You have undoubtedly heard by now: Rajon Rondo broke his right thumb on Sunday. He’ll leave the NBA’s “bubble” in Orlando to have surgery and will be out 6-8 weeks. This, in the most basic of terms, is a problem for the Lakers. Rondo is the team’s backup point guard and with Avery Bradley already opting out of the Orlando restart, the team is now down two guards in their main rotation that, in the weeks before the NBA shutdown, was already whittling down to 9 players.
Like all problems, though, there are solutions on deck. Because even though Rondo was a wholly unique player for these Lakers — he was, besides LeBron, the team’s only other lead ball-handler and player who could remotely be classified positionally as a point guard — he was an up and down player whose very real strengths were often mitigated by the negatives he brought with them to the table.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to dismiss Rondo as a totally ineffective player who won’t be missed. That would be missing (at least part of) the point and intellectually dishonest. No, Rondo could be useful, played a very specific role, and when he did it well the Lakers became even harder to beat than they normally are. The Lakers coaches trusted and relied on him for a reason, and while I could sometimes be found pulling my hair out at how frequently they used him, I could understand the reasons behind those decisions.
Further, as said already, the importance of losing Rondo is amplified by Bradley’s decision to stay home. If the entire Lakers rotation was intact and then Rondo got hurt, I’d likely just shrug and say “next man up” and call it a day. But, the Lakers were already going to have to expand the roles of the remaining guards on the roster, Rondo included. Without him now too, there’s likely too much slack for the two remaining regular rotation guards (Alex Caruso and KCP) to pick up on their own, even though they’ll have to surely do more now.1For the purposes of this discussion, Danny Green is a wing and not a guard — he barely handles the ball at all and is not used in any of the hand-off or P&R actions the other guards run. Some may view this as a distinction without a difference, but the way the Lakers run their offensive sets, Green fills a very specific role that is narrower than than nearly every other perimeter player on the team.
Again, though, there are solutions here. Caruso can and should play more. He has some lead guard skills, though they are not the strongest part of his skill set. He should not be asked to run P&R’s on too many possessions, but he can be asked to bring the ball up the court and throw the first pass in the sequence that gets the Lakers into a set. He can play in the open court and is a smart enough decision maker to understand the reads he has to make and execute them. When you add this to what he already does really well — move off the ball, set screens, defend — finding more minutes for him should be a net positive, particularly in lineups next to LeBron
KCP will also get more run now, though I’d expect most of those minutes will actually come because of Bradley’s absence. While KCP doesn’t play the same style as Bradley, he can mimic much of what Bradley did offensively while bringing his own tenacious version of defense as an off-ball worker who jumps passing lanes in contrast to Bradley’s dogged point of attack pressure.
What the Lakers need, then, is someone to fill in some ball handling duties. And because the options who remain on the roster will not fill those duties in the way that Rondo did, the team will also need to change some when plugging this hole. Note, change isn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes change, particularly forced change, can actually lead you in a direction better overall. It remains to be seen if this will be the case for the Lakers, but it’s not out of the question.
Maybe Dion Waiters can bring capable enough ball handling — especially in the half court — while also providing some much needed individual shot creation. In lineups with AD anchoring, a Waiters/Davis P&R could create interesting dilemmas for defenses who would, with Rondo running the action, gear all their attention towards AD. Waiters’ ability to hit spot up jumpers could also generate better spacing that Davis (and others who are on the floor) could benefit from.
Maybe Kyle Kuzma could also pick up some slack here. Before COVID-19 closed NBA arenas, Kuz was shifting more towards a perimeter role defensively and was flashing more of an all-around game that could lend itself to being more a wing than a stretch big. Kuz isn’t necessarily an offensive initiator or someone who can reliably create shots for teammates, but he was mostly underutilized as a P&R ball handler this season and should be able to add some of those types of possessions back onto his plate.
Quinn Cook has not had a great year for the Lakers, but has flashed some of the skill that had me excited to have him join the team as a free agent 12 months ago. Cook can handle the ball some, can run some P&R, and is a credible enough shooter spotting up to not be ignored by opposing defenses. Cook doesn’t have the physical tools to be a good defender, but he tries on that end and that’s a key part of the equation to building a reliable team attack.
And then, of course, there’s the team’s stars. LeBron already carries a heavy load as the team’s de facto point guard and main initiator, but the playoffs are when you expect his burden to go up, not down. Rondo being out will necessitate that shift, but the import and stakes of these games was very likely going to move him in this direction even if Rondo were available. As for AD, he has the ball skills to be someone who handles the rock more, particularly at the top of the key in delay and handoff sets. He’s a good enough passer and decision maker to take on more responsibility here and Vogel would be wise to ask him to do more with Rondo out to help his teammates.
Again, Rondo will be missed, even if only as someone capable of dealing with the type of ball pressure that teams like the Clippers and Bucks deploy regularly. In potential playoff games against the top teams, it would be nice to have your entire team available, if only because you want all skills ready to be put on the floor to counter what opponents do. Even if Rondo is supposed to be healthy and returned by deep in the playoffs, no one can say for sure if that will be the case (nor can we say for sure he’ll at the top of his game and ready to play).
But, in the big picture, the Lakers have enough on their roster to make up his absence, even if it will not be in the same way. The margin for error is thinner and there’s no guarantee that changing up on the court will go as smoothly as it does in theory on paper or in a blog post like this one. But, in the end, that’s what the games are for and why the playoffs are the ultimate proving ground.