We’re currently a little less than three months until the Los Angeles Lakers’ season opener against the Los Angeles Clippers. Although the season is still a little far in the distance, the Lakers’ roster is nearly set, with only one spot currently open. The team will figure out the starting lineup as well as the early season’s rotations as training camp gets underway, with positional battles to ensue. In addition to the center position, one starting position that’s seemingly up-in-the-air is the point guard position.
Last year, the Lakers main starting point guard when healthy was Lonzo Ball. He’s obviously gone due to the trade for Anthony Davis, so someone will have to fill his space. The 2019-20 starter for the Lakers could be Rajon Rondo, as he was Lonzo’s back up for the entire season and actually started the opening game of the season. It could also be the returning Alex Caruso or even newcomer Quinn Cook, or, as it’s been reported previously by Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, LeBron James could be the starting point guard for the first time in his 17-year career. All bring different facets to the table, with all more than likely earning a good deal of rotation minutes at different points of the season. But who should be the head of the group and be in the starting lineup?
The case for LeBron James being the starting point guard is pretty simple: “Isn’t he the team’s point guard already?”
This was one of the main reactions to the Yahoo Sports report mentioned above, as LeBron James has basically been his team’s main ball-handler for a while, extending all the way back to his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He hasn’t had many elite point guards, and although Kyrie Irving has always been listed as a point guard, that is more due to his size as Kyrie leans more towards a shooting or combo guard like Allen Iverson once did.
With LeBron at the one, a starting lineup around him would theoretically be a combination of either Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, and Kyle Kuzma at the two and three, with Anthony Davis at the four and DeMarcus Cousins or JaVale McGee at the five. Using a starting lineup with James at the one would allow the Lakers to really let the threes fly, as they’d have five, solid 3-point shooters on the court at once if Cousins were to start.
Having LeBron at the one would cause some problems on the defensive side, however. Having him at that spot as opposed to a traditional point guard like Rondo or Caruso means that the two or three will have to pick up the opposing team’s point guard since, well, LeBron is just not going to do that. This creates a trickle-down effect where the Lakers’ two and three positions guard the opposing team’s one and two positions, with them deciding on LeBron guarding the opponent’s three or four that night. The cross-matching would overall just be kind of awkward.
I personally just can’t envision the Lakers starting LeBron at the point guard position with the three other traditional point guards on the roster that I’m going to discuss. I know that Haynes reported it as basically a fact, but head coach Frank Vogel has been shooting that fact down, time and time again.
The case for Rondo being the Lakers’ starting point guard in the 2019-20 season relies heavily on one thing: his veteran leadership. Rondo will be playing his 14th year in the NBA this upcoming season, which is the most on the team behind James (17th year). If James isn’t going to start at the one, Rondo is the only one out of the three other players to have played a meaningful role as a team’s go-to point guard. Cook came into the league undrafted with the Dallas Mavericks’ organization, before playing backup to Stephen Curry in his time with the Golden State Warriors. Caruso has largely been a part of the Lakers’ organization as a member of the South Bay Lakers, with this upcoming year bringing the most exposure he’s had to the NBA.
Rondo also brings with him experience with the Lakers’ organization itself. That, of course, can be looked at as a positive as well as a negative since Rondo’s first year with the Lakers wasn’t great. The Lakers had a net rating of 1.9 when Rondo was off the court, with a -8.6 net rating when he was on the court. That on-court net rating is only slightly better than the worst on the 2018-19 roster, current Washington Wizard Moritz Wagner.
He continued to be a terrible defender (ranked 76th out of 100 point guards in Defensive Real Plus/Minus), his attitude was terrible during losses (evidenced by him sitting with fans instead of the team during national TV games), and he spent the last quarter of the season playing far worse than Alex Caruso. I’m definitely not here to argue that Rondo should be the starting point guard, but the organization sure liked him enough to bring him back. I wouldn’t be surprised if they like him enough to give him the starting job for opening night.
Want to know why Caruso should be the starting point guard for the Lakers? If being the best Lakers point guard since Magic Johnson isn’t enough, here you go:
Alex Caruso putback dunk had LeBron saying "god damn" pic.twitter.com/PvOzAXW6Wj
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) April 5, 2019
Sure, that really has nothing to do with the prospect of him being a starter, but I’ll take any excuse to watch that clip.
On the real though, even though this will be Caruso’s first time starting the season on the Lakers’ roster, he might have the best case to the team’s starting point guard. Even with sharpshooter Quinn Cook on the team, Caruso could be the team’s best 3-point shooting point guard if he plays like he did towards the end of the 2018-19 season. In that time, Caruso shot 48.0% from three, which, of course, was based on a small sample size of 25 games. But, even if you shave 10% off of that, he would have led the team in 3-point percentage. Also based on a small sample size (although still impressive), the team’s net rating was 3.2 with Caruso on the court, while the team’s net rating was -2.4 with him off the court.
If we’re only having a “Caruso vs. Rondo” conversation, I just don’t know how you can watch the tape and observe the statistics and decide that it’s Rondo’s job. Caruso just plays harder, is a far better 3-point shooter and team player, and also posted a 0.77 Defensive Real Plus/Minus in the 2018-19 season which sandwiches him between Stephen Curry and Tyus Jones in regards to point guards.
Now, this is still LeBron James’ team above all. Very seldom in the history of LeBron’s tenure does a young, inexperienced player who hasn’t proved much get the nod over a veteran player who has won a championship. We’ll see how things shake out after training camp, as Caruso himself has said that the Lakers assured him that he will get minutes. Whether those are minutes as a starter or a bench player remains to be seen.
Last out of the four options that I think could all compete for the starting point guard job is newcomer, Quinn Cook. With Cook, this makes Caruso the only person on this list without a championship (unless you count dunking on Kevin Durant a championship), but he definitely brings more than just that experience. He was also raised as a Lakers fan!
Quinn Cook signing with the Lakers is bigger than basketball.
— ESPN (@espn) July 8, 2019
Other than being a lifelong Lakers fan and NEVER having played for the Celtics (looking at Rondo with this one), Cook can flat-out shoot the ball. In 74 games last year with the Golden State Warriors (ten starts), Cook shot 40.5% from three, while also sporting a 56.5 true shooting percentage. Within his overall 3-point percentage in the 2018-19 season, Cook was one of the best spot-up shooters in the league, falling within the 96th percentile with 1.31 points-per-possession. That PPP value was better than Stephen Curry’s, and was only slightly worse than Kevin Durant’s.
Cook has a ring and can shoot the ball with the best of them, but he definitely doesn’t have much starting experience as a player who started his career being undrafted. However, I’m not going to use that against Caruso, so I won’t use it against Cook here. But, Cook does have a glaring weakness in his game, and that is his talent on the defensive end. We’ve already covered Rondo’s inefficiencies on that side, but Cook was even worse statistically last season. While Rondo ranked 76th out of 100 in regards to point guards’ DRPM last year, Cook came in way lower at 96th. The only three players worse than him are infamously bad defenders last year: Jordan Clarkson, Collin Sexton, and Trae Young.
I think Cook would be a decent starting option and would probably be better than Rondo, but if Caruso isn’t going to start I don’t see any way that Cook does. To be honest, this comes down to off-the-court politics as much as it does on-the-court play. As with any LeBron James team in the history of the NBA, LeBron is almost always going to get his way. And as I said previously, inexperience in his co-stars is not his way. If LeBron doesn’t start at the position, I expect Rondo to. But if the Lakers want to maximize what they get out of the point guard position, I think Caruso should get just as much, if not far more minutes than Rondo. Either way, Rondo, Caruso, and Cook will be the Lakers’ 3rd, 4th, or 5th play-making option at any time they’re on the court. Since that’s the case, I want clutch 3-point shooting as well as good defense out of them on the court. Caruso is going to be the best bet for those two things.