Lakers trade step towards correcting offseason mistakes with Rajon Rondo, save season amid disappointing start

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Los Angeles Lakers to like Rajon Rondo. It really cannot be overstated. LeBron James frequently monologue about his genius. He was often used as a safety blanket for Anthony Davis when James was the Lakers’ lone guard for the past three seasons to develop significant lob chemistry with him. Head coach Frank Vogel left him in the rotation throughout the 2019-20 season despite all the statistical evidence telling him otherwise because, as he has often claimed, Rondo had “swag”. James, Davis and Vogel all personally recruited Rondo for the Lakers during the offseason, despite already having an extremely heavy roster of guards. Regardless of his (increasingly limited) value as a player, what one cannot deny is that the Lakers really appreciated Rondo’s intellect and influence in their dressing room.

Despite all of this, Rondo would be traded, essentially for Stanley Johnson. No, these are not technically the terms of trade. When the dust settles, Rondo will be sent to Cleveland for what will surely be a heavily protected second-round pick. But the Lakers had to clear a spot for Johnson due to their desperate need for advanced help and his promising three-game stay in Los Angeles so far, and making that trade allows them to open up a permanent spot for him without have to pay Rondo (or the exorbitant taxes accompanying him). The Lakers may try to delay granting a full-season contract by playing the 10-day game a little longer, but it certainly looks like they’ve decided they’d rather just have Stanley Johnson on their squad rather than Rajon Rondo.

It’s not a particularly surprising decision in the context of the season. Rondo was largely out of the rotation ahead of COVID-19, and Johnson looked pretty good in a weak position in his first three games as a Laker. It is much more remarkable from the 10,000 foot view. The Lakers have made a conscious decision to focus on past achievements in their offseason moves. They opened the season with seven former All-Stars on the roster, and an eighth to Isaiah Thomas was the first player they signed with a hardship exemption. It is not a new phenomenon either. The 2018-19 list was filled with famous extinctions. The Lakers began their 2020 title defense by relinquishing one Hall of Fame (Dwight Howard) for another (Marc Gasol), and a few months later they relinquished that Hall of Fame for a former All-Star (Andre Drummond).

The wisdom of this approach was deathly questioned, but the logic was apparently rooted in reliability. The Lakers wanted big names they could trust at the biggest times. History suggests that’s at least what the powerful on the team wanted, as it has always been a hallmark of James’ teams. Johnson is not just lacking in notoriety. He wasn’t even on a list to open the season. Without COVID-19, his NBA career could have been over. As much of the basketball sense Johnson over Rondo might have, it’s the antithesis of almost every other decision this front office has ever made. This kind of movement is just not in their DNA.

But 17-19 teams don’t live up to their principles, and this is no ordinary 17-19 team. The Lakers get almost the most basketball from LeBron James, but none of his teams have been under 0.500 in 36 games since their rookie season. It’s very difficult to be as bad as the Lakers were with a player as good as LeBron. They managed it in large part because of poor roster management that stemmed from those same basic principles. The Lakers could have had Johnson against Rondo in August. They could have signed a full roster of low-maintenance players who might have proven to be better suited to the task of supporting James than this current squad. They did not do it.

It is a mistake that they have just taken a step to rectify. It’s a small step. It’s unclear how many minutes the Lakers can even justify giving a shooter as poor as Johnson out of the centerless ecosystem they were forced to cultivate without Davis. But it’s still a step, and it’s a step that says a lot about the direction this team is taking.

If the Lakers are willing to trade a character as politically and philosophically important as Rondo, it hints at some well-deserved desperation. We haven’t seen the Lakers at full throttle yet this season, but moves like this suggest the front office doesn’t need them. Almost half of the season is on the books. Changes are needed. A little has been done. If things don’t improve, Rondo’s trade could portend more drastic moves.

The Lakers aren’t exactly in a good position for a redesign. They would have a hard time trading Russell Westbrook even if they wanted to. Talen Horton-Tucker is losing market value with every 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 fixing any problem is admitting that you have one. The Lakers did it. If there is a way to correct the mistakes of the past offseason and turn the 2022 Lakers into a championship team, the front office seems at least ready to look for it. It’s progress, and at 17-19 it’s hard to ask for much more.

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