A New View: Seeing the Game Through Rondo's Eyes
You could say there are three basic levels of NBA fans. The casual ones who jump on and off the bandwagon love their team but might be unable to name a single guy coming off the bench. The vast majority of fans know the basic facts about who on their team can and can’t shoot while possessing plenty of opinions about who should or shouldn’t play. Then there’s the highbrow crew of devotees who can break down pick-and-roll coverages, love to analyze salary dumps and trade kickers, and spend more time with NBA Twitter than with their own families.
You could say there are three basic level of NBA players, too. The first level of guys usually don’t have much professional experience and get by mostly on athletic ability. Most players in the league, though, study video, spend a lot of time in the gym and recognize the easiest way to be noticed by coaches is making a mental mistake. Then there are the elite thinkers in the league who can see the game multiple moves ahead and can execute accordingly and effectively, in large part because they know every little edge you can gain might be the difference between winning and losing.
Rondo was great; he was great. He was playmaking at both ends of the floor, helping us get organized, getting guys shots, hitting his own shots.Luke Walton
To explain just how completely Rajon Rondo falls into the final group of guys who truly think the game, let’s look at the Timberwolves-Lakers game Thursday.
One of those thinking kind of players might have heard Minnesota’s coaches announce a play call and then repeated it back to the Lakers’ coaches for them to prepare the players defensively for what is coming. (Rondo did that.)
One of those guys might have identified another play call via his diligent advance study but quickly double-checked with the Lakers’ coaches that the action would be meant for the right side of the court as opposed to the left. (Rondo did that, too.)
And the best of those thinkers would’ve had numerous other plays where he knew what was coming and immediately took the first option away from the Timberwolves, or he at least would’ve pointed and yelled to teammates to the exact spot on the court where Minnesota was trying to go, or he would’ve emphatically alerted the referees to anything borderline illegal Minnesota was trying, or he would’ve known a veteran player such as Luol Deng’s tendencies from experience and gone over to take it upon himself to slow Deng’s hot streak, or he would’ve trusted the scouting report so deeply that he would’ve been almost insulting about how willing he was to let rookie Josh Okogie (27.7 percent from deep entering the game) take a three-pointer en route to Okogie’s 0-for-7 night from behind the arc.
Rajon Rondo warming up before facing the Timberwolves
(Done, done, done, done, done.)
Consider now for a moment just how thoroughly Rondo might know the Lakers’ own plays, including every nuance and timing mechanism therein—which is the side of the ball where he made an even greater impact Thursday.
“Rondo was great; he was great,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “He was playmaking at both ends of the floor, helping us get organized, getting guys shots, hitting his own shots.”
This is the level of thinking basketball player the Lakers got back from injury Thursday with 15 points, 13 assists, six rebounds, two blocks and one steal that still utterly failed to summarize all that was done, said and led.
Rondo basically qualifies for that highest category of intellectual NBA fan, too, as he’s quite intrigued by a next-stage career in a front office. But so many folks peg him as a future coach—Rondo tied for second place behind Chris Paul in the preseason NBA.com general managers poll for which active player will make the best head coach someday—that it’s hard to get past his advanced ability to think on the floor.
“Makes jobs easier for everyone else,” teammate Ivica Zubac said of Rondo. “Good to have him back.”
Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma pondered the changes to their team late in the offseason and discussed a lineup they thought would work quite well: Rondo, LeBron James and Lonzo Ball playing with Ingram and Kuzma.
The half-joke, half-plan was that B.I. and Kuz could then feast on the pretty passes and gorge themselves with all the shots they could handle.
Yet it certainly hasn’t been Thanksgiving dinner every day of the season for Lakers scorers given the injuries to Rondo, James and now Ball. Walton tried his 13th starting lineup Thursday with Zubac and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope out there where natural scorers Kuzma and Ingram had once visualized James and Ball.
Kuzma and Ingram weren’t complaining, though, because they’d just endured a disappointing second half in Houston on Saturday and a lackluster loss to Golden State on Monday missing all three of Ball, James and Rondo.
Those three Lakers were among only nine names league-wide to receive votes in that aforementioned survey when NBA general managers were asked to choose the best passer in the league. James got half the votes, with Paul second and Rondo, Ben Simmons and John Wall tied for third; Ball, Stephen Curry, James Harden and Ricky Rubio also got votes.
For his part, Rondo moved into 22nd place in all-time regular-season NBA assists (6,715) Thursday. That’s not even taking into account the “Playoff Rondo” character whose flair for delivering in the postseason has become so celebrated because the thinker’s approach leaves a larger imprint when the pace slows in a more careful, deeply scouted playoff game.
Rajon Rondo drives around Minnesota's Jerryd Bayless
Rondo is an outstanding passer, no doubt. He repeatedly put the ball in the hands of guys right on time for them to have advantages over the defense Thursday, even inexperienced guys such as Zubac and Moritz Wagner with whom Rondo hasn’t played much.
But Rondo’s court savvy exponentially elevates his ability to pass. Kuzma flat-out calls Rondo a “genius” in halfcourt offense. Ball has proved his value in a variety of areas this season, but Rondo’s sense of when to alternate patience with pushing tempo Thursday was a stark contrast to the forced shots the Lakers have often gotten lately without James.
A devoted teammate to the point he showed up at the airport to dole out Christmas gifts to the guys despite not joining them for the flight to Sacramento because of his injury the day before, Rondo isn’t one to place blame on others. He is aware of the value he can bring to this team, however—and some of it is what he can do with his body, but a lot of it is what he can do with his mind.
Rondo said he noticed how “lack of execution as far as the game plan” undercut the team’s hopes of winning lately. Walton basically said the same in specifying late Thursday night the need for the team to be “more mentally disciplined.”
“The coaches are doing a great job of giving us the keys to win,” Rondo said. “We’ve just got to sustain it for 48 minutes.”
Related note: In Rondo’s return game, Walton immediately pushed him to log 37 minutes even though his previous season high was 32.
As deeply educational—and downright hilarious, because Rondo’s language often includes the most colorful details—as it has been for the players down at the end of the bench to be sitting next to James and Rondo most of this month, this isn’t the way it was supposed to be.
Rondo, 33 next month, said before the season that his intention was “to instill greatness in these young guys. We’re going to push the (expletive) out of them.”
The Lakers’ objective was to get those young players prepared for playoff execution by learning alongside James and Rondo as they fought and thought through these games all together.
Considering James and Rondo ranked first and third, respectively, in the general managers poll regarding which NBA player has the best basketball IQ, it was hardly a bad plan.
Instead, Rondo has missed more than twice as many games as he has played this season (played 15, missed 34). Twice this season Rondo has undergone surgery—once on his right hand and once on his right ring finger. James is in the midst of his longest injury absence ever with a groin strain.
That’s what I pride myself on: getting guys looks where they’re most comfortable. And being able to deliver.Rajon Rondo
It has certainly been useful experience for guys such as Ingram, Kuzma and Ball to have to figure out some stuff on their own, but it also hasn’t always been pretty. The team’s offensive rating has sunk to the bottom third of the NBA.
In recent weeks, Ingram and Kuzma have often had to try and assemble the Lakers’ offense by themselves … basically while reading the instruction manual in their second language.
“That’s what I pride myself on: getting guys looks where they’re most comfortable,” Rondo said. “And being able to deliver.”
As much as Walton would like to manage expectations now that Rondo is back—“He’s missed a lot of this season,” Walton said—the whole game will come a lot easier the more that Rondo’s teammates can see what Rondo sees.
That process resumed Thursday.
It’s a process that could still dictate how far these Lakers will go.
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.