When Rajon Rondo returned to the Lakers as the team’s latest buyout market reinforcements from the Memphis Grizzlies, one of the main questions about the addition was how big of a role Rondo expected to play. This was something he and the team surely sorted out, but was mostly an unknown on the outside.
At the press conference announcing his return to Los Angeles, Rondo mostly played coy, although he did admit he understood he was “not going to play as much as (he) would like.” Still, he said all the right things about making sure he would stay ready, mentor the team’s younger players and be “a key locker room guy.”
But could Rondo actually end up on the outside looking in at the rotation on most nights? During an appearance on Spectrum SportsNet’s “Lakeshow” podcast, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel offered the strongest hint yet that said reality could come to pass when he was asked who could replace Jared Dudley’s role with the team (emphasis mine):
“For you guys (the media)? I don’t know who’s going to pick up the slack Dudz brought to the table for you guys (laughs). But internally, we’ve got some guys... I think Rondo coming back can be a real positive voice from a guy who’s not going to play as much, but can really impact our team with his leadership.”
Vogel is as big of a fan of the “swag” Rondo brings to the table as exists in the NBA, so while “not going to play as much” is not the same thing as “not going to play,” it does at least appear like Rondo is unlikely to get on the court every night if Vogel is already saying this. Because context is important here. As any Lakers fan knows, Dudley was a locker room leader, but he hardly suited up. Vogel comparing Rondo to him, even tangentially, is a pretty telling sign for how often we can expect to see him in the rotation.
And honestly, the approach makes sense. The Lakers’ are crowded in the backcourt, with Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker all likely to see minutes as ballhandlers at times, to say nothing of how often LeBron James has the ball in his hands. Rondo’s skillset appears, from the outside, to be more of the “break-glass-in-case-of-emergency” variety on this team. There is also the reality that he’s older (35) than anyone mentioned above other than LeBron.
None of this means that Rondo won’t have value for the Lakers. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In Dudley, the team lost a veteran who could take LeBron, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook to task and hold them accountable in the ways only a fellow player (even one who doesn’t play much) can. The perpetually opinionated Rondo will have no problem filling that void in the locker room, as well as serving as a star playmaking contemporary that has the respect of James, a void the team also had to fill with the departure of Jason Kidd. Rondo is one of the few players James whose basketball intelligence James would put on par with his own, and even from the bench, in huddles and in the film room, he can serve as an asset to the team’s brain trust, no matter how much he plays.
Plus, the Clippers last year saw the perils of using their pull of the Playoff Rondo lever too early. So while it’s still early, and training camp doesn’t kick off until next week, all signs point to the Lakers learning from their cross-hall rivals’ mistake, and will be saving all of Rondo’s postseason swag for when it matters most.