Sunday, January 23, 2022

Rajon Rondo trade grades: Lakers clear spot to improve roster; Cavs replace Ricky Rubio with veteran guard

The Cleveland Cavaliers have been one of the best stories of this strange NBA season, and as the calendar turns to 2022 they sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference at 20-14. But earlier this week they suffered a major loss when veteran point guard Ricky Rubio went down with a torn ACL that will keep him out for the rest of the season. In need of another point guard — in particular, a veteran to help with their young roster — the Cavaliers have made a deal with the Los Angeles Lakers to acquire Rajon Rondo, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic. Cleveland is sending Denzel Valentine to Los Angeles for Rondo, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The Lakers are reportedly expected to waive Valentine to create an open roster.

Rondo, who entered the league’s health and safety protocols on Dec. 26, has struggled so far with the Lakers, putting up just 3.1 points and 3.7 assists per game on 32.4 percent shooting from the field and 26.7 percent shooting from 3-point land. At this stage of his career, he isn’t the most exciting acquisition and will be a downgrade on Rubio. But the Cavaliers don’t have too many options in the middle of the season, and Rondo will at least bring some similar qualities. He’s still a capable defender who will fit in with the Cavaliers’ defense-first style, and will always be able to run an offense. 

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Rondo is excited about the chance to play a bigger role with an emerging Cavs team, per Wojnarowski. He’s reportedly viewed the trade in a positive light ever since it’s been mentioned to him. Even if Rondo can bring some of the same skills, it will be difficult for him to replicate Rubio’s impact. The Cavaliers have been much better with Rubio on the court this season. 

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There are also the intangibles that Rubio brings in terms of leadership and camaraderie. 

“I think this team is so close, so it’s like an extended family member goes down and it just pains you,” Kevin Love said after Rubio was injured. “It just hurts to see anyone go down, but especially a guy like Ricky, who has been so consistent for us and brings so much to this team for so many different reasons.”

Now with Rondo joining the team, it will be interesting to see if the Cavaliers can remain at the top of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They are also already without Collin Sexton for the season due to a torn meniscus, which will put extra responsibility on young guard Darius Garland to lead the way in the backcourt. 

As for the Lakers, it’s not surprising that they moved Rondo. Not only has he played poorly this season, he doesn’t fit on this roster. Moving him opens up a roster spot that they could use on another shooter or more frontcourt depth. Here’s how both sides graded in the deal:

Lakers receive:

Cavaliers receive: 

Los Angeles trade grade: A-

This is a very simple calculus for the Lakers. They wanted to clear a roster spot. Doing so by waiving Rondo would have left them with roughly $7 million in dead money between his salary and the luxury tax. By trading him for the partially-guaranteed Valentine, that figure is cut nearly in half to roughly $3.7 million, according to HoopsHype’s Yossi Gozlan. This is a Lakers team that let Alex Caruso walk because of the tax. Savings like this matter, especially if they’re going to pursue upgrades elsewhere at the deadline. The Lakers got those savings by trading a player in Rondo who had fallen out of the rotation before COVID forced their hand. They can now use this roster spot to retain Stanley Johnson, who has played well on a 10-day contract for them at a position of need in forward. Essentially, swapping Rondo for Johnson at minimal cost is a free upgrade so long as Johnson maintains his recent productivity.

Cleveland trade grade: C

Cleveland couldn’t have lost Rubio at a worse time. In a normal season, the Cavs might have signed a free-agent point guard to serve as a stopgap backup while they sought out a longer-term solution … but the league-wide COVID outbreak significantly drained the available talent pool. That made Rondo perhaps their best short-term option, and that’s not saying much. Rondo has been ineffective this season and hasn’t been even an average regular-season player since at least the 2017-18 season. Cleveland probably shouldn’t expect much of Rondo for the long haul, and should continue to seek out upgrades in other trades, but this deal didn’t even cost the Cavs a second-round pick. It’s an ultimately harmless move that gets them a better stand-in than they could have found in free agency. Rondo isn’t ideal, but he’s better than nothing.

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