The Lakers Don't Need Rajon Rondo...For Now
Sports fans can be brutal. In most domains outside of sports, it’d be strange to see people cheering on a hand injury that someone else has suffered. Yet, that is what we saw as news of Rajon Rondo’s broken thumb was released a few weeks ago. Here’s the kicker though, the folks doing the cheering were Lakers fans.
In almost two years as a Laker, Rondo has drawn the ire of all but the most forgiving Lakers supporters. The criticism directed Rondo’s way, however, is largely fair. He dribbles too much, misses simple reads that could create easy points, and plays almost no defense.
So now, as Rondo tends to a thumb injury that will keep him out for at least a few more weeks, Lakers fans send their well-wishes, but aren’t making any secret about the true joy they feel regarding Rondo’s absence.
They may not want to get too carried away though.
So far in the bubble, the Lakers have played a lackluster brand of basketball. Though, I’d attribute that mostly to apathy after grabbing the first seed in the West, and not to any severe shortcomings in their roster. What the Lakers showed prior to the season’s hiatus, and in flashes in the bubble, is that they have multiple options to turn to when LeBron sits. Alex Caruso and Dion Waiters are solid point guard backups.
So for the rest of this regular season and early in the playoffs, the Lakers will be fine without Rondo, and some will say that they will actually be better. However, to declare that the Lakers no longer have any use for Rondo would be a narrowly-focused claim.
That’s because Rondo brings an unpredictable variable to the mix that may serve the Lakers well later in the playoffs. After the regular season, Rondo turns into his alter-ego: “Playoff Rondo.”
The term “Playoff Player” has become rather cliche at this point when referring to players who step up in the postseason, but in Rondo’s case it’s an accurate description. In his last two playoff appearances, Rondo has switched into a far better version of himself than what he showed in the regular season.
In 2017, despite only playing two playoff games before getting injured, Rondo helped the 8th-seeded Bulls snatch two games against the 1st-seeded Celtics. He logged a near triple-double with averages of 11.5 points, 10 assists, and 8.5 rebounds.
The next year, his most recent playoff appearance, Rondo lit up the Blazers in the first round alongside Anthony Davis on the Pelicans. Overall, he averaged 10.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 12.2 assists, and was the league leader in assists for the two rounds he played in.
Rondo has shown the ability to elevate himself in the games that matter the most. Of course, some will argue that these games were years ago and Rondo simply isn’t that player anymore.
There are two major signs, though, that Rondo still is that type of player.
First, his regular season statistics during his two years as a Laker are largely the same as what he logged in his Chicago and New Orleans seasons. He has seen a slight dip in his numbers this season as his playing time decreased to accommodate Alex Caruso’s emergence, but on a per minute basis, his numbers still hold up.
The last two teams he’s played for, his ho-hum regular season numbers have always been followed by excellent “Playoff Rondo” numbers. There’s clearly a gear that he doesn’t fully engage until the postseason, and if his regular season numbers are identical year-to-year from team-to-team, there’s strong indication that his postseason numbers will be at that level with this Lakers team.
Second, Rondo occasionally has spikes in his regular season performance where, seemingly out of nowhere, he turns in an excellent game. It may seem random, but a closer inspection shows a common theme in each of those games; they were ones in which the Lakers really needed him to play well.
Rondo’s finest game this season was on the road against the Thunder in January. The odds were not in the Lakers favor heading into this one. They were without both LeBron and Davis, facing a playoff team, and on the road. Inspiration for this game had to come from somewhere.
Rondo responded right out of the gate with aggression, not just in scoring, but also in creating for others. The Lakers eventually blew the Thunder out, but it was Rondo’s play and leadership that set the tone at the beginning. In the end, he finished with 22 points, 12 rebounds, and 8 assists.
Another example is Christmas Day in 2018 against the Warriors, LeBron’s infamous groin injury game. The Lakers’ season was in doubt when LeBron went down, as was the game. But the Lakers emerged victorious on that night because of Rondo. He truly took over the offense after LeBron went down, finishing with 15 points and 10 assists.
Rondo has a perplexing ability to step up when it counts. He’s very unassuming too, because his regular season numbers don’t hint at what he’s capable of in the playoffs. And his much-maligned regular seasons with the Lakers can turn into gold on certain nights.
Lakers’ fans shouldn’t discount what Rondo can do in the later stages of the playoffs. When every ounce of ammo in the roster will be necessary to beat the teams in the way of the Lakers’ championship hopes, Rondo’s uncanny aptitude to deliver the goods will be a welcome sight, and may ultimately be essential to victory.
So calm the cheers for now Lakers’ fans, you’ll need them for when “Playoff Rondo” finally activates.