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Why the Los Angeles Lakers Needed Another Veteran Point Guard in Rajon Rondo

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterSeptember 1, 2021

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (23) high fives Los Angeles Lakers' Rajon Rondo (9) during the second half in Game 3 of basketball's NBA Finals, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

We're living through the strangest timeline. Less than a year has passed since the Los Angeles Lakers knocked Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets out of the 2019-20 Western Conference Semifinals in the Orlando bubble.

That's the classic battle perhaps best remembered for the ejection of Rajon Rondo's brother for jabbering with Westbrook.

SportsCenter @SportsCenter

Security asked Rajon Rondo’s brother to leave the stands after he exchanged words with Russell Westbrook. https://t.co/5jG1hkInN6

The two will be teammates through a circuitous series of events (Westbrook and Rondo, not his brother) this season with the Lakers, per Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Adrian Wojnarowski @wojespn

Rajon Rondo plans to sign a one-year, $2.6M deal with the Lakers upon clearing waivers today, sources tell ESPN. He agreed to a contract buyout with Memphis on Saturday. Rondo will still make his full $7.5M salary this season between buyout and new deal. https://t.co/ehFzHb6pVC

Since the bubble, Westbrook spent a year with the Washington Wizards before a second trade landed him in Los Angeles. Rondo left for the Atlanta Hawks in free agency. The Hawks sent him to the Los Angeles Clippers midseason, who moved him on to the Memphis Grizzlies, who then bought out his contract.

Both Westbrook and Rondo have been described many different ways throughout their All-Star-filled careers, but "chill" would not apply. Will the Lakers have to squash some old drama?

"Brodie doesn't hold grudges against other players," a former Western Conference executive said, noting that with LeBron James running the locker room, everyone will get in line. "They always do."

The perception that James helps handpick his teammates tends to result in favorable chemistry. But with Westbrook in tow, why go through the trouble of bringing back Rondo?

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The answer is pretty simple: The Lakers are hedging their high hopes on a pair of relatively inexperienced guards in Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn with Rondo as a safety net.

Outside of Anthony Davis, James and Westbrook, the only Lakers making above minimum salaries are Horton-Tucker ($9.5 million) and Nunn ($5 million). The franchise anticipates they’ll prove to be crucial contributors. Still, they have combined to play fewer than 200 regular-season games. Rondo and Westbrook may reach a total of 2,000 together during the upcoming campaign.

The Lakers are in their championship window. James will be 37 years old early into his 19th season, and the front office wasn't willing to risk wasting his final years without a proven backup like Rondo.

Per an NBA source familiar with some of the Lakers' struggles through the 2020-21 campaign, Davis felt some frustration that he wasn't getting the kind of looks in the post with Dennis Schroder running the point compared to those he received with Rondo a year earlier.

That may have contributed to the Lakers choosing not to re-sign Schroder, who struggled to find a home in free agency before taking a one-year, $5.9 million contract with the Boston Celtics.

Westbrook should allay Davis' concerns. The nine-time All-Star guard has averaged a triple-double in four of his last five seasons. How exactly that will translate on the floor remains to be seen—Westbrook hasn't played with a power forward like Davis before—but the Lakers will have a full regular season and practice schedule to find that chemistry.

But when he's on the bench, the offense still needs to function. Similar to Schroder, both Horton-Tucker and Nunn may be better scorers than floor generals. That may not matter in the regular season, but it probably will at times in the playoffs.

ClutchPoints @ClutchPointsApp

New Lakers Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook have seemingly squashed their beef, via @_michaelcorvo_. 👀 https://t.co/Jzi0wkxDyj

In many ways, James is the team's de facto point forward. Coach Frank Vogel will probably stagger Westbrook and James' minutes so at least one is on the floor at all times in competitive contests. James also benefits from having another playmaker on the court so he doesn't have to drive into three, four or even five defenders.

If the concern is spacing (neither Westbrook nor Rondo is known for his outside shot, though Rondo's has improved in recent years), the addition of shooters like Wayne Ellington, Malik Monk, Carmelo Anthony and Kent Bazemore should make the Lakers a very difficult team to defend.

And the notion of James playing with another ball-dominant guard like Westbrook isn't new. James has titles playing with Kyrie Irving and Dwyane Wade. To a lesser degree, Rondo fit that bill in the bubble.

Good luck to the defense when it can't primarily scheme against James, which is why the Lakers were willing to acquire Westbrook. Perhaps Nunn or Horton-Tucker will be enough to back him up, but the Lakers weren't going into the regular season without another experienced option. The team also considered free agents Isaiah Thomas, Darren Collison and Mike James, per Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

But Rondo is more of a sure thing for the Lakers because both James and Davis trust him. Beyond the title won together in 2020, Rondo and Davis were teammates on the 2017-18 New Orleans Pelicans. In the first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers, Rondo averaged 13.3 assists per game and then delivered 21 assists in a Game 3 win against the Golden State Warriors in the next round.

The Warriors went on to win the title, beating the Pelicans in five along the way. Rondo moved on to join the Lakers in 2018, and Davis soon followed in the blockbuster trade in 2019.

"AD is special, but he needs a guard like Rondo to be great," the former executive said. "But paring LeBron and AD, all bets are off."

Los Angeles went younger last offseason, trading Danny Green and the draft rights to Jaden McDaniels (No. 28 in 2020) to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Schroder. That led to Rondo's exit.

Would the team roll it all back? Given AD's groin injury in the playoffs against the Phoenix Suns, would it have made a difference?

There is no going in reverse in the NBA, but the Lakers are bringing some of the band back together, including Dwight Howard and Rondo. Other former Lakers joining the squad are Trevor Ariza, Ellington and Bazemore. The team also has newcomers like veteran scorer Carmelo Anthony and the younger, more athletic Monk.

Their biggest hurdle might be age, with nine of the team's 13 guaranteed players having an average age of 34.7. James suffered significant injuries (groin and ankle) in two of his last three seasons. Davis is one of the few under 30 but was sidelined for much of the 2020-21 season.

On paper, and if healthy, the Lakers look like the standout in the West. Rondo may not be needed much on the court through the regular season, but he'll prove to be a vital contributor in key postseason moments throughout what the franchise hopes will be another championship run.

        

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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