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Moore: Rajon Rondo’s absence won’t hurt Lakers’ title chances

2020-07-17

Los Angeles Lakers guard Rajon Rondo suffered a fractured right thumb at practice Sunday, the team announced last night.

The injury leaves the Lakers even more shorthanded on the wing after Avery Bradley elected to sit out the season’s resumption for family reasons. So does this meaningfully shift the Lakers’ chances?

No.

Why the Lakers Will Be Just Fine During Rondo’s Absence

For starters, the Lakers were 8.1 points better in Net Rating per 100 possessions with Rondo on the bench this season, the worst mark for any rotation player with at least 500 minutes.

Second, the Lakers are reasonably deep on the wing. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope already figured to slide into the starting unit in Bradley’s absence, Danny Green is available, and they also have fan favorite Alex Caruso and spot-up combo guard Quinn Cook.

Third, the Lakers’ entire roster construction is built around LeBron James being the operative point guard. He brings the ball up the floor each possession. He initiates the offense. He is the alpha and omega on each possession, particularly in playoff settings, and in those settings he’ll be on the floor for more than 40 minutes each game.

Presumably, Rondo’s best value is as a playmaker when James isn’t on the floor. But the Lakers held a -4.8 Net Rating and an awful-by-their-standards 108.7 Defensive Rating with Rondo on the floor next to Davis; they were even worse at a 111.0 Defensive Rating with James on the bench. Davis without Rondo blistered on both ends to the tune of a +10.0 Net Rating.

Fourth, the Lakers brought on J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters during the season’s suspension. Waiters is a capable lead guard who can bring the ball up and initiate the offense, and Smith replaces Rondo’s surprisingly decent spot-up shooting.

Fifth, Rondo will likely be back sometime in the second round of the postseason. The playoffs don’t begin until mid-August; eight weeks would bring him back roughly August 31, with the Finals not beginning until October. The Lakers need just three wins (or two wins and at least a loss by all teams behind them) to secure the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.

There are some curious numbers when it comes to Rondo. For instance, Rondo and James lineups (without Davis) held a +13.2 Net Rating with a 100.0 Defensive Rating. They absolutely ransacked teams in lineups with LeBron and Rondo and no Davis. Throw Davis on, and the rotations went the other way in a hurry.

The Caruso Bump

But Rondo was averaging only 20 minutes a night for this squad anyway. Is losing a veteran guard before this weird set of circumstances in play good? Certainly not. But given the nature of the injury, the likelihood of return, their positional depth and what Caruso brings to the table? It could be worse and shouldn’t affect anyone’s posture towards their conference or NBA title odds.

Caruso’s advanced numbers are quite simply extraordinary. The Lakers have a +20.0 (!) Net Rating with Caruso and James on court together, and they still beat their opponents when Caruso is on and James sits — a rarity.

His offensive game is limited and spotty, but he still has an array of things he can contribute from shooting to passing to finishing in transition — but if nothing else, his presence as a firebug defensively brings another level of intensity. Whether that translates without a crowd definitely remains to be seen, but his consistent level of effort is notable.

Quinn Cook brings championship experience from the Warriors and is underrated for what he can do in a limited role, which is best for a James-led team. Cook needs to spot-up and punish closeouts, two things at which he excels.

Ultimately, the Lakers were always going to wind up with lineups where it was James surrounded by three shooters and Davis. Rondo’s injury does nothing to shape that, and as such, while it’s a bummer, it’s a manageable one for the Lakers and shouldn’t corrupt any of their Orlando pursuits… provided everyone else stays healthy of course.

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