You've heard all of the numbers by now. The Lakers' offense scored a blistering 113 points per 100 possessions with LeBron James on the floor before the hiatus, and a dismal 105.3 when he sat. The mastermind behind those struggles was Rajon Rondo, with whom the Lakers outscored opponents by only a (relatively) paltry 1.4 points per 100 possessions compared to a stellar 9.3 when he sat. On an otherwise sterling roster, Rondo was the weak link for 63 games, dragging down the performance of a team that was dominant with just about any other combination of five players on the court. Any potential replacement would, therefore, be judged not on his own numbers, but on his impact on the excellent team he was joining.
It is fitting then, that after the first night of games in the Orlando bubble, Dion Waiters has the best plus-minus of any player in the bubble. The Lakers outscored the Clippers by 17 points during the 21 minutes that Waiters played, beating out Kawhi Leonard at plus-16 for the momentary title of Disney's net rating king. In 48 games, The Lakers went plus-17 in Rondo's minutes only four times. In each of those games, three of which came against lottery opponents, the Lakers won the minutes Rondo sat as well. The Lakers lost the minutes Waiters sat by 15 on Thursday, and the win came over a Clippers team that will likely await the Lakers in the Western Conference finals. One game could not have better encapsulated the improvement the Lakers have made at backup point guard than the one they just played.
Because in truth, Waiters was far from perfect. He shot 1 of 6 on 3-pointers playing for a team that demands its role players space the floor. His defense wasn't great either. He was far too aggressive in trying to make big plays, over-helping and giving up clean looks through some odd decision-making.
Still, the team numbers held firm. The Lakers have great defenders all over the floor. They can stomach one poor defender for shorter stretches, especially against bench units. The majority of the Lakers roster was built to support LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and that means plenty of shooting. Spacing can be provided for bench units. Even if those weaknesses persist (and there is evidence to suggest they won't on both fronts), the Lakers are equipped to offset them based on the abundance of certain skills that already exist on the roster. The Waiters experiment worked because he provided things that weren't already in place. Specifically, he gave them shot creation.
While his struggles behind the arc have been a career-long battle, they crop up most when he is playing with James, and therefore off of the ball. His man will occasionally ditch him to double Anthony Davis in the post, but as Alex Caruso has proven, shooting woes are forgivable. When Rondo has led bench units, his finishing has been just as problematic as his shooting.
Though he was once a robust driver, Rondo has since grown hesitant and underwhelming at the basket. This season, only 30.5 percent of his shot attempts have come within three feet of the basket, a new career low. Aside from his individual struggles in traffic, Rondo avoids the basket to avoid being fouled. He's improved since joining the Lakers, but at 60.6 percent for his career, he's on the bottom of the point guard totem poll. While he's made 58 percent of his attempts at the rim this season, team circumstance is the likely explanation. The Lakers generate easy shots. On a poorly-spaced Bulls roster three seasons ago, he made less than 50 percent of his attempts at the rim.
Waiters, more of a jump shooter than driver for most of his career, looked perfectly comfortable finishing in traffic on Thursday. His bulkier frame and superior physical strength make up for his limited craft in that regard.
Rondo's weakness as a finisher limits the Lakers in basic actions. They score only 0.781 points per possession on his pick-and-rolls, good for only the 37th percentile in the NBA, and they hardly ever run handoffs for him. Defenses play extreme drop coverage against him in the name of preventing easy layups. That limits his scoring options to attacking a rim protector, which he rarely does, or settling for an ugly floater, which is just as poor an option. He has made only 35.7 percent of his attempts in the 3-10 foot range of the hoop, and it shows.
Compare that to the way Waiters engages an entire defense when he runs those actions. Defenses know he is a threat to score from anywhere, and they treat him as such. Even in traffic, he manages to score.
But the real value Waiters provides isn't solely in his scoring. It's in the threat his scoring poses. Rondo is a far more skilled passer than Waiters, but defenses rarely give him passing lanes because they don't trust him to actually try to score. Waiters, a downright ball hog at points in his career, drew so much attention from the Clippers defense that he was able to create exactly the sort of open shots in the context of the Lakers offense that Rondo hasn't been able to.
It doesn't matter that these aren't assists, and it doesn't matter that they aren't flashy. They're basic reads, the sort that any NBA player should be able to make and are as dangerous as the player making them. In Waiters' case, that's very dangerous. Having a scorer as gifted as Waiters, in itself, is a new luxury for the Lakers. Having a scorer like that who is willing to use his gifts to set up teammates? That is what made the Lakers offense work so well when he was on the floor. Waiters was the hero on Thursday specifically by not trying to be the hero.
Waiters didn't turn the ball over once against the Clippers. He gave away looks in transition for the sake of helping his teammates. He even earned some friends on the analytics staff; Waiters shot six 3-pointers and four layups. Not a single mid-range jumper to be seen from a player who, in his career to this point, dedicated 22.6 percent of his shot attempts to 2-pointers beyond 16 feet. Even when the 3s aren't going in, his willingness to take them creates more space on Davis post-ups, a critical element of the Lakers' LeBron-less offense. An analytically-inclined version of Waiters just makes it harder to double Davis there.
It's too early to say for certain whether Waiters is a changed man. LeBron has a history of bringing the best out of players with checkered pasts, and the Heat had already worked wonders against some of his worst habits, but Waiters is, eventually, going to take and miss contested mid-range jumper. The mere threat that he might play as he did against the Clippers, though, is a major improvement for bench lineups that previously lacked even a semblance of versatile playmaking. Just by being himself, Waiters makes the Lakers better. Rondo spent an entire year failing to prove the same.