Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every week day, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player the Lakers added this offseason. Today, we take a look at Rajon Rondo.
A year ago, Rajon Rondo left the Lakers a playoff hero.
He had a sterling postseason performance in the 2020 bubble, highlighted by his effort in the second round against Houston after returning from hand surgery. In the process, he set a record for postseason assists and became the first player in NBA history to win a title for both the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers.
But now, Rondo returns to the Lakers humbled. Two separate franchises decided they had little use for him, despite paying high prices to acquire his services, and his 2021 postseason ended up with him racking up three consecutive DNP-CDs.
Even the Lakers aren’t committing to getting Rondo on the court. Frank Vogel said the team’s erstwhile playoff savior was a “guy who’s not going to play as much” this season, and Rondo has likewise acknowledged that his role won’t be what it was in 2019-20.
Much of this Lakers offseason has felt like a mea culpa, a desire for the team to get back to the style it played in that championship season; and yet, while a player like Dwight Howard will likely have the same function and minutes he did that year, Rondo’s case is a little different. The past year has taken some of the shine off of Rondo’s game, and the lineup card now boasts Russell Westbrook at his position. Rondo isn’t the same player he was just one season ago. More importantly, on these Lakers, he can’t be.
So then why bring Rondo back? He’s a proud player who blanched at backing up Lonzo Ball in his first stint in Los Angeles. Rondo can be a bit prickly — just listen to the subtle shot he gave Clippers coach Ty Lue on his way out — and that’s a tough quality to deal with in a 12th or 13th man. Given their previously strong relationship, Frank Vogel should be as equipped to deal with that transition for Rondo as any coach, even if it still poses challenges.
But Rondo’s return signals that playing or not, he still clearly burns to win. It would have been easy for Rondo to cash the check he signed with Atlanta last offseason and head into retirement once the Clippers traded him and Memphis waived him. He has already proven what he can do on the highest stages, and he won’t really have an opportunity to exceed that 2020 performance given the construction of this Lakers roster.
But even though the Lakers don’t need him the way they did a year ago, when his playmaking and defense at the point of attack were pivotal to turning around their series against the Rockets, the team and front office have decided that they still need him in some way. What exactly is that need?
Part of it will be chemistry. When Vogel made his comment that Rondo wouldn’t be playing regular minutes this season, it was couched in the context of Rondo serving a different role as a leader within the locker room. That was a position occupied rather publicly by Jared Dudley over the last two seasons.
Despite making little to no impact on the court, countless Lakers spoke about the value of having Dudley around. He was there to speak truths to the players, whether it was for younger guys like Kyle Kuzma who needed to understand their place, or even getting in the ears of stars like Anthony Davis.
Without Dudley, LeBron James and the Lakers need someone they can trust in that role, and Rondo is a natural fit. Rondo already has the respect of L.A.’s Big Two — though getting on the same page with Russell Westbrook could be more problematic after William Rondo’s exploits in the bubble — and he’s been a mentor for younger players throughout his career.
And when Westbrook needs a night off, or Kendrick Nunn or Talen Horton-Tucker are unavailable, the Lakers know what they can get from Rondo. He’s not going to provide much scoring at the lead guard position, but it’s never a bad thing to have more guys who can dribble, as the team learned when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had to play backup point guard during the dog days of the 2020-21 season. Rondo will direct the offense, run some rudimentary pick-and-rolls, and get guys in their spots.
There are lot of unknowns on this roster because of how much turnover occurred this summer, but Rondo is not one of them. Having him around is a security blanket of sorts for Frank Vogel, whose job will be challenging enough. Plus, there’s always the hope that Rondo has something special left in the tank for the postseason. He didn’t earn the nickname Playoff Rondo on a whim — for eight of his 10 playoff appearances, he’s been a markedly improved player when the pressure rises.
However, one of those two stinkers happened just a few months ago, and that’s where the questions arise about Rondo. It’s one thing to be able to rely on him to eat innings during the regular season as the Lakers manage the minutes of their somewhat geriatric roster. Can Rondo be relied upon in the postseason if the Lakers need a jolt like they did in 2020?
He’s never going to be respected as a 3-point shooter, even though he shot about 40% from distance during the regular season and postseason in 2020-21. But Rondo has to exploit the space the defense is giving him in order to be effective, and he completely lost his touch around the rim in the playoffs. He made 37.5% of his shots at the rim and 16.7% percent from floater range, conversion rates that made him unplayable. If there is one stat to keep an eye on for Rondo as the year progresses, it’s how he finishes at the basket.
Then again, if the Lakers are turning to Rondo for meaningful minutes in the 2022 postseason, something has likely gone wrong. This offense is now James and Westbrook’s show, which means Rondo will have to make his mark from the sidelines. He’s long been considered one of the smartest minds in the game and a coach-in-waiting for several years. If he can embrace this next phase of his career, the opportunity is present for Rondo to be a playoff hero once more.