Who Should Lakers Start at Point Guard, Lonzo Ball or Rajon Rondo?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 6, 2018

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 28:  Lonzo Ball #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers stands on the court during the game against the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on March 28, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Lakers looked like masterminds when they agreed to a deal with LeBron James in free agency. Virtually every move since then has made them look, charitably, less masterful.

No surprise, then, that L.A. intends to pit Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo, most recently of the New Orleans Pelicans, against each other in an open competition for the starting point guard spot. May the least busted jumper win...

Here's USA Today's Sam Amick:

According to a person with knowledge of the dynamics, Rondo—who won a title with the Celtics in 2008 and has gone 2-2 against James in their memorable playoff battles—comes to town with the expectation that he can earn a starting spot. The message from the Lakers, according to the person, is that the best point guard will win the job.

Though it might seem strange for L.A. to treat Ball like an ordinary player just a year after anointing him the organizational savior, understand that James' arrival changes everything about a franchise. It alters the timeline for success, tweaks personnel needs and opens everything for re-examination.

But it's nonetheless odd the Lakers would frame this as a competition when so much of the evidence suggests Ball, 20, was better than Rondo last year.

As a rookie.

With a worse supporting cast.

And a less experienced coach.

And exponentially greater expectations.

Let's treat this like there's a question, though, and break it down as simply as possible—just to underscore the strangeness of L.A.'s gambit.



OAKLAND, CA - MAY 08:  Rajon Rondo #9 of the New Orleans Pelicans shoots the ball against the Golden State Warriors during Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 8, 2018 in Oakland, California.  NOTE
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Rondo posted a career-best 51.8 effective field-goal percentage last year at age 31. He hit 33.3 percent of his threes, and after a few seasons of respectable low-volume shooting from deep, he's got his career conversion rate up to 30.9 percent. A Splash Brother he's not.

Ball was wildly inaccurate as a rookie. An effective field-goal percentage of 44 percent should have torpedoed his chances of being a positive contributor. He couldn't finish at the rim (49.4 percent; the league average was 65.8 percent) and made only 30.5 percent of his treys. Despite his errancy, Ball attempted 7.9 threes per 100 possessions, outpacing Rondo's rate of 4.2.

There's value in a player's willingness to fire away—even when that player misses as often as Ball. At least defenders have to attend to a willing shooter once in a while. Rondo, despite being the better long-range option, doesn't try enough deep ones to earn respect.

If it's possible to declare a winner when comparing two such uninspiring scorers, Rondo has an edge here. Note, though, that Ball was more accurate in college and figures to get better (how could he get any worse?), while Rondo's age-31 season looked anomalous compared to his career numbers.

If you're persuaded that raw assist numbers determine who's the better facilitator, Rondo's 8.2 dimes per game last year give him an advantage over Ball and his 7.2—especially when you consider Ball played eight more minutes per game. But keep in mind that Rondo's reputation as a stat-padding assist hunter is well-earned. 

Assist numbers can obscure as much as they reveal. Does anyone think Russell Westbrook, after averaging a league-leading 10.3 assists per game, was basketball's best passer last season? Of course not. You've got to weigh a few more elements, such as the fact that Ball's average touch time of 3.82 seconds was lower than Rondo's 4.08, indicating the former's willingness to keep the offense flowing.

The gap squares with Ball's rep as an intuitive, three-steps-ahead ball-mover who infects an offense with unselfishness in ways Rondo and his hold-and-wait method may not.

For what it's worth, both Rondo's and Ball's teams were at least 1.4 points per 100 possessions better on offense when they weren't on the floor last year. Based on 2017-18, neither made positive offensive impacts.



Ball distances himself from Rondo on the other end.

Last season, the Lakers rookie ranked third among point guards in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus with a plus-2.31 figure. Rondo checked in at No. 46 with a minus-0.37. The best you can say about Rondo's D in 2017-18 is it wasn't quite as awful as it was the year before: minus-0.49.

The on/off splits also favor Ball's defense. Los Angeles' defensive rating was 2.7 points better with Ball on the floor, whereas New Orleans' was 1.3 points worse when Rondo played.

The 6'6" Ball is bigger and a better rebounder, and he projects as a superior switch option. The 6'1" Rondo is notorious for quitting when posted up by a larger opponent, and his consistent failure to fight over screens up top compromises his team's pick-and-roll defense. Rondo ranked in the 50th percentile as a pick-and-roll defender last year. Ball was in the 66th.

It's damning for Rondo that Ball is already so clearly a superior defender.

Rookies are supposed to get abused on D, but Ball's physical profile and high intelligence contributed to his positive impact on that end. It seems reasonable to assume there's growth ahead for Ball, and legitimate All-Defense production could arrive as soon as next year. Meanwhile, Rondo is entering his 13th season, having not played well on defense since roughly 2011.

Because he so badly outplayed Rondo defensively last year, Ball trumped his new teammate in value over replacement player and box plus-minus. Neither catch-all metric graded the pair as particularly close.

Rondo vs. Ball: Catch-All Metrics
2017-18 VORP2017-18 BPM
Basketball Reference

Ball's VORP ranked 34th among rookies in league history, which was right between Vince Carter and Dwyane Wade. So...pretty good.


Why Are We Even Talking About This?

DETROIT, MI - MARCH 26: Lonzo Ball #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers handles the ball against the Detroit Pistons on March 26, 2018 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or u
Chris Schwegler/Getty Images

The numbers make a clear case, especially when you consider context. Ball is at a stage where improvement is practically a given. The kicker: He doesn't have to get better to warrant a spot ahead of Rondo. He's already superior.

But rookies do improve. This isn't controversial. Meanwhile, Rondo is on the decline and coming off his best shooting season. If we were judging him on the basis of the last, say, five seasons, then Ball's edge would be even bigger.

Great—now I'm siding with LaVar Ball.

"That don't mean nothing," Ball told Chris Cuomo of CNN when asked about the position battle. "Just got another teammate. Another teammate, that's all. A little backup; that's good. I never worry about competition because I know my boys are better than that."

Maybe the Lakers are warming to the idea they handed Ball too much as a rookie. That he was too coddled, too quickly anointed. It's time to push him and see what happens.

It shouldn't come as a shock that Kobe Bryant, who shattered too many young teammates to count, is into the idea.

"They've been growing so much and now, here they are, thrust into the spotlight, and you know how pressure makes diamonds?" Bryant said on The Dan Patrick Show on Monday. "So, in this situation, you'll see Lonzo step up...the young guys will really step up and rise to that challenge and hit their potential a lot faster than they ordinarily would."

The efficacy of disempowering young players as a means of improving them is spotty. For an example of just how wrong the practice can go, maybe someone should ask Smush Parker how he enjoyed it.

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 14: Lonzo Ball #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers shakes hands with LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers after the game at Quicken Loans Arena on December 14, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Lakers 121-112. NO
Jason Miller/Getty Images

If this is all a ploy to nudge Ball out of town because the Lakers (and LeBron, who has to have a voice in personnel decisions) are through with the circus that's surrounding him, that's at least a reasonable explanation. If it's retribution for Ball's camp's possibly leaking info about a damaged meniscus so the point guard would look less palatable as a trade piece, even that makes sense.

But if L.A. is considering this an open competition because it believes Rondo and Ball are similarly valuable, well...it's hard to see the logic.

Then again, when a team agrees to pay Rondo $9 million, it's probably not a good idea to assume they're acting rationally.


Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference, Cleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Salary information via Basketball Insiders. Reported deals via NBA.com's free-agency tracker.

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