The Lakers got a great win vs. the Blazers on Wednesday night, downing Portland 126-117 behind a milestone setting performance by LeBron James. But while James’ 44 point, 10 rebound, 9 assist night that vaulted him past Wilt Chamberlain on the NBA’s all-time scoring list headlined the win, the Lakers also lost a key rotation player when reserve guard Rajon Rondo broke his hand.
Lakers say Rajon Rondo broke third metacarpal in his right hand.
— Bill Oram (@billoram) November 15, 2018
Losing Rondo hurts. While we can talk honestly about how his effort level and penchant to over-help can compromise the defense or how his want to turn down shots in favor of hunting the assist + how his desire to hold the ball while barking out sets can sometimes stagnate the offense, the early season numbers actually show Rondo has been a part of some very well performing lineups.
Of the players who have played more than 200 minutes this year, the Lakers net efficiency rating of +5.5 while Rondo is on the floor ranks 2nd on the team (Josh Hart at +6.8 is 1st). And while the Lakers offense is marginally worse when Rondo is on the floor, the team’s defensive rating is 8.7 points better with Rondo on the floor. Those gains are substantial and worth noting even if we cannot attribute that jump solely to him.
So, again, losing Rondo hurts. His leadership, experience, and smarts have been on full display this year. To think these things have not helped or aren’t valuable would be wrong. Rondo’s coaches trust him, his teammates trust him, and while that may have translated to more minutes for him, as the backup, than fans (including me) would have liked, those minutes are very likely the result of what the numbers I cited above reflect. He’s played well and earned the time.
So, while fans may have wanted more Lonzo Ball — especially to closeout games — I don’t think this is the way anyone would or should want that to happen.
That said, these opportunities are now here and the players who have the chance to fill the void will need to play well. That starts with the aforementioned Ball, who has been showing improved play of late even while his shooting percentages dip closer to what we (or, at least, I) would consider normal and sustainable. Lonzo’s defense, rebounding, and passing will become even more important, especially if he finds his way to more units flanked by reserves.
Lonzo’s expected jump in minutes will also come right as the coaches are starting to figure out more ways to utilize his full skill set. Walton has been deploying Lonzo as a screener, both on and off the ball, more in recent games and the success these plays have produced is encouraging. Lonzo has a good feel for how to screen and then move into positions to make a play after, be it in on-ball situations as a pop/short-roll man or in off-ball sets where he can screen and then dart/flash/fade into open spaces to make himself available as a release valve or as a finisher.
Lonzo’s general activity on both ends should be a nice boost and I hope to see him hovering around the 30-32 minute mark most nights where his energy can be best capitalized across multiple units.
Behind Lonzo, however, I’m very interested in seeing who Walton turns to as the primary backup. When Rondo was out on suspension that player was Lance Stephenson, but that also coincided with Brandon Ingram also being out due to suspension. If I had a vote, I would keep Lance in his current role as a reserve wing, and instead turn to Ingram as the primary backup PG and shuffle lineups accordingly.
Much can (and has been) made of the relative struggles Ingram has had in adjusting to playing next to LeBron. And make no mistake, those struggles have been real. Ingram, when sharing the floor with James, has been…well…a bad NBA player. When on the court with LeBron, Ingram is shooting 42% from the floor overall, 25% from 3, and posting per/36 minute averages of 15.5 points/4.4 rebounds/2.1 assists. When Ingram is on the floor without LeBron, those numbers jump considerably: 55.6% shooting overall, 75% from 3, with per/36 minute averages of 31.3 points/7 rebounds/3.9 assists.
And here’s the thing: Of the 306 minutes Ingram has played so far this season, only 46 of those minutes have come without LeBron on the floor with him. Maybe it’s time, then, to give Ingram a bit of breathing room in lineups that don’t have LeBron to see if he can be a more productive player. And with Rondo injured, there’s a great opportunity to do just that.
If Luke is insistent on keeping the starting lineup the same, why not have Ingram be the first sub out (with Hart coming in) and then bring Ingram back into the game as the de facto point guard when LeBron goes to the bench? This would give Ingram primary ball handling duties and, hopefully, unlock some of the playmaking and passing ability that has mostly been dormant this season.
Remember, Ingram had his best stretch last season when Lonzo was out and he had to be a full time lead ballhandler in nearly every lineup he played in. I think giving those duties back to him could end up being a positive, not only for the team and for Ingram in the short term, but in the long term to help him get back on track where he can find a better balance to his game that can, hopefully, transfer to lineups where he and LeBron do share the floor.
Ultimately, we’ll see what Luke decides. But he’ll need to do something, he has no choice with Rondo unavailable. And while I think losing Rondo will hurt, I’m excited to see what Lonzo and Ingram can do to seize the opportunity in front of them.