Despite Kobe's Support of Rajon Rondo, Lakers Uncertain About Mercurial StarApril 28, 2015
LOS ANGELES — If you've arrived at the completely logical party, hosted by the estimable Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle, that Rajon Rondo shall not be welcome on your team under any circumstances at any price tag, it's probably for the best.
Lakers co-owner Jim Buss and general manager Mitch Kupchak, however, are not there.
So there remains a distinct possibility in today's pace-and-space NBA that the Los Angeles Lakers will be the torchbearers for the old school and sign the pass-first (nay, pass-only) Rondo to a free-agent contract this summer.
But what should be made clear, according to team sources, is that Buss is not the believer he was earlier in the season when it comes to Rondo, and Kupchak is toting enough healthy skepticism that he sees Rondo as value only at a certain low price.
Thus no one should expect the Lakers to recycle those old "STAY" billboards for Dwight Howard, flipping them over to be barefaced welcome mats for Rondo this offseason, no matter how much he wants to come.
The Lakers have higher priorities when it comes to spending their precious 2015 salary-cap space. They are hopeful of buying a foundational piece—something they aren't convinced Rondo is.
The notion that the Lakers were going to be the ones to sign Rondo to a maximum contract has been put forth and perpetuated mostly by people on his side, not the Lakers'. Now that Rondo's season is over due to an indeterminate back injury and indubitable productivity famine, it's time to begin projecting his next stop.
Will it be the Lakers? Even they have little idea, because they don't know what better players they can attract with their free-agent offers. The Lakers will have perhaps $22 million to spend this summer—and they're somewhat torn internally how much a newly motivated Rondo, 29, might push the franchise forward.
What can be said is that as much as Rondo's sobering stint in Dallas might have given Buss and Kupchak pause, they aren't completely turned off the way so many in NBA circles are.
Plenty of scouts cite Rondo's mushier-than-ever shooting stroke as a backbreaker for offensive game plans. Even Rondo's passing skill can be hard to accommodate with how much he needs the ball in his hands, insists on calling plays and—as seen in Dallas—tends to pass outside-in as opposed to inside-out.
On that last point, on top of not being a three-point threat himself, and with how reluctant Rondo has become to attack the basket for fear of being fouled and having to shoot free throws (of which he converted 39.7 percent in the regular season), he doesn't even create all that many three-point shots for others via drive-and-kick passes.
Rondo's overall quickness isn't what it was before the 2013 torn ACL, and the once-heralded defensive resolve has slipped, too. Beyond that, defense at the point guard position in the NBA isn't as critical as many think given how defensive schemes often funnel drivers toward rim-protecting big men, who are the greater defensive priority on the roster.
The critics who identify such slippage in Rondo's game aren't even the toughest ones: It's a fair assessment that Rondo, a four-time All-Star, was flat-out overrated in his prime—winning the 2008 NBA championship with three great, hungry veterans in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
So as much as a club such as the Lakers might be intrigued by the prospect of getting a Rondo intent on reclaiming his name and his game, probably at a discounted price, there remains the question:
If Rondo just isn't that good, what can he even bounce back into?
Most teams already have quality point guards, and others run offenses ill-suited for a dominant ball-handler (the New York Knicks' triangle or the Houston Rockets' James Harden-driven system leaning on threes, for example).
Throw in the possibility that Rondo's surliness causes trouble in the locker room and his presence on a non-contender limits developing a player for the future, and you see why the case on Rondo is already closed in many NBA front offices.
Buss, though, has his own numbers system, complete with his own projected salary value for guys. It incorporates advanced stats, but history shows assists are valued: Buss ranked Steve Nash as one of the top-10, possibly top-five, guards in the NBA when the Lakers traded for him in 2012.
Which brings us to another reason the Lakers might see Rondo helping: Kobe. Bryant was excited with the possibility Chris Paul might join him before the NBA intervened, and made news this season with a very public breakfast meeting with Rondo in Boston. A great point guard would help an aging Bryant economize his effort and game by feeding him in prime scoring position. It never came to fruition with the injury-prone Nash, but Rondo makes theoretical sense with his court vision—and disinterest in competing with Bryant for shot attempts.
Bryant's affection for Rondo goes well beyond that, of course. There are a lot of similarities: an alpha-dog attitude, desire to think the game, insistence on testing limits, even the mindset to play for big stats and new success in the regular season before playing to win in the playoffs.
Nevertheless, as much as the Lakers want Bryant's potentially final season to be as grand as possible, this is about building something that lasts past Bryant's farewell. No one is getting signed these days just because Kobe wants it to happen.
What is a real factor is that Rondo is somebody. In somewhat the same manner as trying out Jeremy Lin while attracting his global following, ex-Celtic Rondo coming to town to run with Laker-for-life Bryant does offer cachet. It's what the Lakers considered when they decided to make a bid for Carmelo Anthony, an undeniable big name, despite reservations about the basketball merits of that potential investment last summer.
Perhaps Rondo, who made $12.9 million this season, can be had at a significant discount after the Lakers secure a big frontcourt fish such as Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge or DeAndre Jordan in free agency. Especially if he accepts something short, such as a one-and-one contract with the second year a team option.
If the risk is minimized, it could be worth a shot at seeing if Rondo becomes a triple-double jackpot again.
But would Rondo ever take a small payday when he not long ago believed he'd be a max guy?
What if the Lakers can't get any top targets to take their money, which they need to spend this summer before most of the league gets TV-money-driven cap space in 2016? Would Buss circle back to his initial trust in Rondo, indulge him with big money and present him to frustrated Lakers fans as the marquee offseason addition?
As bad as Rondo has been—and even more important, as polarizing—that would be one epic gamble.
Rondo reviving his buddy Bryant and being the one to rev fellow Kentucky Wildcat Julius Randle into an immediate star would indeed be something special.
It could also be a move that fails so dramatically that Buss is moved to step down.
For now, though, the Lakers aren't planning anything so bold when it comes to Rondo. Just know that at a time when so many do, the Lakers don't hate him.
Then again, they also don't love him as much as he wishes they did.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.