The already-shorthanded Lakers won their only game of the 2021-22 season thus far, a 121-118 white-knuckle victory against the upstart Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night. One key rotation tweak stood out to this writer: Rajon Rondo riding the pine for all 48 minutes.
Rondo was listed as a Did Not Play - Coach's Decision during LA's lone win of the young season.
The 1-2 club is currently trying to climb to a .500 record without its best player, LeBron James, tonight against the San Antonio Spurs. James is missing his first regular season action tonight with a right ankle injury. Guard Malik Monk is starting in LeBron's stead, tweets Jovan Buha of The Athletic. Buha adds that Rondo will now return to the lineup given the absence of LeBron, replacing Monk as the chief backup point guard behind $44.2 million starter Russell Westbrook.
Rondo is essentially Russ Jr. on this club. He's a solid ball handler who at this point in his career is a limited defender and streaky shooter. His strengths are Westbrook's strengths, and their weaknesses are similar, but Westbrook should still be a borderline All-Star with LA, whereas Rondo's All-Star days are long past.
In two regular season games with LA this season, Rondo is averaging 4.5 points, 4.0 assists, and 2.0 rebounds in at 17.0 minutes. His shooting numbers are more troubling: he is connecting on just 33.3% of his field goals (yes, his field goals) and has yet to take a free throw. That said, at least Rondo is connecting from deep, making 50% of his 1.5 looks from three-point range a night. The Lakers need a more reliable shooting threat behind Westbrook. Hot three-point shooting start aside, Rondo is just not that guy.
Lakers head coach Frank Vogel experimented (way too much) with Rondo-Russ tandem lineups during the team's first two games, both double-digit losses to good teams. Vogel then pivoted during Sunday's successful contest, opted to bench Rondo completely. Rondo only really makes sense in very limited minutes, playing in small ball lineups with James at the four, Anthony Davis at the five, and shooters on the wing.
Brought back to the team as a deep-bench veteran leader this summer, the 35-year-old Rondo's role will probably be significantly reduced from his contributions during his prior tenure with LA, from 2018-20.
For the immediate short-term future, while James recovers from his ankle injury, it makes sense to press Rondo back into service. After this, though, so long as Russell Westbrook continues to figure out his offensive fit with the Lakers, benching Rondo for a bit seems like a savvy play.
Rondo can perhaps still capably contribute at a 10-15 minutes-per-game clip, but a healthier Lakers squad still needs to sort out its rotational issues and stagger James and Westbrook a bit more before adding Rondo back into the mix. For now, the shooting skills of Monk and, when he gets healthy, Kendrick Nunn should be prioritized behind Westbrook.