The Clippers have been rumored to be in the market for an additional playmaker ever since they signed Kawhi Leonard and Paul George back in July 2019. Those rumors reached a crescendo as the Clippers went through their February funk, specifically since the team’s offense stalled during crunch time of marquee games.
Even though the Clippers have seemingly rebounded from that lull, the front office’s thirst for a veteran guard to shepherd the team apparently did not dissipate, thus, the move to acquire Rajon Rondo, who is in his 15th NBA season.
The parameters of the deal are interesting, because the Clippers had to send assets along with Lou Williams — a Portland second-round pick in 2023 and LA’s own 2027 second-rounder — and they also lost a little bit of maneuvering room under the hard cap since Rondo’s incentives make his cap number $250,000 higher than that of Williams.
That indicates that the Clippers valued Rondo more than Williams, so let’s figure out why.
Rondo has not been good in the regular season for some time. He’s had a negative net rating in the regular season for nine of the last 11 seasons, per NBA.com, and the Hawks were 9.2 points per 100 possessions better with him off the court this season. He tends to dribble the air out of the ball, limiting transition opportunities, and his individual offense — specifically his shooting — isn’t enough of a threat for defenses to respect in the half court. Rondo also has a high turnover rate, which further diminishes his offensive utility, and he never gets fouled.
What Rondo has done well is throw lob passes, which could make for a fun pairing with Ivica Zubac, his former teammate with the Lakers for about half of a season. The two had a net rating of plus-6.1 in their 185 minutes together in 2018-19.
Defensively, Rondo has great instincts and is a steal fiend. He has been lauded throughout the league for his basketball IQ, and that manifests itself in the fact that he knows what every team is going to run. The problem is that he gambles and gets caught behind the play, and he also dies on screens. Intelligence only goes so far when it isn’t matched by effort.
But the Clippers didn’t make this move with regular-season output in mind. They made this trade to get Playoff Rondo. And as silly as it sounds for a player to morph into an entirely new version of himself in the postseason, that’s essentially what Rondo has done. Other than one disastrous stint in Dallas when the other Mavericks voted not to give Rondo his playoff share, Rondo has been a positive player in every postseason.
During the 2020 playoffs as a member of the Lakers, Rondo once again performed his transformation act. He shot 40 percent on threes after being below 33 percent during the regular season, and a lot of them were self-created pull-ups. He also had extra verve as a driver and put pressure on the basket in the half court. That’s not to mention his best skill, his passing; Rondo set a playoff record with 105 assists off the bench despite missing the entire first round. Rondo bought in on defense, too, regularly picking the pocket of James Harden during the conference semifinals, the series when he had the greatest impact. He’s only 6’1, but Rondo has a 6’9 wingspan and large hands, giving him the ability to guard bigger players well.
More than anything, Rondo had a way of keeping the Lakers organized, whether LeBron James was on the court or not. When the Lakers were down one at the end of Game 2 of the conference finals, they brought Rondo in to make the pass for the game-winning shot. Frank Vogel said that Rondo had a “swag” that he couldn’t calculate, and for a franchise like the Clippers that often feels haunted by the demons of its past, that savvy could go a long way.
Ty Lue knows what Rondo brings to a team. Lue was with the Boston Celtics from 2009-13, and the two reportedly had a good relationship there, which is what inspired this reunion. Markieff Morris had glowing comments about Rondo last season, and it’s safe to say he’ll share those compliments with his twin brother Marcus. People around the league like Rondo, judging by the reaction to this trade Thursday afternoon. He should be a strong fit in the locker room.
The Clippers can get by in the regular season with Luke Kennard and Terance Mann assuming Williams’ minutes in the event it takes Rondo until the playoffs to warm up. This move doesn’t help their depth, but that is of less consequence during the postseason. Leonard has talked all season about how the Clippers have to be smarter, and that’s a moniker that’s been applied to Rondo his entire career.
Looking at Rondo’s numbers on Atlanta this season is a bit of a gut punch. He’s been objectively terrible and not even durable. It’s fair to wonder if Rondo’s annual hand injury absence is on the horizon as well. Bringing in a player with this current level of production is a head-scratcher.
But the Clippers have telegraphed that they’re playing the long game, that they worship at the altar of Playoff Rondo, and that they believe in his veteran leadership paying dividends later on this year. It’s a reasonable gamble, and it wasn’t a terribly high price to pay considering the legitimate fears about Williams’ ability to hold up in the playoffs.
The Clippers have a well-constructed roster that is ready to compete for a championship with or without Rondo. He just might be that cherry on top of the sundae, the little extra magic to take them to the next level. That’s why the team made this move.