This Lakers’s summer has been full of excitement, anguish, anxiety, and restlessness after so much news and moves around a franchise attempting to return to glory. The 2019-2020 season commences in a month’s time, so finally it is time to preview each player on the roster and discuss what Lakers fans should expect from many new faces and some familiar ones.
Starting with the point guard position, the Lakers have a very interesting direction to choose when it comes to who will be their fifth player when finishing games. We will not know the starting lineup until October 22nd, but LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma and Danny Green can all be sharpied in as part of the lineup during the last eight minutes of a game. That leaves one spot open for either a center (Davis has made it clear he does not want to play center if it can be avoided) or a point guard, and here, the three point guards-by-trade on roster will be dissected as to why or why not they should be the Lakers’ go-to ball-handler during crunch time.
Among this versatile core of ball-handlers returns veteran Rajon Rondo. Most Lakers fans will express disappointment with how Rondo performed last season outside his buzzer-beater to hand the Celtics an L in Boston back in February, but his optimistic supporters will point to the success he had in a first-round series sweep against the Portland Trail Blazers averaging 11.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 13.3 assists per game next to Anthony Davis and pre-achilles tear DeMarcus Cousins.
When the Lakers this summer traded for Anthony Davis and even signed the recovering Cousins to the veteran minimum, those that still had faith in Rondo holding down the starting position had reason to believe that he could return to being more effective and less obstructive this season. Yesterday, Davis even said in an interview with Peter Flax of Redbull Bulletin that Rondo is “a guy that I can count on to get the ball in my sweet spot.” The chemistry these two had built in New Orleans should certainly not be understated.
But for the record, Rondo certainly was more obstructive than effective last season. According to David Locke (@Lockedonsports), Rondo ranked at 76th at his position in terms of plus-minus last season. On this season’s roster, that is the third-worst plus-minus rank by position with only Quinn Cook (97th PG) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (96th SG) turning in worse ranks.
NBC’s Tom Haberstroh also observed that as of March 6th last season, Rondo had the worst plus-minus of all Lakers players when playing with LeBron James. James seemed to gel with just about every other impact player on the roster. Kyle Kuzma was at +82, Josh Hart was at +71, Lonzo Ball was at +52, and even KCP was at +28. Rondo was at a staggering -55.
Now, plus-minus is not the best way to summarize a player’s impact on the court, but a rating that staggering with only a month left to go in the season while every other player seems to be on the same page as the team’s most important player is a trend that cannot go unnoticed. And this number makes sense when considering Rondo’s playstyle and where his skillset is limited.
Though he still possesses an amazing bag of tricks and agility, he is a classic point guard and prefers to pound the ball and search for an assist rather than allow the offense to flow in today’s more and more positionless basketball. This runs the shot clock down, giving his teammates limited time to create a good shot if when he finally passes doesn’t immediately lead to a bucket. And on top of this, he has never been a reliable three-point shooter and his defending ability continues to decline. These traits are the antithesis to the type of personnel General Manager Rob Pelinka has chosen to surround James and Davis with this season.
Maybe Davis will provide a spark in Rondo’s step and help him find some of that peak-Rondo skill we saw two playoffs ago. But until this is proven on the court, Rondo is not the player this team should want at point when the game is on the line.
As just mentioned, Cook’s plus-minus would not favor his chances to be put in an important role for the Lakers this season. But unlike Rondo, he was not brought onto the roster with plans of making him the starter.
Cook is not the ball-handler Rondo is. He is not the dimer Rondo can be. And the 26-year-old is not the floor general Rondo has been over his whole career. But also unlike Rondo, Cook is a fantastic shooter that also has experience being the fourth or fifth option on the court with a championship roster.
In two seasons with the Golden State Warriors, Cook was good for 7.7 points per game shooting 41.8 percent from deep over 16.8 minutes per game. He also put up a reliable free throw percentage of 82.4, miles better than Rondo’s career average of 60.5 percent. This is a player down the stretch that can be trusted to hit his free throws and know how to space the floor when the touches for James and Davis will be especially concentrated.
Unfortunately, the Lakers cannot realistically expect better defending from Cook than Rondo, but he is much younger and his effort on the defensive end is unquestionable. Often, he had to chase and stick with opposing shooters around screens, and so long as he isn’t allowing wide-open scoring opportunities, he should be considered a more viable option on defense that Rondo.
The Lakers investing confidence in Cook to be the ball-handler that can defend, shoot, and take ball-handling pressure off of James where needed seems unlikely, but this does not change the fact that his signing was a step in the right direction in terms of talent to surround James and Davis. He will not be backing up a player of Stephen Curry’s caliber, but expect him to provide effective bench minutes and spacing.
Where one point guard lacks defending and shooting ability and another is not the solution to close games next to James, Davis, Kuzma, and Green, Alex Caruso is a player that has demonstrated reliability in all aspects of skill that are necessary to fit well with James and Davis.
Lakers fans speak very highly of Caruso, even to the point where he has been memed and given nicknames like ‘The Bald Mamba’ or ‘CARUSOGAWD’. A player relatively unknown outside Los Angeles’ fanbase, Caruso is by no means a flashy player with overwhelming ability in any skill in the game. But the skills that this Lakers team would like around James and Davis, like shooting, spacing, and defending, are all those that Caruso has so far shown to be reliable in.
His 6’5 frame is large for the point position. Keep in mind, whoever out of the point guards on the roster that is out on the floor will be charged with sticking the likes of Curry, Damien Lillard, Russell Westbrook, and Chris Paul on a nightly basis, and the list goes on. Danny Green will be busy helping James check the opposing wing players where James and Green are at their best defensively. To expect Rondo to chase those elite point scorers around would be unrealistic, though Cook can certainly eat up minutes and keep up with players of that caliber.
Caruso can be a reliable defender as well as a reliable shooter. Last season, he shot 48 percent from three-point range and saw an even better rate on catch-and-shoot opportunities at 52 percent. That last stat is especially important for the Lakers to consider down the stretch when they need somebody on the court who can check the opposing point guard and provide a real threat to help defenders on the perimeter when James or Davis are working in isolation.
Beyond defending and shooting, he should also be trusted in the same echelon as Cook to knock down his free throws as he posted a 79.7 percentage last season. On two-way contracts his first two seasons, he saw a six minute increase in his minutes per game last season and in effect improved from giving 3.6 points and 2.0 assists per game to producing 9.2 points and 3.1 assists per game.
What causes apprehension when deciding whether Caruso should be trusted to be the answer at the point guard position is the fact that he has only played in 62 NBA games his first two seasons. This is a result of the limitation under a two-way contract. Players can only play so many games in the NBA. Perhaps that is all that is holding him back from becoming a known name across the league. This offseason, he signed a 2-year, $5.5 million contract to finally become a full-time NBA player.
Because James, Davis, Kuzma, and Green can all be safely assumed to be four of the five players on the floor to finish games, the Lakers will have an interesting decision to make as to who that final position is filled by. Caruso has done everything in his limited time to show the team that he can be that guy, but the fact remains that his limited time does not help his case.
What is more is that this final position down the stretch may not be filled with a point guard at all. James has dominated the ball most of his career and obviously the Lakers would prefer the ball to be in his or Davis’ hands as much as possible in crunch time, so that final position may even be filled by centers like Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee as Davis prefers to play the four.
Keep a lookout for next week’s preview where Los Angeles’ options at center will be discussed.