What Rajon Rondo's Injury Means for the Los Angeles Lakers

Mo DakhilFeatured Columnist IJuly 14, 2020

Los Angeles Lakers guard Rajon Rondo dribbles during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers Sunday, March 8, 2020, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 112-103. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The news that Rajon Rondo will be out for six to eight weeks with a broken thumb means the Los Angeles Lakers have now lost two rotation players with Avery Bradley previously opting out of the NBA's restart plan. Head coach Frank Vogel will have to reconfigure his lineups to make up for the latest loss to his rotation. 

This is another shot to the Lakers' continuity, and it leaves Vogel with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, Dion Waiters and JR Smith in the backcourt. Waiters was signed just before play was suspended, and Smith was brought in to replace Bradley. Getting them up to speed is more important now that they are moving up in the rotation. 

The Lakers are not able to sign a replacement player for Rondo since he will remain with the team. He is not lost for the season, though. At the earliest in his injury timeline, he could return during the second round of the playoffs. The late part of the timeline would have him back with the team during the Western Conference Finals. 

However, his spot in his rotation might not be so easy for him to win back.


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Missing Rondo

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Even though his minutes per game are a career-low 20.5, Rondo's presence was important for the Lakers. 

He usually came in for the last four minutes of the first and third quarters while playing the first six minutes of the second and fourth quarters. Most of that was to give LeBron James some rest on the bench. He was buying time for Vogel, similar to how a relief pitcher eats innings in baseball. Now the Lakers rotation will require changes, and roles will be altered.

This season, the Lakers have been heavily dependent on James to create for everyone, and Rondo has served as the secondary playmaker. He's averaging 5.0 assists with an assist percentage of 34.0 percent. After him and James, the next-best assist percentage (minimum 30 games) belongs to Anthony Davis at 14.8 percent.

The loss of a secondary playmaker puts more on James' plate as he continues to serve up his teammates. Vogel stressed that "losing Rajon is a huge loss for our team" in a recent Zoom press conference, and his absence will hurt even more early on.


What Won't Be Missed

The Lakers have been a better team on both ends with Rondo off the court.

Offensively, they've been 4.1 points per 100 possessions better without him. That margin is the largest of any rotation player on the roster. 

He's a career 31.6 percent three-point marksman, so shooting is not one of Rondo's skills, and shooting has also been a problem for the Lakers all year. Having him on the floor has allowed defenses to shrink the floor; they've been more than willing to leave him open to clog up the lane for James and Davis. The team's three-point percentage is 36.6 percent when he is off the floor, compared to 33.3 percent when he plays.

Rondo has made his career on the defensive end, but his skills have deteriorated on that side as he's gotten older. This season, the Lakers have posted a 107.3 defensive rating with the 34-year-old on the floor, which is higher than their overall 105.5 defensive rating. 

His injury will open up more minutes for Caruso, who has been great for the Lakers defensively. They have their best defensive rating (minimum 500 minutes) with him on the floor: 100.3. 

With Rondo off the court, the Lakers' ceiling, both offensively and defensively, is raised and puts the team in a better position to win. 


Next Man Up

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

With Rondo sidelined and Bradley out, Caruso, Caldwell-Pope and Green will all see their minutes rise. 

That's not a bad thing for the Lakers. They have a higher net rating whenever any of those three players are on the floor. Caruso is a plus-10.3, Green is a plus 8.7, and Caldwell-Pope is a plus 5.6. In a small sample size of 100 minutes, the trio has a net rating of 28.2. Expect to see it deployed more often with the rotation limited.

For Cook, the Rondo injury can serve as an opportunity to earn minutes, as well. He falls short of being a secondary playmaker for the Lakers but can function as another floor-spacing option. He's shooting 37.9 percent from deep in 2019-20. 

Another thing to keep an eye on is how the Lakers use Waiters. Vogel singled out his skill set as something the team will need now that Rondo is out. 

"Losing Rondo puts more of a need on Dion's skill set, so I look forward to seeing what he can do more as we get into games," he said. In particular, Los Angeles will try to tap into his "ability to make plays off the bounce."

Ultimately, losing Rondo's playmaking is a bigger concern in the eight-game restart than in the playoffs. 

In the playoffs, James' minutes will go up. He's averaged 42.0 minutes per game in the postseason throughout his career, and he averaged 41.9 in his last playoff appearance following the 2017-18 regular season. That year, he averaged 36.9 regular-season minutes for the Cleveland Cavaliers

This season, James has averaged 34.9 minutes, and that is likely to increase to 40-plus when the playoffs begin. The amount of time the Lakers will have to survive without their top playmaker will be much lower at that stage of the year. 

Vogel is in a difficult position as he looks to juggle his rotation with two backcourt players out. But that rotation was bound to shrink once the playoffs began, and all season long, the Lakers have had better options they could have played in place of Rondo. 

Losing the point guard for as long as eight weeks is a blow, but it is not nearly as impactful as some might initially think. His name and reputation are bigger than his actual value to Los Angeles on the court. His loss is survivable for the Lakers. 


Mo Dakhil spent six years with the Los Angeles Clippers and two years with the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator, as well as three years with the Australian men's national team. Follow him on Twitter @MoDakhil_NBA

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