Without an Elite Point Guard, LA Lakers Need to Get Creative

Los Angeles Lakers guard Rajon Rondo, middle, celebrates his game-winning shot with teammates LeBron James (23) and Kyle Kuzma (0), in an NBA basketball game against the Boston Celtics, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019, in Boston. The Lakers won 129-128. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t land Kyrie Irving in free agency. D’Angelo Russell and Kemba Walker landed elsewhere. While most of the elite teams in the league have a top-flight point guard, the Lakers do not.

Of course, they did acquire Anthony Davis, who will join LeBron James, and those two alone should be enough to make the Lakers a contender in the Western Conference. But the biggest question heading into the team’s training camp is the point guard position.

Incumbent Rajon Rondo may get the starting nod based on reputation and experience. Despite his championship pedigree and 13 years in the league, Rondo may not be the best fit.

Specifically, Rondo is at his best with the ball in his large hands, but James is one of the best playmaking forwards in NBA history. Any point guard playing with James is going to need to play well off the ball (especially as a shooter) and defend the opposing 1.

Yes, Dwyane Wade and Irving won titles as ball-dominant guards next to James, but at 33 years old, Rondo isn’t close to Wade or Irving in their primes.

The biggest concern was Rondo’s 113.3 defensive rating last year through 46 games played, which contributed to a poor net rating of minus-8.6, per NBA.com.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

In comparison, Alex Caruso had a 102.4 defensive rating with a 3.2 net rating through 25 appearances. That’s not to say Caruso should be starting over Rondo, but if the third-year guard can build off his success as a sophomore, Rondo’s pedigree shouldn’t put him ahead of a more productive player.

Of course, the Lakers could just start James at the point, which was the team’s “intention,” per Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes in July, but that doesn’t change the need for a shooter who can defend against opposing guards. Under just about any circumstance, James should not be forced to chase around the fastest guards in the league all season.

Coach Frank Vogel commented on Friday at Lakers media day that rotation spots (including starting roles) are up for grabs. If James takes on the primary ball-handling responsibility, the Lakers could start Avery Bradley as a defensive option at the 1. Bradley, who has played most of his career as an undersized (6’2″) off-guard, was a defensive standout for the Celtics but hasn’t been as consistent on that end of the floor since leaving Boston after the 2016-17 season.

Bradley noted that he’s healthy and in great shape heading into the season, suggesting that his recent slippage (notably with the Clippers last season before a midseason trade to the Memphis Grizzlies) was injury-related. Over 63 games played, Bradley’s defensive rating was 110.2 with a net of minus-1.5. He would need to improve those numbers significantly to be a starter.

Bradley also needs to show that his ball-handling and decision-making are up to par, even in a secondary role with James. Other guard options like Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope don’t pass the eye test—neither should be making regular decisions while dribbling the ball under pressure. Troy Daniels is another capable shooter (40.0 percent on his career from three), but he’ll need to show he can defend and handle if he wants minutes at the point.

While James can and will dominate the ball (unselfishly), he shouldn’t be the only player capable of handling it. Otherwise, teams will throw tremendous defensive pressure to either wear James down or force a less-skilled player to initiate the offense.

Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

Quinn Cook could provide another viable option in addition to Rondo, Caruso and Bradley. After spending the last two years with the Golden State Warriors, hitting 44.2 percent and 40.5 percent from deep, respectively, Cook should be the best shooting option at the position. The biggest concern with the 26-year-old guard would be his 112.1 defensive rating last season (and minus-6.3 net rating). He was better through 2017-18 (108.4) but still a net negative (-2.2). Like Caruso, Cook has yet to play starters minutes over a full season.

Shooting is a premium, and Cook could significantly change the game for the Lakers.

Rondo came into the league a poor shooter but has improved in recent years, hitting 35.9 percent from three-point range last season. Bradley shot just 33.7 percent from deep through 49 games with the Clippers but jumped to a solid 38.4 percent over 14 with the Grizzlies (36.4 percent career).

Caruso could be the compromise, as he’s arguably the best defender of the three (at least by defensive rating) and an improved shooter (48.0 percent from deep on just 2.0 attempts per game last year). But is Caruso an everyday starting NBA point guard?

It’s worth noting that statistics like defensive rating are contextual. Health, talent, scheme and individual growth could make any previous numbers immaterial.

That’s for Vogel to sort through during training camp and into the season until he finds the ideal combinations.

“We have the ability to achieve the ultimate prize. We have the resume, the experience, the talent to do it—but it’s not going to happen if we don’t come together,” Vogel said Friday, unofficially opening the 2019-20 season.

Part of that challenge is sorting through a top-heavy roster to forge a viable rotation with seven guards, four forwards and two centers (not including rookies and two-way players). He’s already begun to experiment with Bradley in the first unit. Until then, the Lakers may need to employ a point-guard-by-committee approach. 

   

Email Eric Pincus at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.