LOS ANGELES – When the March 25 NBA tradeline approached, the Los Angeles Clippers found themselves in need of a true point guard due to the injury to starting point guard Patrick Beverly. While many rumors and potential trade partners swirled around the team like a breeze coming from the beach, the Clippers stood by quietly making one simple trade.
A swap of proven veterans and leaders was the only deal the Clippers would make for the stretch run as the playoffs approach. The team dealt long-time fan favorite Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for Rajon Rondo and his championship experience.
“Just go out there and try and lead by example,” Rondo said following his Clipper debut against the Los Angeles Lakers on April 4. “I don’t like to talk as much without showing on the court for my teammates.”
Due to the lack of cap space and massive contracts that the team currently holds on their books, the deal for Rondo was completed in order to help provide that veteran leadership from a player who has accomplished great things during the postseason.
Having coached Rondo back in his days with the Boston Celtics, head coach Tyronn Lue was pleased to have the savvy veteran back under his wing.
“He’s fiery, that’s what we need,” Lue said. “He’s tough. He understands the game. And he respects people as a straight shooter and will tell him the truth. That was my biggest thing in Boston, was just being honest with him and telling him the truth and keeping it real with him.”
Now with the addition of Rondo and the subtraction of Williams, Lue faces the dilemma of which players get the crucial minutes down the homestretch of the season once the team is completely healthy.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it. It’s going to be a process,” Lue said. “It’s a good problem to have. You can’t play everyone. In guy’s absence, guys have stepped up and played well. It’s just something I got to figure out.”
Rondo played 13 minutes and scored two points and had three assists against his former team. Although he played 15 minutes in the Clippers’ 133-116 win against the Portland Trail Blazers, Rondo didn’t do much in his second game wearing a Clippers uniform. Playing against the Phoenix Suns, a team with the second-best record in the Western Conference, was a little different.
Against the Suns and leading man, Chris Paul, Rondo and the Clippers put on a show. With Lue giving him extensive playing time, Rondo came up big, scoring 15 points and dishing off nine assists in 19 game minutes to help the Clippers beat the Suns 113-103 at STAPLES Center. For his part, Rondo said he’s working on helping players on his new team get used to his style of play.
“Well, just continue to talk to them and having them understand that my job to where I promise up on is to continue to push the pace, and the passes may come whenever, even when you may not expect it,” Rondo said. “So, when they’re on the floor at all times with me, just expect the pass. I’m a pass-first point guard and just have your hands ready.”
Rondo’s immediate impact is not lost on his teammates.
“It’s what the league is about,” Clippers shooting guard Paul George said. “You’ll have tough matchups. There’ll be nights where you have to play great to win. Just having [Rajon] Rondo on the team helps so much, again. He’s kind of quarterbacking and calling everything out, as he just talked about the defensive coverage reading their defense and reading their offense. He’s just ahead of the game. He’s a step ahead, always. It’s great just to have a general on the floor on both sides.”
Prior to suiting up in a Clippers uniform, Rondo had been dealing with a groin injury that has kept him out of game action since March 24. Alongside Rondo in the training room battling injuries is guard Beverly and forward Serge Ibaka. Beverly has been sidelined since March 12 with a knee injury. He also has been battling a lower back injury that has forced the big man to miss 10 straight games.
With the departure of Williams, the question becomes who will fill his role off the bench as that lethal scorer when superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are not on the court. That answer appears to have come in the form of the one-two punch combination of shooting guards Terrance Mann and Luke Kennard.
The two young guards have proven their worth over the team’s last dozen games, as each player has taken advantage in the uptick in minutes. For Mann, his confidence and persistent work during practices have carried over to live game success.
“Filling Lou Will’s role is really hard,” Mann said. “I wouldn’t say I am filling that role directly, I’m just playing my game. Whatever it is, I’m just going out there trying to win.”
Replicating the scoring success that Williams had over his career may be difficult, considering the veteran hit the 15,000 points plateau during his last game with the Clippers before officially being dealt just before the NBA’s trading deadline. But for Mann, his recent stretch of scoring over the last eight games has increased as he is averaging nearly 15 points a game including a season-high 23 points against the Philadelphia 76ers.
“I’m going to keep working on my game, doing what I do,” Mann said.
For Kennard, his confidence and ability to knock down the three-ball continues to grow as he too has stepped up his game during this stretch. Notching a season-high 21 points against the Milwaukee Bucks only a few nights ago, the guard knocked down 5 three-pointers in the game as his average from beyond the arc is the third-best in the league at 48 percent.
“I’m a confident player, I really am,” Kennard said. “I try to stay steady. I try to keep a cool head, clear mind, and just play.”
The confidence in Kennard certainly isn’t lacking, something that head coach Tyronn Lue is pleased to see regardless of how the stat sheet looks at the end of the night.
“For him to take 18 shots last game, it’s a plus for me,” Lue said on Kennard’s performance against the Orlando Magic. “I don’t care how many you make, just keep taking them.”
As both players continue to develop, the addition of a veteran presence such as Rondo is something that is already benefiting the two youngsters despite Rondo not stepping foot on the court yet.
“Every time I come back to the bench, he’s letting me know something he saw,” Mann said. “It’s so cool to see a vet like that with so much experience, so humble and so ready to learn.”
While the team waits for Rondo to make his impact for them on the court, the impression he has left on the younger players is invaluable.
“I think just his presence and the way he communicates to guys,” Kennard said. “In practice, directing guys and getting comfortable with everybody. Figuring out how guys like to play. He’s a smart player, he’s really great.”
Following his debut with the team on Easter Sunday against the Los Angeles Lakers, Rondo said he hopes to continue to share his basketball IQ and knowledge with those on the team.
“Just try to be on the same page as my coach, not too much as me trying to outsmart my opponents, which at all times I want to be two steps ahead of,” Rondo said. “At the same time, I want to stay afloat with my teammates as well and be on the same page as them and like I said to be an extension of Tyronn Lue on the court.”