Most practice-day press conferences during the NBA Finals are forgotten as soon as the next game ends. But in 2018, with his Cleveland Cavaliers about to get swept, LeBron James delivered a revealing four-minute soliloquy about team-building, basketball intelligence, and his idea of a quintessential teammate that I still think about sometimes.
One line that seems simple enough on the surface has, to me, always stood out: “Listen, we’re all NBA players,” James said. “Everybody knows how to put the ball in the hoop. But who can think throughout the course of the game?”
Rajon Rondo — who, coming off a bounce-back campaign alongside Anthony Davis on the New Orleans Pelicans, had never been LeBron’s teammate — was mentioned twice during this answer. A brain like Rondo’s, one that instantaneously evaluates basketball action while responding then influencing it, was, in the abstract, exactly what James wanted.
A few months later they were both on the Los Angeles Lakers. Structural fit be damned. But just like most predicted, it was a disaster. The Lakers looked like a bottom feeder when both shared the court. Their offense went from fourth-worst to about league average with LeBron by himself. The 3-time MVP’s individual numbers were unaffected, but spacing issues and defensive indifference seemingly prevented both to co-exist on the same team at the same time.
Fast forward to this season — in particular this week — and things are very different. Davis is onboard, the Lakers are a steamroller, and Rondo and LeBron have, so far, looked pretty damn good together. Here’s what James said about it after LA went into Salt Lake City on the second night of a back-to-back and hammered the Utah Jazz by 25 points.
“He’s shown why we brought him back and why he wanted to come back and why I wanted him back. He’s just one of the most cerebral players I’ve ever played against in the past...I know what he’s capable of, I know what his brain is thinking. I’m able to…it’s not so many guys that you can actually play the game without saying anything to them, and me and Do kinda have that chemistry because we kinda be on the same page, so it’s a beautiful thing.”
Rondo finished with 14 points, 12 assists, and nine rebounds in the win, but more importantly, this is what that chemistry looks like:
James and Rondo don’t spend nearly as much time together this season as they did last year, which makes sense. On this roster, Rondo essentially functions as LeBron’s backup. But in a dozen games since Rondo’s season debut in mid-November, the two have discovered different ways to help each other out, especially against opposing second units at the start of every second and fourth quarter.
The most straightforward has been in the pick-and-roll, a tidy way to mitigate any spacing issues. By putting the ball Rondo’s hands, defenses are forced to answer a question that has no answer: How do we stop LeBron as a roll man?
In its simplest form, the play lets Rondo get to his bread-and-butter: shoulder-to-shoulder drives at LeBron’s man that force help and lead to beneficial kick outs. Defenses still don’t want Rondo getting downhill, and he knows it.
Defenses can’t trap Rondo because it allows LeBron to surgically operate with a 4-on-3 advantage, so sometimes they switch, which also plays right into LA’s hands. Even with help, putting a smaller defender on LeBron remains a death sentence. Here’s an example from earlier this week against the Denver Nuggets. James gets Monte Morris on him, waits for Nikola Jokic to show help, swings baseline, and finds Dwight Howard on the lob.
Here the Nuggets avoid a switch, hedging instead with Mason Plumlee. But the ball still ends up in LeBron’s hands heading towards the rim with his own defender behind him.
Their timing isn’t perfect just yet but the Lakers are still +52 in 147 minutes with LeBron and Rondo on the floor, and Frank Vogel has tried to give those two as many alternate weapons, in space, as he can. Either Davis or Howard is plugged in as an indispensable lob threat, while two of Alex Caruso, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, or Kyle Kuzma spots up along the perimeter. The pieces make sense, as does letting Rondo trigger the action instead of LeBron.
But there are a few caveats worth mentioning. To start, even though the Lakers’ offense performs at a top-10 level with Rondo and LeBron, they’re still +2.5 points per 100 possessions more efficient when it’s just LeBron running the show. The sample size on all of this is still pretty small, and when Davis, LeBron, and Rondo are all together the offensive return has been disappointing.
Defenses still leave Rondo alone when he doesn’t have the ball, and he won’t shoot 50 percent from beyond the arc all season long, nor will Rondo-LeBron lineups continue to drill 40 percent of their tries from downtown. More evidence is needed before we can picture Rondo and LeBron closing crunch time of a playoff series, side by side.
But for almost all of the LeBron/Rondo success to occur in the halfcourt as opposed to transition is a reason to be bullish. Their collective brain power is a weapon that can be observed in real time. So far it’s been close to everything James envisioned as he sat up at that podium two Junes ago, humbled and pleading for a teammate like Rondo to fall in his lap.