers’ two stars want him to play. I first heard as much all the way back during Las Vegas Summer League last July, when discussing Rondo re-signing with people with the team. I didn’t think he’d play, and every time I theorized as much, I was always corrected: He’d have a role, in large part because James and Davis wanted him to.
It’s been a familiar chorus throughout the year. And on Friday night, when I asked Davis if there were any challenges in adjusting to playing with a playmaker like Rondo again after so much time away, he not only sort of implied that there weren’t any issues, he also may have inadvertently revealed one reason why he and James like having Rondo on the floor.
“It’s good for us. It kind of gives ‘Bron a break. He’s trying to make plays for others, be in attack mode, and so it gives him a break with Rondo on the floor, and letting ‘Bron be that guy who can catch it and just worry about attacking,” Davis said. “Rondo is able to get in the paint and make the right plays and put guys in their spots.”
Anthony Davis is a basketball savant. He (and James) both have forgotten more about the game than most of us will ever know. So how could the two of them not see the same things we’ve been seeing all season when it comes to Rondo? Is it just that he’s their friend? Is it a belief he’ll play up to past reputation eventually? Are they just too close to the situation to see how much he’s declined?
My working theory, in part based on what Davis said above — and things both he and James have said throughout the year — is that a big chunk of this is that NBA players see the game differently than we do. While those of on the outside often are just looking for the simplest answer or most effective play, we sometimes ignore the physical demands such strategies can take.
Playing NBA basketball is hard, especially the way the Lakers do it. They like to get out and run, and they like to have their two large, physical stars make plays off the dribble. But for guys James and Davis’ size, it must be nice to get some easier buckets, to get passes right where you want them, even if it sometimes comes with a few turnovers, defensive miscues and cramped spacing.
Austin Rivers is defending Rajon Rondo on both of these possessions.— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) September 5, 2020
Look at how much space they're giving him. Total disrespect of his 3-point shooting (and rightfully so).
If Rondo's not setting flare screens for teammates (look at the pic on the right) he kills LA's offense. pic.twitter.com/BtivgtQMFm
Essentially, the team sees the intangibles, things that stats and sometimes even the eye test don’t pick up. James recognizes Rondo as someone who understands offense as well as he does, with the same photographic recall and endless film study. Davis remembers the guy who helped him go as far in the playoffs in New Orleans as he’d ever gone until this year. Where we see useless ball-pounding, they see patiently surveying the floor, trying to help the team run offense. Where we see carelessness, they see swag.
“Our guys’ IQ raises when he’s on the court,” Vogel said after Game 1.
The problem is, the Lakers are at the point where every game and possession matters, and after months away from the court, it’s not clear that Rondo can help them right away. He certainly didn’t in Game 1.
“It is a challenge, working in a new player to your rotation at this stage in the playoffs, but Rajon is one of the smartest players in the league,” Vogel said.
“He made some shots today, made some good plays for us. It’s more so I think his wind,” Davis added. “Playing in the game and getting that game conditioning is tough when you haven’t played, and then your first game is in the Western semis.”
That does indeed sound tough. It also begs the question of why the Lakers should even attempt it, given the stakes of a second-round playoff series and how well they were rolling before. But the answer to any doubts about that is simple. Just as they’ve felt all season, the Lakers are confident Rondo will be able to make a positive difference when it matters.
“He’s definitely going to help us this series,” Vogel said.
“He’s a great player and a great cerebral player,” Davis added. “He knows the game very well, so it’s not going to take him that much time to get back (and) acclimated with the team.”
The Lakers will certainly have to hope Davis is right. Because they don’t have much time, and if they’re wrong about Rondo, Friday won’t be the last time his name is a trending topic.