Why Dion Waiters joining the Lakers could impact Rajon Rondo’s role and Frank Vogel’s internal credibility

Dion Waiters has spent his career as a casualty of contention. The Cleveland Cavaliers were happy to indulge his itchy trigger finger in their lottery years, but determined he could not survive in the LeBron James ecosystem in under three months. The Oklahoma City Thunder scooped him up in the midst of their only lottery season of the decade, rode him to the 2016 Western Conference Finals, and then acquired Victor Oladipo before his free agency. After Oklahoma City renounced his restricted free agent rights, the Miami Heat signed him to replace the greatest player in franchise history only to gleefully replace him four years later with two undrafted free agents in Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson.

It’s a life cycle endemic of the business of basketball. Needs are contextual. Everyone is replaceable. Teams will go to the ends of the earth for even a modest improvement even when they themselves are uncertain of how to create it. Those are the terms under which Waiters is joining a Los Angeles Lakers squad run by Rob Pelinka, who used to be his agent. For once, Waiters, who these days is represented by Rich Paul and Klutch Sports, is the mercenary supplanting an entrenched player in the face of a hole that a contender didn’t trust its incumbents to fill. 

In the Lakers’ case, that hole is their offense when LeBron goes to the bench. Their scoring plummets from 114.1 points per 100 possessions with him in the game to 105 with him out of it. No other Laker pushes the team below 109 upon their absence. The difference between the Lakers with and without LeBron offensively is identical to the difference between the NBA’s No. 1 offense (the Dallas Mavericks, scoring 115.9 points per 100 possessions) and its 24th ranked offense (the Cavaliers at 106.8). The Lakers, pressed by limited options in free agency thanks to their unsuccessful attempt to lure Kawhi Leonard, built a team devoid of secondary shot-creators, turning their bench offense into an unimaginative slog. Possessions often consist of 15-20 seconds of aimless dribbling before Anthony Davis fails to bail them out with late shot-clock post-up. 

The player they’ve relied on to serve that role now has a two-year track record of failing in it. The Lakers have only a 109 offensive rating with Rajon Rondo in the game, the lowest among all of their full-season rotation players. While his poor shooting and distaste for contact were known quantities, the idea behind the signing was his playmaking would at least keep the trains running on time when LeBron sits. 

That hasn’t happened. Rondo’s career-long pursuit of assists over systemically organic passes has metastasized into outright indecisiveness this season. Despite being seventh on the team in minutes per game, he is third in touches per game, and closer to Anthony Davis at No. 2 than Danny Green at No. 4. More distressingly, Rondo averages more dribbles per touch (4.27) than LeBron does (3.82). That incessant need to probe defenses leads to offensive stagnancy and turnovers. His pick-and-rolls are simply aimless. 

Waiters can help in this regard. While hardly the equal of peak Rondo in playmaking skill, he bridges the gap thanks to his scoring. Forget about the 15.8 points per game he scored in his superb 2016-17 season, even the 9.3 he posted in three games with Miami this year, which would place him fifth on the Lakers. His personal numbers in ball-handling settings are a tad underwhelming, but his teams have thrived based on his aggressive mindset. 

Take that 2016-17 season. The Heat scored 1.034 points per 100 possessions on his isolation possessions with passes included—a figure ranking in the 85th percentile league-wide, per Synergy Sports — largely because of how worried defenses were about his scoring. He drew extra help and stole attention that should have gone to his teammates. 

These passes don’t have the degree of difficulty that Rondo’s often do because they don’t need to. Waiters gets to make easy passes because he forces defenses to allow them. That’s the benefit of being a scoring threat. It compromises defenses into allowing far simpler scoring opportunities. All Waiters has to do is make the basic read and his teams get good shots. 

Basic opportunities become significantly harder with Rondo on the floor, with or without James. Those ugly “nothing is developing” post-ups get a lot uglier when he’s involved because his man often views his presence as an invitation to double Davis. 

Doubling Davis with Waiters on the floor is bad business. A 36.8 percent 3-point shooter in parts of four seasons with Miami, Waiters has thrived in the spot-up role he rejected in his first go-around with James. That number, while hardly elite, is more than enough at high volumes to draw defenders, especially considering that skill with the ball. His presence as, functionally, a second-unit point guard has the potential to turn the Lakers’ bench into what it was always meant to be: an engine for Davis to thrive on a spread floor. Waiters, in spacing the floor and making those basic reads, can keep the trains running on time. 

Whether he actually does it comes with all of the variables that led to his free agency in the first place. Waiters is volatile. He’s already flamed out alongside LeBron once. He experienced a panic attack after consuming edibles infused with THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, and forced an early landing from a team flight. This could go sideways in any number of ways. But if it doesn’t, the Lakers have a decision to make. Rondo has failed in the job Waiters was signed to fill. If Waiters proves he can do it, the transfer should be a simple one-for-one proposition. Waiters enters the rotation. Rondo exits it. 

But the Lakers, to this point, have proven unwilling to take that step. Rondo makes the Lakers worse by every objective measure. Their net rating with him on the floor is a paltry plus-1.7 compared to plus-9.6 when he sits. Last season’s gap was even bigger, and in both campaigns the Lakers saw improvement on both sides of the ball with him out. 

When asked about Rondo’s role in the rotation by Silver Screen and Roll’s Harrison Faigen, Vogel acknowledged the statistical case against Rondo without actually posing a real argument in favor of playing him. Instead, he offered platitudes, claiming that Rondo “really impacts the swag and confidence of the group.” Those are the words of a coach attempting to justify the unjustifiable as he navigates a political minefield. 

Rondo is a future Hall of Famer. He has the respect of both James and Davis (whom he played with in New Orleans), and most of what has leaked out of the locker room has been positive. Benching him outright would be a sensitive matter, just as choosing not to retain him, as the Lakers likely considered, would have been in July. 

Management didn’t have the credibility to make that decision then. Rob Pelinka was struggling to pick up the pieces of Magic Johnson’s thoughtless vision, and Vogel had last coached a lottery team in Orlando. Nine months ago, the Lakers were a joke. 

They aren’t now. Pelinka has built a 47-13 juggernaut, and Vogel has quietly built a Coach of the Year case. In doing so, the pair has grown somewhat more aggressive in managing its team. DeMarcus Cousins came to the Lakers with a resume similar to Rondo’s. The Lakers waived him to create room for Markieff Morris, and while he was injured and is still welcome at the team facility, that’s not a move to be made lightly. The choice of Waiters over J.R. Smith, whom James won a championship with in Cleveland, was similarly bold. 

Vogel has built credit with his team amidst this start. Now is the greatest test of how much of it he actually has, and how willing he is to spend it, because for all Waiters can do on a court himself, the most important thing he can do for the Lakers is displace the overwhelmingly harmful player that has been squatting on their roster all season long. Vogel hadn’t had an excuse to remove him from the rotation. He does now.

And if he can use it to get the Lakers to buy into the notion that Rondo’s best role would be as a uniformed assistant coach? Then his authority within his own locker room will be confirmed, and the Lakers can move forward knowing not only that they have the right players taking the floor for them in their championship pursuit, but that they have a coach who is willing and ready to deploy them in the best possible manner no matter what external factors may try to dissuade him. On several occasions, Waiters has been the one excised on the road to contention. Now, his own path to a title boils down to his ability to do so to someone else. 

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