The Los Angeles Lakers go into the 2018-19 season with the NBA’s most interesting roster for those who like to play mix-and-match with lineups.
LeBron James, of course, drives a lot of that intrigue. He has spent most of his 15-year career as a point guard who is listed at small forward, who sometimes plays power forward and shooting guard and center. The only job LeBron hasn’t taken on yet is that of the sixth man.
But after the Lakers acquired LeBron this summer, their subsequent additions combined with their existing talent made for a curious collection of players.
Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lance Stephenson are three more Lakers who can realistically play up to three positions.
JaVale McGee is an athletic freak who is talented enough to be a starting center in the league, but still would give plenty of coaches pause with his infamous mental mistakes. Josh Hart had a solid rookie season for L.A. and followed it up with a great summer league, but he’s a wing player on a team loaded on the wings. So how much do those two get on the court?
Then there’s the point guard situation.
One year ago, the Lakers took Lonzo Ball with the No. 2 pick in the draft and made it clear that he was meant to be the face of the franchise’s future. Even when Lonzo struggled shooting the ball, when he was benched for the entire fourth quarter of some games, and when injuries limited him to just 52 games last season, Lonzo remained L.A.’s starting point guard.
It was reported even before LeBron joined the Lakers that he wanted to get away from playing de facto point guard so much, therefore his arrival didn’t necessarily mean Lonzo’s days as L.A.’s point guard were over.
But the Lakers’ signing Rajon Rondo made things complicated.
A four-time All-Star who has led the league in assists three times, the 32-year-old Rondo is still one of the best point guards in the league. Last season with the New Orleans Pelicans he was mostly quiet, but then broke out during the playoffs, averaging 10.3 points and 12.2 assists per game and helping the Pelicans upset the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round before falling to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors.
Rondo reminded the basketball world that he’s still a game-changer and still has a lot left in the tank.
When Rondo agreed to join the Lakers on a one-year contract worth $9 million, it gave L.A. three of the best passers on the planet: Lonzo, Rondo and LeBron. The latter two are actually two of the greatest passers the sport has ever seen.
So assuming LeBron sticks to his plan, who is going to be the Lakers’ starting point guard?
Here’s how Rondo and Lonzo stack up.
Prolific scoring is not part of the scouting report for Rondo or Ball. The book on Lonzo is that he’s a willing shooter who too often misses the mark. The book on Rondo is that he avoids shooting whenever possible because he’s made peace with his weaknesses.
Ball scored 10.2 points per game as a rookie, connecting on 36.0 percent of his field goals, 30.5 percent of his three-pointers, and 45.1 percent of his free throws. While normally the free throw shooting would be most alarming, Ball only attempted 1.4 free throws per game. Whereas his 5.7 three-point attempts represented more than half of his shot output, so his lackluster long-range shooting was a running story line throughout the season.
Everybody had theories on what Ball should do to fix his shooting issues. Some said it was his form, some said it was a lack of confidence, some said it was simply a slump that would fix itself in due time. He’s only 20 years old and going into his second NBA season, so it’s not like he’s settled into being whatever he’s going to be as a pro.
Rondo, on the other hand, is what he is at this stage in his career. He’s 32 years old, entering his 13th season in the league. He’s a career 46.3-percent field goal shooter, 30.9 percent beyond the arc, and 60.4 percent at the line. He rarely shoots threes (1.2 attempts per game) and is sometimes cautious to a fault when it comes to pulling the trigger as a shooter.
The strength of these two point guards is their passing and ability to run an offense.
Ball is a brilliant passer. In his one season at UCLA, he led all NCAA Division-1 players with 7.6 assists per game. Last season, he finished second among NBA rookies with 7.2 assists. He had two triple-doubles, and nine double-doubles with points and assists. There’s a reason Lakers president Magic Johnson is so enamored with Lonzo; he really does have that proverbial third eye when it comes to playmaking.
Rondo has that same vision, but his is just a bit better. Chalk it up to experience having been in the NBA much longer, but Rondo is a mastermind at not only making great passes, but also manipulating defenses and orchestrating offenses to get his teammates in the spots he wants to make those passes. Rondo had two triple-doubles and 17 double-doubles (points and assists) last season. He also had two games of 20-plus assists.
If Ball is a passing prodigy, Rondo is an established genius.
By all statistical measures, Ball is a better defender than Rondo.
Last season, Ball averaged 1.7 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, compared to 1.1 steals and 0.2 blocks for Rondo. For his career, Rondo averages 1.7 steals and led the league once with 2.3 steals per game, but in recent years he has not been as prolific in his thievery.
Ball posted 2.5 Defensive Win Shares and a Defensive Box Plus-Minus of 2.5 last season, while Rondo recorded 1.7 and -0.7 in those advanced categories.
Rondo is known for his long arms, but he stands just 6’1″ and is mostly limited to defending other point guards. Ball, at 6’6″ and with room to get stronger, can potentially defend up to three positions.
The Lakers are going to be built around LeBron, and the idea of building a team around a specific player is to play to his strengths and hide his weaknesses.
Given that LeBron will turn 34 years old this season and is going into his 16th pro season, his defense can only be expected to continue to decline. That means L.A. needs to put defenders around him, ideally the kind of long, energetic defenders who can keep up with high-powered offenses like the Warriors and Rockets. Ball fits that profile.
There is already a traveling circus element to these Lakers, and Rondo and Ball each have a hand in that perception.
Rondo has a history of clashing with teammates and coaches, dating back to his time with the Boston Celtics — you can read all about it in Ray Allen’s book From The Outside. It’s no coincidence that he’s now on his fifth team in the five years since Boston first traded him.
Lonzo Ball is by all accounts a great teammate who doesn’t rock the boat … but of course he arrives at the boat with LaVar Ball, his controversial father. One player’s carnival-barker relative should not really be a problem for a professional sports team, but such is the media climate in 2018, where LaVar is a topic the Lakers constantly have to address.
Durability is a concern with both Rondo and Lonzo.
Rondo has missed significant time in recent years with a variety of injuries, while Ball missed 30 games of his rookie season with a knee injury, then had minor surgery on his knee this summer. It’s too early to call Ball injury-prone, however.
The obvious edge in experience goes to Rondo. He has more than a decade under his belt in the league. He’s won a championship and played in over 100 playoff games. He’s played with everyone from Kevin Garnett to Dirk Nowitzki to Anthony Davis. Lonzo plays with a veteran savvy uncommon for someone his age, but he’s really just getting started and there’s a lot he hasn’t seen that he can only learn with time.
Another thing to consider is the contract situation.
Rondo is in L.A. on a one-year deal. It feels like an experiment, given that he hasn’t been with any of his last four teams for more than one season — not to mention this entire Lakers’ season is taking on a trial-and-error vibe. Ball, meanwhile, is still on his rookie contract and could potentially be with the Lakers until 2022 before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. With the Lakers having made a bigger investment in Lonzo, it would make sense to give him the keys to get his chemistry with LeBron, Ingram and Kuzma flowing sooner than later, because that’s the team’s core for the next few years.
Final verdict: Lonzo Ball
For a team that is trying to win right now, Rajon Rondo would seem like the better option at point guard. He’s a championship-experienced veteran who runs an offense better than anyone in the NBA and gets the ball where it needs to be. He also steps his game up in the playoffs to another level.
Lonzo Ball seems like the better option for a rebuilding or rising contender situation, with his age and inexperience and the fact that he’s still working out the kinks in something as basic as his jump shot.
But for these Lakers, the right call is to start Ball, while making sure to give Rondo enough minutes to keep him engaged and motivated.
With LeBron on the team along with scorers like Ingram, Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Michael Beasley, there shouldn’t be much pressure on Lonzo to score. He can focus on doing what he does best, and if the jumper starts to fall, that’s a bonus.
Rondo, a veteran who is aware of his place, hopefully won’t be too salty about coming off the bench. So far he’s saying all the right things, but you never know how a career-long starter will react when he’s actually not in that role anymore. Assuming he’s of the belief that finishing is more important than starting, the Lakers would be smart to have Rondo on the floor in high-pressure, crunch-time situations later in the game — particularly in the postseason.
Rondo may very well be the better overall player right now, but Lonzo is the better option for L.A. as its starter.
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