True to form as Hollywood's NBA team, Los Angeles Lakers games mostly stuck to a script this season. The starting unit, starring LeBron James and Anthony Davis, bulldozed opponents for six-to-eight minutes before giving way to the understudies. Those reserves, usually led by Rajon Rondo, often squandered chunks of that lead before James and Davis both returned to the floor to squash any opposing hopes for a comeback.
For most of the season, the Lakers opted not to fix what wasn't broken. At 49-14, coach Frank Vogel preferred not to rock the boat. His team was winning, and Rondo has the undying respect of his teammates, particularly LeBron, who frequently gushes about his teammate's basketball IQ, and Davis, who played with him for the New Orleans Pelicans. Stars tend not to take kindly to major lineup changes during periods of unbridled success, especially when revered veterans are involved. So Vogel, lacking empirical evidence to suggest that Rondo's presence contributed to winning, spent the season concocting platitudes to justify the former All-Star's place in the rotation (his favorite, by far, was "swag").
Eventually, the Lakers were going to have to reckon with the fact that swag doesn't win playoff games. But that reckoning has been shelved for the next six-to-eight weeks following a reported broken thumb Rondo suffered at Sunday's practice. For perhaps the first time all season, politics will not limit Vogel's lineup decisions. That doesn't exactly bode well for Rondo, who, by all objective measures, was the worst player to regularly receive minutes in Los Angeles.
The Lakers have outscored opponents by only 1.4 points per 100 possessions with Rondo on the floor this season, the lowest total among players to have spent the entire season on the roster. When he goes to the bench, that number bolts up to 9.5 points per 100 possessions, the highest total among full-time Lakers. Without him, they post what would be the full-season equivalent of the NBA's No. 4 offense. With him, it falls to 22nd.
There is some statistical noise inherent to those numbers. The Lakers go as LeBron goes, and Rondo, as the team's only other pure point guard, carries a heavy burden in running the bench offense while he sits. But when the two share the floor, the Lakers score only 110 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. That's approximately league average. Lakers lineups featuring James and no Rondo score 114.9 points per 100 possessions.
It's not rocket science. LeBron thrives when surrounded by shooting, and Rondo isn't a shooter. He made a respectable if unspectacular 35.1 percent of his wide-open 3-point attempts this season, but fell to 25.8 percent when he was merely "open," as defined by NBA.com. Aside from cramping the court for James, defenses routinely use Rondo's main as a doubler on Davis' post-ups.
Those post-ups are an essential form of offense when it comes to surviving LeBron's rest because it is perhaps the only one-on-one tool the Lakers have at their disposal during those stretches. Even slightly more inclusive plays have sputtered with Rondo's hand on the wheel because of his propensity to indecisively probe defenses. The Lakers score just 0.738 points per possession with Rondo running pick-and-roll, and his over-dribbling is often the culprit for those botched possessions.
Rondo was better defensively, but still largely a negative. The Lakers defense improved by 4.0 points per 100 possessions when he wasn't in the game due to a combination of effort and limited physical capacity. While the sort of routine lapses that plagued Rondo when the Lakers were a lottery team have become less frequent this season, he still too often gives up on his man either in a misguided attempt to play help defense or simply due to a lack of effort.
Rondo, 34, routinely defied the limitations of his 6-1 height in his younger days, but as defense has shifted away from straight man-to-man and toward more holistic five-man systems, his size generates the same constraints as a help defender that Avery Bradley's does. He's lost a fair bit of speed, too. Younger athletes don't have much trouble jetting past him at this point.
For the time being, Vogel has been spared a difficult decision -- put his best players on the floor as much as possible, or preserve his locker room at the expense of his lineups. But losing Rondo, in conjunction with Bradley's decision not to play at Disney, poses an even more daunting problem: Somebody has to fill in for him.
Bradley and Rondo were playing nearly 45 minutes per game before the season ground to a halt. Some of the minutes were inevitably going to shift in the postseason. Danny Green's two-way brilliance is wasted in only 25 minutes per game. He was going to move closer to 30 when the playoffs rolled around. Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were both in line for more playing time as well once Bradley announced his decision.
But Caruso's game is built around energy. There is no telling how his effectiveness will scale in a bigger role. Caldwell-Pope, stellar regular season aside, is notoriously inconsistent and has only four games of postseason experience. They aren't splitting all 40 or so available backcourt minutes. The Lakers could at least lean on continuity with a healthy Rondo. Now? Someone outside of the rotation is going to have to play a meaningful role for the time being. The options are fairly sparse.
Quinn Cook is the only remaining guard to have spent the entire season with the Lakers, but he shot only 32 percent from behind the arc in his first 15 games this season and fell out of the rotation from there. Dion Waiters at least had the benefit of the quarantine to familiarize himself with the Lakers in theory, but played in only three games this season before being waived by the Miami Heat. That's three more games than JR Smith has played. He's been out of basketball since late 2018.
All three figure to struggle mightily defensively. That's a bargain the Lakers are willing to strike for an offensive boost. The Davis-Rondo Lakers bench lineups were already bleeding defensively. If one of their three bench options can at least step in and hit enough open shots to prevent brazen doubling of Davis in the post, that's a victory.
Their virtues beyond that, though, will have to be settled on the floor. Cook is the best raw shooter of the trio, and the least erratic overall. Waiters offers the most as a ball-handler. Smith has the most extensive playoff resume and a long history at LeBron's side.
But the Lakers grabbed two of them off the scrap heap and likely would have thrown the third onto it themselves had a better option presented itself. They were, either literally or figuratively, unemployed for a reason, and while Rondo's struggles suggest none need be meaningful downgrades, their mere presence on the floor is proof of the attrition teams are likely to face at Disney.
A month ago, the Lakers had a buffer. They had the sort of depth that protected them from ever needing to turn to players who didn't play during the season. That buffer is now gone. Lakers fans have spent the season hoping to see Rondo's playing time reduced, and in yet another classic Hollywood trope, their wish is about to be granted, and there's no telling yet whether or not they'll regret it.