The hits keep on coming for the Los Angeles Lakers who announced they will be without Rajon Rondo for up to two months after the veteran point guard fractured his thumb over the weekend.
It's the latest setback in the backcourt for a team already without starting point guard Avery Bradley who opted out of playing in the restart in Orlando. The injury to Rondo leaves the Lakers relatively shorthanded in the backcourt as they will now rely on a group consisting of Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, JR Smith, Dion Waiters and Quinn Cook.
Rondo's injury brings to the forefront several major questions concerning the team many consider the favourites to win the NBA title. Here are six major questions facing the Lakers following the injury to Rondo.
What was Rondo's impact on the Lakers?
Before getting into the downstream dominoes, let's first focus on Rondo himself.
There's no question that the 34-year-old is well past his prime with limited consistent impact. He's never been a plus shooter and though once a strong defender, he hasn't provided much more resistance than a traffic cone in quite some time.
The shooting is about far more than his own percentages. On the surface, Rondo's shooting numbers aren't that bad. Case in point? He's making 39% of his catch-and-shoot 3s this season, essentially the same or better than Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, Jayson Tatum or Bogdan Bogdanovic. But as with everything, the devil is in the details.
Not only do defenders not respect Rondo as a shooter, they straight up ignore him. Of his 125 3-point attempts this season, none of them have come with a defender within four feet, while 94 of them have come with no defender within at least six feet. For all intents and purposes, those catch-and-shoot numbers for Rondo are about as close as it comes to simulating performance in an empty gym. The result is significantly less spacing, which when compounded with Rondo's propensity to hold on to the ball - he averages more dribbles per touch than LeBron James - leads to offensive stagnation.
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Take for instance what happens whenever James and Anthony Davis share the floor.
In the 1,200 minutes they've played together without Rondo, the offence has hummed to the tune of 114.3 points per 100 possessions. Add Rondo the mix and that floor falls out from beneath everything as the offensive rating plummets all the way to 92.6. Is some of it in part due to small sample sizes? Perhaps. There's only 117 total minutes to go off of. But the numbers emphatically hammer home what the eyes suggest, leading to the relatively safe assumption in this case that where there's smoke, there's fire.
Although Rondo himself hasn't been great, there is still value in soaking up minutes. Had the team already not lost Avery Bradley for the restart in Orlando, there's a chance the Rondo injury wouldn't cause as much of a dent. But with the Lakers now down two point guards, pressure starts to build on an already perilously thin group.
Is LeBron unquestionably now a point guard?
I'm of the strong belief that LeBron - at least for this season - should count as a guard.
And it goes well beyond the low-hanging fruit that he leads the league in assists.
Fundamentally, his role on the Lakers offensively is that of a point guard. He brings the ball up. He initiates offence. He ranks third and sixth, respectively, in the NBA in touches and total time spent in possession of the ball. For the season, James has had the ball in his hands nearly twice as often as Bradley and Rondo... combined! His 62.7 passes per game dwarfs that of any other player on the team (Rondo is second at 39.3). He's not even his team's leading scorer, an honour that for the first time in his career is bestowed onto one of his teammates.
Offensively, if you were to map out the responsibilities of a point guard, James checks every box.
That was BEFORE the Lakers bid adieu to their top two point guards in the rotation.
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About the only thing he doesn't do is defend point guards. According to Krishna Narsu's wizardry with analyzing the NBA's tracking data, James has spent just 12% of his time on the floor defending point guards, which is actually a drop from the two previous seasons. Although that's unlikely to change much even with the absence of both Rondo and Bradley, it shouldn't fundamentally alter how we think of his role on the floor.
Generally speaking, when talking all-time point guards nobody ever instinctively gravitates towards "well, did they defend other point guards?" They talk about passing. About playmaking. About leadership. About controlling the game. About all of the things that LeBron has been tasked with doing on this Lakers team since Day 1 and which will only go up once the ball tips in Orlando.
Can KCP and Green hold up in outsized roles?
With no Bradley and Rondo, it's safe to say that the Lakers will be relying heavily - at least to start - on the backcourt duo of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green.
The Lakers signed Green in part due to his championship experience and proven floor-stretching ability on the big stage. He's a dependable veteran guard that will absolutely be on the floor in the highest leverage situations.
But he's also 33 years old and not once in his career has averaged over 30 minutes per game. In fact, only once in his career has he topped 30 minutes a game for a postseason and that came all the way back in 2013 with the San Antonio Spurs. It's fair to question how Green would hold up if suddenly tasked with playing 35 or even 40 minutes a night.
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As for KCP, he may be a veteran but he is a relative stranger to the spotlight of the postseason. He's only been once previously (back in 2016 with the Detroit Pistons) and while he did play very well, his team also got swept by LeBron's Cavs. Say what you want about Rondo's lack of impact during the regular season, but he's a player who certainly wouldn't be nervous over the course of an extended run. Do we know that's the case for Caldwell-Pope?
Throughout the season, they've averaged about 11 minutes per game on the floor together while only one five-man lineup featuring those two (James, Davis and JaVale McGee) has logged over 50 minutes. Chances are, we're about to see a whole lot more KCP and Green.
Who else emerges in the backcourt?
Unless the Lakers do roll heavy with Caldwell-Pope and Green, they will at some point need contributions from others in the backcourt.
Which means Alex Caruso, J.R. Smith, Dion Waiters and Quinn Cook could be extended major roles.
Caruso is the safe bet and there are some (myself included!) who think it should be him and not KCP in the starting lineup. An explosive finisher and much better than advertised defender, good things simply happen when Caruso has been on the floor. The Lakers' defence has been 6.4 points per 100 possessions better with him in the game this season, the best mark of anyone on the team. And the overall swing in net rating is second among all Lakers behind only one Mr. LeBron James. Caruso's cult following could go mainstream if he plays well for a contender desperately in need of backcourt help. But again.. is Caruso, who has never played in the postseason, ready for that?
Both Smith and Waiters represent somewhat of "break glass in case of emergency" options. That time could come sooner rather than later.
Smith hasn't played in over a year and the last time we did see him over an 11-game stretch in 2018-19 with the Cavaliers, he shot poorly and nearly averaged as many turnovers as made 3s per game. Yes, he's battled next to LeBron on the big stage, but it's fair to question if the days of Smith as a reliable option in big spots has long since passed.
Then there's Waiters who himself has played in all of three games this season. Like Smith, Waiters won't hesitate if his name is indeed called upon. Whether or not that's a good or bad thing is up for debate, but again, he certainly doesn't strike the same "dependable 3-and-D" vibe ala Danny Green that you'd ideally want filling out the margins. Can Waiters do the little things asked of him?
Cook was pressed into duty in last year's Finals following a series of devastating injuries to the Golden State Warriors, but has been unable to carve out a consistent role with the Lakers. Now that they are suddenly in need, could Cook be a player suddenly relied upon for 10-15 minutes at a time to come in, spot up and harass opposing point guards?
Will the Lakers go big?
OK, so there are backcourt concerns.
What if the solution is to just ignore traditional convention and opt for a supersized approach? It runs counter to the popular notion that the team is at its best with Anthony Davis at the 5. And when fully healthy, that's still a devastating look that I'm not quite sure any team has much of an answer for.
But the backcourt doubts do raise the specter of a world in which Frank Vogel simply decides to play his best players regardless of fit.
That means JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard in the middle alongside Davis and James.
But could that also mean experimenting with Kyle Kuzma or even Markieff Morris at the two? How would a lineup of, say, James, Green, Kuzma, Davis and Howard hold up? It seemed ludicrous that the Houston Rockets could ever decide to just play without any bigs but what if the Lakers decided to do the opposite?
There's not much speed. There's not much shooting. And it would place an onus on Kuzma especially to become a capable knockdown threat. But it's a card the Lakers could experiment with if pressed into playing.
How vulnerable are the Lakers in the first round?
As it stands, the timeline for a Rondo return looks to be the second round - assuming, of course, the Lakers get there.
But could the loss of both point guards elevate the chances of an early upset to the degree that it's worth considering? It might depend on who they play.
Among the possible first round opponents, perhaps the team with the best opportunity to take an advantage of the Lakers' backcourt predicament could be the Portland Trail Blazers, who trot out Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. Would KCP and Green be able to hold up against those two? Would James himself slide down to guard one of them? One of the compelling reasons to keep an eye on the Blazers is they are also receiving massive upgrades in the frontcourt in the form of Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins. Those two in addition to Hassan Whiteside gives Portland as formidable a frontcourt as anyone with multiple options to throw at Davis. While James might have a field day against Portland's own thin group of perimeter bigs, would it be offset by the potential for a big series by Lillard and McCollum?
Put another way: other than the Rockets, is there a team in the entire NBA better suited to take advantage of the Lakers' issues isn't the backcourt? From where I'm standing the answer is no and it just so happens to be the one team that could be standing before the Lakers come playoff time.
The calculus with the other first-round opponents doesn't change much.
Neither Jrue Holiday nor Lonzo Ball are suddenly going to take the scoring reigns for the New Orleans Pelicans while Ja Morant and the very young Memphis Grizzlies might not have the horses to keep up. The Sacramento Kings offer up an intriguing backcourt blend with De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic but are ill-equipped elsewhere to stop Davis and James. The Pelicans in particular present an interesting matchup, but it's not one that changes a whole lot based on the absence of Rondo.
The odds are certainly strong that the Lakers get past the first round without much issue. But a potential date with Lillard and McCollum suddenly looks a little more worrisome than it did previously.
Are the Lakers still the favourites?
It's in the eye of the beholder.
If you were in the camp that the Lakers were the favourites to win it all before, the injury to Rondo probably doesn't move the needle enough to change that.
If you were in the camp that the Lakers were already in trouble, the injury to Rondo likely turns up the intensity in that belief. It's hard to find a team that's truly contended for the NBA title with a group of guards this underwhelming. The closest thing that comes to mind is the 2015 Cavaliers following the injury to Kyrie Irving which left them going to war with Matthew Dellavedova and Iman Shumpert. But that of course didn't happen until after they reached the NBA Finals. Would they have gotten there without Kyrie? That's another debate for another day.
At the end of the day, it boils down to LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Either those two are enough and the rest is simply noise.
Or the Rondo injury is yet another broken beam in the walls of a house relying far too heavily on two pillars.
The views expressed here do not represent those of the NBA or its clubs.