The last championship that the Lakers played for had significantly lower stakes than this one. On an otherwise uneventful Wednesday in July of 2018, Magic Johnson sat courtside in Vegas as the 16 youngsters he’d temporarily cloaked in purple and gold fought for a Summer League title that ultimately held no meaning. The game’s historical significance rested on an interview he granted ESPN’s Mark Jones in which he discussed his now-derided plan to take the Lakers, fresh off of signing LeBron James, back to the only championship that truly matters. 

“I watched every series, so I built this team based on what happened in the playoffs,” Johnson said of the 2018 postseason. “You don’t build a team just for the regular season. You gotta build it for the playoffs, as well. And then we saw what Houston did. Houston didn’t have a bunch of great shooters. They had some shooters, but they had a lot of guys who can handle the basketball, and break the defenses down, and create their own shot. And so they go all the way, take Golden State to 7 games. And then, Houston had tough guys. Boston had tough guys. So what did I bring in? Tough guys. So that’s how I’m building it. I took a lot from watching Boston play, watching Houston play, then advancing, and they beat all the teams that had all the great shooters.”

It was a rejection not only of the championship blueprint Pat Riley and David Griffin had perfected for James but also the logic that the majority of the NBA currently swears by. The modern NBA lives behind the 3-point arc, with role players tasked almost exclusively with creating more space for shot-creators like James. While the Cavaliers and Heat pioneered that movement and surrounded LeBron with shooting, Johnson, a champion in his own right, settled on a model more closely resembling the Laker teams he won his postseason battles with. Fast-paced, high-IQ players zipping passes around the court and taking every opponent’s best punch. 

The season, due to a variety of factors both in and out of Magic’s control, was a disaster, and nine months later, Johnson abdicated his throne and left the Lakers in the hands of Rob Pelinka. The remodel was something more conventional. Shooters like Danny Green, Jared Dudley and Quinn Cook were prioritized alongside LeBron. Rather than flank him with ball-handlers, the Lakers named him their starting point guard.

But James signed with the Lakers after hearing Magic’s vision, and remnants of it remained. No Laker in the regular season had a better net rating alongside LeBron than Alex Caruso, a non-shooting guard who specializes in just about everything else. His connection with Lakers assistant Jason Kidd, a similar albeit more talented version of that archetype, is well-documented. A report from ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz claims that James views Kidd “as the only person alive who sees the game of basketball with his level of clarity.” Johnson himself is similarly revered, and so is one of the primary holdovers from his reign as Lakers president. 

LeBron has spent the past two seasons raving about Rajon Rondo to mostly deaf ears. The numbers painted him as one of the NBA’s worst rotation players. The Lakers were 8.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the bench than they were with him on the floor. His poor shooting cramped their spacing. His inconsistent effort stood out like a sore thumb on an otherwise flawless defense. The genius passing that launched him into stardom felt redundant in an off-ball role, and when Dion Waiters thrived in his place following a practice injury, there was reason to wonder whether Rondo would, or should, ever rejoin the rotation. 

But when he did? Johnson’s entire gambit clicked into place. The vaunted Playoff Rondo emerged from his two-year hibernation to rescue a wayward Lakers team that, despite its investments in shooting, has hit only 34.4 percent of its 3-point attempts in its second-round series against the Houston Rockets. That’s an improvement from their pre-playoff slump, and while regression was always to be expected, the Lakers were only 21st in 3-point percentage during the season. The Cleveland and Miami models simply didn’t apply to this roster, so Frank Vogel pivoted into a lineup straight out of Johnson’s dream journal. 

The five-man unit of Rondo, James, Caruso, Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma does not feature a single shooter above 35.8 percent (the league-average) from behind the arc for their career. That lineup has demolished the Rockets by 27 points in only 21 total minutes, and while it has relied on some unsustainable shooting from Rondo and Morris, the gap is so great that the Lakers would have outscored the Rockets in that span even if they hadn’t made a single 3-pointer. 

The collective intelligence of that group strains a Rockets defense already burdened with the mental rigors of constant switching. On this play, for instance, an innocuous Rondo post-up turns into two easy points because of the stress LeBron puts on Houston off of the ball. As he cuts towards Rondo, the eyes of all four strongside Rockets defenders are trained squarely on him, expecting some sort of handoff or cut that would get LeBron the ball in motion towards the basket. By the time they notice that Morris is the true cutter, it’s too late. 

The dual presences of LeBron and Rondo have tortured the Rockets in other lineups as well. This play starts out as a LeBron post-up, among the most lethal weapons in Vogel’s arsenal. Harden has to race across the floor to double it, and when he flips the ball to Anthony Davis, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon immediately enter rim-protection mode. When Davis, in turn, tosses it to Rondo, Tucker and Harden, who have already spent the possession scampering across the court, have to cover three things with only two bodies. Harden makes it back in time to contest a pass to Morris for 3. Tucker sells out to stop the shot. Rondo says “olé,” and walks into one of the easiest layups of his life. 

These are the kinds of shots Rondo is generating in the half-court, where his shooting makes him vulnerable. Transition removes that weakness from the equation and has essentially allowed LeBron and Rondo to revive Showtime. The Lakers have scored 35 fast-break points during Rondo’s minutes over the last three games, trailing only LeBron and Caruso. In truth, most of those points have come as a trio. Watch as Rondo and Caruso work in tandem to force Russell Westbrook into a bad pass that LeBron saves and steals, leading to a three-man stampede into a layup. 

That sort of defensive peskiness has been Caruso’s calling card all season, and Rondo, a four-time All-Defense selection, has been back at peak form. You want to see toughness? Imagine confronting James Harden behind the half-court line and telling him “I’m taking your ball” like some sort of schoolyard bully. 

The Lakers doubled up the Rockets on the glass in Game 4, and Rondo set the tone with 10 rebounds of his own. Imagine what seeing a 6-1 point guard fly into traffic like this does for a team’s morale. If he’s doing it, everyone needs to. 

Over the course of a seven-game series, teams get to know each other so well that most of what worked from October through March is no longer effective. These are the kinds of contributions that go beyond the box score, that help teams overcome locked in playoff opponents through the sort of improvisational playmaking and energy that neither preparation nor effort can combat. As Vogel so often tells us, they can only be measured in “swag.” But a basketball genius like LeBron notices them, and he goes out of his way to praise them whenever possible. 

“[It’s beneficial] when you have enough people you can trust and be in the foxhole with you, not from a basketball aspect, but from a cerebral aspect,” James said after Game 4. “The postseason is about making adjustments from game to game, and also being able to make adjustments on the fly because things happen in real time. Being able to see how defenses are playing, seeing how the game is being played, seeing how the flow of the game is being played, there’s just not many guys that can do that in our league. In the postseason, it’s gigantic. Having Do’ on your side definitely helps.”

James only has Rondo on his side because, Johnson, like Kidd, sees the game the way that he does, and that most of the basketball world can’t. That doesn’t invalidate the approach most of the league takes. Johnson absolutely took his own plan too far. Signing Lance Stephenson, for instance, is the sort of heat check only a more experienced executive could justify. The Lakers needed, and still need, more shooting than last season’s roster had to offer, and it remains to be seen how sustainable this Rondo run will be. But given the unique challenges of winning in the postseason and how much better-suited their opponents will be to winning analytically-driven games, the Lakers needed an alternative. Johnson’s battle-tested understanding of playoff basketball, antiquated though it may be, is providing one. 

It just needed to be balanced with the more conventional approach Rob Pelinka took, and entrusted to a coach in Frank Vogel who never wavered in his belief in a player and an idea that didn’t work in the increasingly homogenized world of the regular season. Like that Summer League game in which Magic delivered his manifesto, it is ultimately meaningless. Playoff Rondo is proving himself when it counts, and if this keeps up, the next championship the Lakers play for is going to be far more important. 


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