There is 3:28 to go in the first quarter, and an Otto Porter long jumper has missed off the back-heel of the rim. Rajon Rondo drops down from above the break of the 3-point line to chase down the rebound as it caroms towards the foul line. As he gathers the ball and turns up court, he surveys the floor and takes a mental snapshot of the other 9 players changing ends. A little bit behind the play, but racing quickly to catch up to the action is Anthony Davis.
Rondo quickly glances at his big man, then slows his dribble slightly, casually veering towards the right side of the court as if to set up the action for an early offensive set. AD, still running hard, passes Rondo near the halfcourt line, making a beeline for the front of the rim, as he’s wont to do in this type of situation. Right near the top of the key, however, Davis hesitates as if he’s going to slow down to potentially change course towards Rondo to set a ball screen.
Right in this instant, however, is where both quarterback and receiver understand the true intent of it all. AD doesn’t change direction at all, and instead continues on his path to the rim. Rondo seamlessly goes from dribbling the ball and surveying the court to throwing a lob towards the top of the square. Davis elevates, catches the ball, and dunks it home.
For AD, it’s two of his game-high 20 points, and for Rondo it’s one of his 5 assists (second to Russell Westbrook’s 6), but for both of them it’s just another in a long line of connections the two have made on the court, dating back to their time with Pelicans.
When Rajon Rondo came back to the Lakers, it seemed to be well understood that he wasn’t going to play very much. Sure, Rondo joked that Frank Vogel told him that he would play “between zero and 48” minutes a night, but those comments were just a lighthearted way of stating what we all knew to be true: Rondo was coming to be a leader off the court and a spot minutes player on it.
His tactical brilliance and basketball acumen would be deployed in the film room, on the team plane and bus, in practice sessions, and, during games... from the bench. His minutes would come in the form of “break glass in case of emergency” on a team that was deep in the backcourt and, even more specifically, in ball handling and shot creation. Again, everyone seemed to understand this would be the case, and everyone — including Rondo himself — was cool with these arrangements.
However, with only one preseason game left and the Lakers set to begin the games that actually count in less than a week, I wonder if those best laid plans actually come to fruition. Because, from what we’ve seen so far and due to the shifting circumstances on this team, there’s a case to be made that Rondo not only will have to play more, but that he should.
First, while one should never expect full health over the course of the marathon that is an NBA season, the injury bug has already crept up and bit this Lakers team. In Tuesday’s loss to the Warriors, the Lakers were without Talen Horton-Tucker (thumb surgery), Malik Monk (sore groin), Wayne Ellington (hamstring strain), and Kendrick Nunn (sprained ankle). The hope is that Monk and Nunn will return for the season opener, but THT is out for at least a month and Ellington is likely out for a week. With a backcourt now more banged up than anyone would like, Rondo is almost sure to be thrust into more minutes than anyone would have thought, even just a week ago.
“Next man up” is usually a cliche, but Rondo has lived up to it, exceeding expectations through five preseason games in the level he’s played at. From an effort standpoint, Rondo has stood apart from several of the other veterans on this team by (mostly) trying hard defensively and playing with verve on offense, pushing the pace in transition and playing with excellent tempo in the halfcourt. He’s also shot the ball quite well from beyond the arc (4-6 so far), shown good burst on his drives to the rim, and his passing — in terms of feel, vision, and execution — remains elite.
This better-than-expected effectiveness offensively has proven a wonderful complement to Anthony Davis, rekindling their partnership from the team’s title run as if Rondo never left. From all the lobs, to the early post entries, to the pocket passes in the P&R, to hit-aheads in transition, Rondo is always attuned to where Davis is, and is seeking out ways to deliver him the ball. Simply put, at his essence, AD is a finisher and, on this roster, there’s no better combination of pure setup man and person who wants to get him the ball than Rondo. It’s something Davis has long been aware of, and longed for during Rondo’s one-season absence.
This connection they share really cannot be oversold. I get that Rondo will never elevate AD the way that LeBron currently does, or even the way that Russ potentially can. Those players possess a dynamism as scorers that open things up for AD that Rondo simply does not have. But Rondo’s pass-first style, brilliance as a delivery man, and general feel as a risk-taker who pushes the envelope on how and when to deliver the ball often forces AD — one of the best finishers in the game — to try to finish more often. There’s a major value in this connection, both in terms of raw production, and in the form of pushing AD to play the aggressive and assertive style that most helps the Lakers as a group.
Lastly, as has been well documented and frequently discussed, the Lakers have a mostly brand new team, and are currently showing the growing pains that come with that newness in the preseason. After Tuesday’s loss to the Warriors, Frank Vogel noted that LeBron and AD would carry that burden of familiarity to each other and his system to help bring the team along as everyone gets up to speed. Well, Rondo is another player who brings that familiarity to this group and, as a point guard who will handle the ball and help organize the team’s offense, there’s an argument that his particular brand of knowing what to do can pay strong dividends.
In the end, who knows how Vogel will handle Rondo’s minutes, or if his ultimate role will really differ from the initial projections as a deep bench player who is more off-court leader and than on-court maestro. Short-term circumstances may force his hand, but long term maybe nothing really changes. That said, the preseason is also showing that Vogel may have another viable rotation player in Rondo, and that his specific on-court skill set just might end up being more needed than originally thought when he was brought back this offseason.
To see it, one just has to look out on the floor and watch Rondo looking for Davis every step of the way. It may not be what the team originally planned, but it just might end up being what they need.