The last time Lakers fans saw Rajon Rondo in the purple and gold — or more specifically the white, purple and gold — he was putting the finishing touches on a brilliant individual postseason by helping guide the Lakers to their 17th title inside the NBA bubble in Orlando.
Rondo validated two years of trust from teammates and coaches — trust that oftentimes looked misplaced — with a Playoff Rondo performance living up to and exceeding every tale and fable. For three weeks inside a bubble in Florida, Rondo was brilliant.
And after bouncing around three different franchises over the last year, Rondo is back where he belongs. The team announced that he had signed his contract on Tuesday.
Rondo returns to Los Angeles with some big shoes of his own to fill. Replicating Playoff Rondo from less than a year ago will be impossible. In some aspects, it was the best he had looked since his best days in Boston.
But 10 months and two seasons removed from that performance, Rondo will have a different role, with different expectations on the Lakers. Russell Westbrook will take the vast majority of the responsibilities Rondo had in his last tenure, as well as most of the minutes that were allotted to him. And when the Lakers need a guard to take the ball out of LeBron James’ hands, they’ll turn to Westbrook. When they need a player to run two-man actions with Anthony Davis in James-less lineups, it’ll be Westbrook.
Rondo’s role on the 2021-22 Lakers will likely be vastly different than his role on the 2019-20 Lakers. There will still be moments that he sees the court, but it’s more likely his work will be done behind the scenes. While the Lakers have few young players on the roster, each of them is a guard in Malik Monk, Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn. Rondo’s reputation as a mentor is well-established.
So, while Rondo returns to a franchise and fanbase that will welcome him with open arms, it’s one that shouldn’t expect Playoff Rondo-like production this season. He won’t be shooting 40.0% from the 3-point line, averaging 1.4 steals per game or even playing 24.7 minutes per contest.
All this isn’t to say Rondo doesn’t have on-court value. He will bring a more traditional style of play to the point guard position that could be valuable on certain nights. With a veteran Lakers squad that will certainly be prioritizing health, players could be rested throughout the season that would provide more opportunities for Rondo to play, and there are certainly worse options in the backcourt than him.
His Playoff Rondo performance in the bubble also wasn’t entirely an aberration. While it was an exaggerated form of the player he had been in Los Angeles, he was able to play minutes in the rotation throughout the season, even if it had mixed results. But in a league where the regular season and playoffs have such contrasting styles of play, it’s hard not to view signings through a lens of how the players would perform in the postseason with the Lakers this season.
In that sense, short of another Playoff Rondo revival, his role in the playoffs will be severely limited. It’s also why his value will also be measured in how he helps young players progress and develop, and how he helps in the locker room and film room. He is one of the smartest players in the league and will provide invaluable insight into teams, players, tendencies and game plans. In a lot of senses, he’ll take the role vacated by Jared Dudley last week as a trusted veteran on the end of the bench, serving a mentor and leadership role.
Rondo’s performance in the playoffs was a key factor in the Lakers tying the score in banners with his old employer, the Boston Celtics. But a lot will have changed in the 12 months between taking the court for the Lakers in the Finals and when he joins them a calendar year later in training camp, and his role will be different. He can’t be held to the standard of his postseason self, but that doesn’t mean he won’t have value for the Lakers this year.