The Los Angeles Lakers might have a Rajon Rondo problem, though it isn’t the one most would have anticipated during the bulk of the regular season. Now, with Dennis Schroder on the way via a trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Rondo’s time with the Lakers could be coming to a bittersweet end.
For much of the 2019-2020 campaign, Rondo’s flaws were on full display. Teams didn’t bother defending him on the perimeter, knowing that his 3-point shooting was nothing to fear, and he rated as one of the worst defenders on the team.
That guy, regular season Rondo, would probably struggle to secure a roster spot in the NBA this season, especially since he spent the three months leading up to the NBA’s shutdown in March shooting 26% from three.
Still, the one thing providing hope was the legend of Playoff Rondo, that somehow, his game takes off when the lights grow brighter.
Rondo missed the first round of the playoffs due to a broken thumb but returned for the second round against the Houston Rockets. After a tough Game 1, Rondo exploded and became a significant contributor in the title push.
For the playoffs, he knocked in 40% of his threes while averaging 6.6 assists and 1.4 steals. Rondo was a steadying presence for the Lakers during high-pressure moments, like when head coach Frank Vogel entrusted Rondo to throw the inbounds pass that would lead to Anthony Davis’ historic 3-pointer to beat the Denver Nuggets at the buzzer in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.
The timely appearance of Playoff Rondo not only helped the Lakers win a 17th NBA championship but it also may have made him a significant amount of money this offseason. Contending teams would love to have a player like Rondo for their own playoff push, and rumors are already flying that L.A. Clippers would like to add him to their roster.
That’s where things may now becoming challenging for the Lakers, who would love to keep Rondo. After all, as Jared Dudley recently told Lakers Nation, “When Rondo is at his best, we can’t be beat. No team could beat us when he’s at his best.”
For the majority of the regular season Rondo surely wasn’t his best, but if he can still turn it on in the playoffs, that’s all that really matters. Rondo is, even with the rumored trade for Schroder, a fit for the Lakers, but he may be priced out of their range.
Speculation indicates that Rondo will opt out of his contract to become a free agent this offseason, and will be looking for a new deal starting around $9 million. That doesn’t mean he will find that offer on the market at nearly 35 years old, but it’s a significant increase from the veteran minimum contract he had last year.
The Lakers do have Rondo’s early bird rights, which would allow them to offer Rondo a contract of up to the midlevel exception (just under $10 million). An argument can be made that Rondo is worth that given his playoff performance, but the opportunity cost of paying Rondo could be massive.
The Lakers will likely be an over-the-cap team once they re-sign Anthony Davis to a max deal and negotiate new contracts with Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, in addition to seeing if they can find the money to bring back Dwight Howard, Markieff Morris, Dudley and more.
While it’s true the Lakers can use the early bird rights and bird rights of Rondo and Caldwell-Pope to exceed the $109 million salary cap, the money can start adding up quickly and push the Lakers towards the luxury tax and, more importantly, the tax apron.
Should the Lakers use their midlevel exception or bi-annual exception to sign players when they are above the cap, which would almost certainly be necessary if they want to land Serge Ibaka, Danilo Gallinari, Jae Crowder, or any of the other impact veterans on the market, the tax apron turns into a hard cap, creating a ceiling the Lakers’ payroll can never cross for any reason.
Most teams want to avoid a hard cap because it could significantly limit flexibility to do things like sign players midseason off of the buyout market (which is how the Lakers brought in Morris) or replace an injured player.
If Rondo really is determined to get a deal starting at $9-plus million, it’s going to be hard to justify doing that with Schroder on the roster and bigger needs on the wing and in the paint. The Lakers were already in need of another wing defender or two, and Danny Green’s departure only compounds things there.
It also should be noted that some variables could shift the Lakers’ salary cap situation, like Luol Deng’s contract being wiped off the books or Avery Bradley deciding to opt out of his contract, but it’s looking more and more unlikely that Rondo is in purple and gold next season.
The Lakers won a championship with Playoff Rondo, and there certainly will be a push for this team to “run it back” next season, but there will only be so much money to work with. The Lakers roster simply isn’t going to be the same.
The Green trade was the first domino, and if Rondo’s asking price stays high, he could very well become a salary cap casualty.
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