Saturday, January 29, 2022

Lakers trading Rajon Rondo a step toward fixing offseason mistakes, salvaging season amid disappointing start

The Los Angeles Lakers love Rajon Rondo. This really can’t be overstated. LeBron James frequently monologues about his brilliance. He’s often been used as a security blanket for Anthony Davis when James sits out as the lone Laker guard over the past three seasons to develop meaningful lob chemistry with him. Head coach Frank Vogel left him in the rotation throughout the entire 2019-20 season despite every shred of statistical evidence telling him otherwise because, as he frequently claimed, Rondo had “swag.” James, Davis and Vogel all personally recruited Rondo back to the Lakers this offseason despite already having an overwhelmingly guard-heavy roster. Regardless of his (increasingly limited) value as a player, what can’t be denied is that the Lakers genuinely valued Rondo’s intellect and influence in their locker room.

Despite all that, Rondo is reportedly being traded, essentially for Stanley Johnson. No, those aren’t technically the terms of the trade. Technically, Rondo is getting dealt for the partially-guaranteed contract of Denzel Valentine, who will reportedly be waived. But the Lakers needed to clear a roster spot for Johnson due to their desperate need for forward help and his promising three-game stint in Los Angeles thus far, and making this trade allows them to open a permanent roster spot for him without having to pay Rondo (or the exorbitant tax payments that came with him). The Lakers may try to delay giving him a full-season contract by playing the 10-day game a bit longer, but it certainly appears as though they’ve decided that they’d simply rather have Stanley Johnson on their team than Rajon Rondo.

This isn’t an especially surprising decision in the context of the season. Rondo had largely fallen out of the rotation before COVID-19, and Johnson has looked quite good at a position of weakness in his first three games as a Laker. It’s significantly more notable from the 10,000 foot view. The Lakers made a conscious decision to emphasize prior accomplishments in their offseason moves. They opened the season with seven former All-Stars on the roster, and an eighth in Isaiah Thomas was the first player they signed with a hardship exemption. This isn’t a new phenomenon either. The 2018-19 roster was filled with famous flameouts. The Lakers started their 2020 title defense by dumping one Hall of Famer (Dwight Howard) for another (Marc Gasol), and only months later, they dumped that Hall of Fame for a former All-Star (Andre Drummond). 

The wisdom of that approach has been questioned to death, but the logic was seemingly rooted in reliability. The Lakers wanted big names they could trust in the biggest moments. History suggests that is at least what the team’s power brokers wanted, as it has been a consistent trait of James’ teams. Johnson doesn’t just lack name recognition. He wasn’t even on a roster to open the season. Were it not for COVID-19, his NBA career might have been over. As much basketball sense as Johnson over Rondo might make, it’s antithetical to nearly every other decision this front office has ever made. This sort of move just isn’t in their DNA. 

But 17-19 teams don’t get to stand by their principles, and this is no ordinary 17-19 team. The Lakers are getting nearly peak LeBron James basketball, but none of his teams have been below .500 through 36 games since his rookie season. It is very hard to be as bad as the Lakers have been with a player as good as LeBron has been. They’ve managed it in large part due to poor roster management stemming from those same core principles. The Lakers could have had Johnson over Rondo in August. They could have signed a roster full of low-maintenance role players who might have proven better suited to the task of supporting James than this current group has. They didn’t.

It’s a mistake they’ve just taken a step toward rectifying. It’s a baby step. There’s no telling how many minutes the Lakers can even justify giving a shooter as poor as Johnson outside of the center-free ecosystem they’ve been forced to cultivate without Davis. But it’s a step nonetheless, and it’s one that tells a greater story about the direction this team is taking.

If the Lakers are willing to trade a figure as politically and philosophically important as Rondo, it hints at well-earned desperation. We haven’t seen the Lakers at full strength yet this season, but moves like this suggest that the front office doesn’t need to. Nearly half of the season is in the books. Changes are necessary. One small one has been made. If things don’t improve, the Rondo trade could portend more drastic moves.

The Lakers aren’t exactly well-positioned for an overhaul. They’d struggle to trade Russell Westbrook even if they wanted to. Talen Horton-Tucker loses trade value with each passing game and at the moment, the Lakers have only one tradable first-round pick. GM Rob Pelinka is going to have a hard time pulling a rabbit out of this particular hat. 

But the first step in solving any problem is admitting you have one. The Lakers have done that. If there’s a way to correct the mistakes of this past offseason and turn the 2022 Lakers into a championship team, the front office at least appears ready to search for it. That’s progress, and at 17-19, it’s hard to ask for much more.

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