Rajon Rondo Is More Essential to LA Lakers Than You'd Think

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterDecember 6, 2019

Los Angeles Lakers guard Rajon Rondo (9) directs a teammate in the first half during an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — If Lakers coach Frank Vogel is to be believed, Rajon Rondo's contribution to the team goes well beyond the numbers.

"Rajon's statistics are not measured on a stat sheet. They're measured in swag," Vogel said after a recent Lakers win over the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center. "He just gives us some confidence and an air about us...he just helps our swag."

Vogel's stance may be a bit abstract, but Rondo does bring a valuable skill set the Lakers don't have in abundance. Beyond LeBron James and a bit of Alex Caruso, the team doesn't have a primary ball-handler who can orchestrate the offense.

That's where Rondo has shined throughout his career, earning four All-Star nods. Through that stretch from 2010 to 2013 with the Boston Celtics, he averaged below 14 points per game, never hit over 24 percent from three-point range and was a mediocre free-throw shooter. Where he's always flourished is in his playmaking, peaking at 11.7 assists per game in both 2011-12 and 2015-16.

Back then, Rondo was an enemy of the Lakers, helping the Celtics win a title over Los Angeles in 2008. The Lakers returned the favor in 2010. Now, he's in his second year in L.A., trying to help Anthony Davis, James and the rest of the franchise get a crack at a championship.

And while Vogel may not be looking, the numbers are favorable for the veteran guard through 12 games (he missed the Lakers' first 10 games with a calf injury). In 21.5 minutes per contest, Rondo is averaging 8.8 points and 6.1 assists per game.

LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo.
LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo.Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

He has a favorable 3.4-1 assist-to-turnover ratio with 1.8 miscues per game. He's also shooting a team-best 50.0 percent from three-point range for players with at least 10 attempts (no, not including Dwight Howard, who is now 1-of-2 after hitting a corner three in the Lakers' 121-96 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday).

Rondo's historically iffy outside shot could have limited his viability on this Laker squad, where James and Davis need to be surrounded by as many shooters as possible. Instead, Rondo is daring teams to sag off him defensively, turning a former weakness into a strength.

Naturally, he needs to prove he can shoot this consistently for more than a dozen games, but if he can, that's a game-changer for the Lakers. That opens the door for Rondo to be more than just the backup when James sits, but a valuable additional ball-handler to help relieve the pressure on James.

In fact, roughly 144 of Rondo's 258 minutes (55.8 percent) have come alongside James. His most frequent lineup includes James with Howard, Kyle Kuzma and Caruso. That group has an offensive rating of 111.6 points per 100 possessions, a defensive rating of 89.7 and a net of 21.9 over 46 minutes. Sub in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for Caruso over 18 minutes, and the lineup has a 28.4 net rating.

Overall, the Lakers have an offensive rating of 110.2 when Rondo sits and 109.9 when he plays. The offense isn't taking a significant dip when the team goes to the bench, and that's extremely valuable, especially at the point.

Defensively, the Lakers are better when Rondo plays (100.9 vs. 102.1). That's a far cry from last year, when he was dead last on the team with a defensive rating of 113.3. Understandably, stat-savvy fans were concerned when the Lakers brought Rondo back, but his play this year should allay those fears.

The Lakers in general are a better team defensively with Davis, backed up by JaVale McGee and Howard. James also seems rejuvenated after a long offseason. Team unity has helped hide some of Rondo's flaws—typical of a nearly 34-year-old 6'1" guard with reduced lateral speed and athleticism.

If the team is facing a bad matchup for Rondo, Vogel has several options. The Lakers don't have to be overdependent on him, which allows the guard more of an opportunity to be his best self.

Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

Where he has the advantage is in his experience and intelligence. Those assets are more valuable on this year's veteran Lakers squad than last year's mixed bag that featured James and McGee, along with several young players still learning the NBA game (like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Kuzma).

Rondo's defensive rating is better than James' 101.7 and Davis' 102.9. James has a more potent offensive rating at 113, but Rondo's is just below Davis' 110.2.

No, Rondo isn't close to either as a player, but he does have a higher net rating. Taken at face value, he has held his own in the minutes he's gotten this season.

Soon, Avery Bradley will return from his knee injury, and he may get his starting position back in favor of Caldwell-Pope, who has filled in admirably after a slow start to the season. Caruso has also proved to be one of the team's best bench players. With so many guards, minutes are going to get scarce for some, but that probably won't be Rondo, whose minutes are a necessary relief for James.

As long as he continues to protect the ball, initiate the offense and hit his jumper, all while contributing on defense, Rondo will remain a key player for the Lakers. He has the champion pedigree, and more importantly, he's a valuable part of this Lakers squad that keeps on winning.

Vogel may choose to ignore the stats and focus solely on Rondo's impact as a team leader (or whatever he meant by "swag"), but even better, the numbers do support Rondo and his positive influence on the 2019-20 Lakers.

       

19-year NBA veteran, Jamal Crawford, returns to “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to discuss his 51-point game, Dirk Nowitzki’s last game, his Kevin Garnett fandom, the Phoenix Suns and Devin Booker, the Timberwolves and Andrew Wiggins, and retirement.

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