Three games is a small sample size, and that sample size loses a bit of weight when you consider that the games that were played were pointless scrimmage games in which the Lakers were the clear favorites at all times. That said, there were some positive results from those scrimmage games, and the biggest positive came as a result of the team eliminating one of their biggest negatives.
Frank Vogel has done a great job of wowing LeBron James and Anthony Davis, so much so that he hardly ever plays a full five-man banking unit. However, when Vogel has played a full bench crowd, the results have been disappointing.
The five-man unit that has played the most minutes without LeBron James or Anthony Davis is made up of Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Dwight Howard. That lineup has posted a -3.5 point differential on the 53 possessions they’ve played together, according to Cleaning the Glass, which is odd because 124.5 points averaged per 100 possessions makes them one of the most efficient offensive units in The NBA The defensive end is a completely different story.
In the 53 possessions that the aforementioned five-man unit has played together, they have allowed 128.1 points per 100 possessions, which, in layman’s terms, is really, really bad, as one of the worst defensive lineups in the entire league.
When a unit fights as powerfully as that, blame cannot be attributed to a single player, but it cannot be ignored that there is only one player in that unit who has been negative on both the offensive and defensive sides. season, and that’s Rondo.
In his second season with the Lakers, Rondo has posted a -6.8 point differential, which is the worst point differential of anyone on the team that has logged more than 300 minutes this season. As a team, the Lakers are 4.9 better points for every 100 possessions on the defensive side with Rondo off the floor, and 1.9 better points for every 100 offensive possessions.
Rondo is not the only player who has been negative for the Lakers this season, but he is the only player who has not been positive anywhere else. For example, Caldwell-Pope has posted the worst defensive point differential on the team this season, but the Lakers’ offense is better with him on the court. Even Kuzma, who struggled to do something especially well this season, has been an advantage for the team on the defensive end.
What Rondo brings is reliable ball handling and play, which, as we saw on opening night against the Clippers, is no small feat. However, in addition to Rondo, the Lakers also didn’t have Caruso available for their opening night matchup against the Clippers. If they did, the night could have ended differently.
Caruso has never been a primary keeper, it’s a big part of the reason he wasn’t recruited as a senior in 2016, but he can operate as a secondary game creator, which is why he worked so well alongside Rondo this season. According to NBA.com, Rondo and Caruso’s two-man lineup has posted a net rating of +5.9 in the 345 minutes they have played together.
However, the problem with that duo is how dependent they are on the other three players on the court for the offense. Neither Rondo nor Caruso offer much to the Lakers in terms of shot creation, so unless the ball moves, the offense can stagnate quickly. That’s probably why the Lakers attacked guards like Dion Waiters and JR Smith, who can handle the ball and create something out of nothing, with their spots open on the roster.
While it’s only been three games, it hasn’t taken long to realize what many have suspected throughout the season: The Lakers’ bench is best when Caruso is operating as a side player for a player who can handle and score the ball.
Rondo has been sidelined for all three scrimmage games the Lakers have played due to a fractured right thumb he suffered in practice earlier this month, and is expected to be out until at least September. As a result, Waiters and Smith have played bigger roles than anyone initially expected, and have made the most of their opportunities.
In three appearances for the Lakers, Waiters has averaged 13 points per game with 48.5% shooting from the field, while averaging 20.6 minutes per game. In the Lakers’ last game, Waiters had 18 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds and one steal. Waiters’ 18 points were just seconds after Smith’s 20 points on 6-7 shots from behind the 3-point line.
Smith and Waiters’ confidence in their shooting ability is unlike anything we’ve seen on this list outside of James, Davis, and Kyle Kuzma, neither of whom is a guard. Of course, Avery Bradley had some success creating his offense, but that was not his main role alongside James and Davis in the starting lineup.
With Smith and Waiters, the Lakers have two legitimate spark plugs off the bench, possibly needing more than a pure game maker needs. Rondo’s absence has also allowed Caruso and Kuzma to take on more ball handling responsibilities, and have proven capable from the start.
As curious as Lakers fans were to see what Rondo would do in the postseason, the team is probably better off creating synergy between its new bench unit and leaving Rondo a leader on the sidelines. Doing anything else would be a mistake on Vogel’s part, unless Rondo’s role is minimal.
Each player reaches a point in their careers where they have to let other players play their part, and with the talent the Lakers have in guard positions, Rondo has reached his. Hopefully locker room policy doesn’t get in the way of that natural progression, which is directly tied to the team’s postseason success.
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