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Is Rondo worth Kobe recruiting to Lakers?

3/9/2015

LOS ANGELES -- Rajon Rondo's favorite board game is Connect Four, and in the spirit of that upright version of checkers, let's connect some dots of our own.

Kobe Bryant returned to the Los Angeles Lakers' bench on Sunday for the first time since his season-ending shoulder injury on Jan. 21.

• The Lakers were playing the Dallas Mavericks, whose starting point guard is Rondo.

• Bryant is a huge Rondo fan and has openly said he plans to recruit Rondo to the Lakers. (Rondo becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer.)

So was this appearance by Rondo's breakfast buddy -- the two were spotted earlier this season having the most important meal of the day at The Paramount in Beacon Hill in Boston -- just a coincidence?

"I don't know," Rondo said with a smile after the Mavericks' 100-93 win, during which he contributed eight points and nine assists. "Who are you talking about, [No.] 24?"

Yes, that would be Bryant's number.

"Richard Jefferson?" Rondo asked, naming the Mavericks swingman who also wears No. 24.

Try again.

"Oh, the other guy," Rondo said.

Yes, the other No. 24.

"Luckily, he was in a suit for us tonight," Rondo said.

OK, enough fooling around.

Bryant has said his recruiting efforts aren't deterred even though Rondo was traded from the rebuilding Celtics squad to the contending Mavericks.

"No way," Bryant told the Boston Herald in January. "I'm not done. I'm not stopping until he signs an extension."

How does that sit with Rondo?

"He's one of the best that's ever played our game," Rondo said. "When he speaks, it speaks volumes. It's an honor and a compliment that he'd want to play with a guy like me. But right now I'm focused on winning a championship with the Dallas Mavericks."

Rondo was asked if he'd want to play with Bryant -- and he didn't deny it.

"I'm focused on what I have to do right now," Rondo said. "It's impossible to play with Kobe right now."

It's very, very easy to picture Rondo landing in L.A.

The Lakers are big-game hunters, after all, and he's a four-time All-Star, an NBA champion in 2008 with the Boston Celtics and the author of some of the most mind-boggling stat lines and highlights for any NBA player in recent memory.

He also carries the pizzazz that the Lakers crave and the name-recognition they have always desired in a town that is so incredibly fueled by such things.

Oh, and Bryant really wants him, and Kobe tends to get whatever Kobe wants.

But, as Breaking Bad's Walter White would say, the Lakers should tread lightly.

Rondo is 29 and simply doesn't have the same explosion since returning from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in 2013.

His shooting, which has always been a weakness, has also fallen off, especially from the free-throw line, where he's shooting just 30 percent. (Perspective, courtesy of the fine folks at ESPN Stats & Information: That mark is on pace to be the worst ever by a guard in a single season with a minimum of 50 free-throw attempts. Seattle's Mark Radford currently holds that mark at 41 percent in the 1982-83 season.)

Now, Rondo thrives when he's surrounded by playmakers, as he was during his best years in Boston -- future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce.

It was believed that he would thrive again in talent-laden Dallas, but the Mavericks' offense, which averaged a league-best 113.6 points per 100 possessions before he arrived, is down to 103.2 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court.

Rondo has been such a poor fit in the Mavericks' free-flowing system that questions have been raised whether it was a mistake for them to acquire him in the first place.

If Rondo is surrounded by talent in Dallas and still struggling, should it be expected that he could suddenly turn it all around on a rebuilding Lakers team next season that might not have any playmakers beyond a 36-year-old Bryant, who is about to enter a farewell tour after coming off his third consecutive season-ending injury?

Of course not.

Beyond that, there is the question of value.

Sources have told ESPN that one of the reasons the Celtics were interested in dealing Rondo before free agency is because they had serious doubts about whether he was worth a max contract, as Rondo has, of course, said he believes he's worth.

It's very safe to assume that some of those same conversations have taken place, are taking place or will take place in Dallas, given how he has performed there thus far.

In fact, it's not far-fetched to imagine the Mavericks low-balling Rondo this summer and then not putting up much of a fight when other teams -- such as the Lakers and perhaps the New York Knicks -- come calling. Such a move, while a bit surprising on the outside, would keep Rondo from tying up the Mavericks' salary cap space.

The Lakers should have enough cap room to offer one max-level contract this summer, and the free-agent pool could include Kevin Love, Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Goran Dragic, DeAndre Jordan, Rudy Gay and Greg Monroe.

There are many players on that list who seem better suited to help the Lakers' rebuilding efforts going forward, but Rondo appears to be at the rear of the pack.

Consider the Lakers' point guard production Sunday. Rookie Jordan Clarkson, a second-round pick, finished with 15 points, six rebounds and five assists, which followed a career-high 25-point night in a close road loss at Memphis on Friday.

Clarkson might not ever become the player that Rondo used to be, but, with some more time, he might very well be better than the player Rondo is at the moment.

If that isn't enough, consider what Lakers coach Byron Scott said before Sunday's game when asked about Rondo: "You try to make him beat you."

Calling an opposing player the weakest link in their respective team's offense isn't a ringing endorsement or a strong recruiting pitch, but Scott said just that, noting that the Lakers would go under every pick-and-roll that the Mavericks ran, daring Rondo to shoot. (Rondo didn't fare too well, hitting just 4-of-10 from the field.)

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak recently said he will prioritize the Lakers' financial flexibility and development this summer rather than signing veteran free agents to help Bryant chase another championship.

It's a forward-looking approach but, more than anything, a cautious one.

The Lakers would do well to take a similar approach with Rondo.

Of course, Rondo could revert back to his playoff form of old once the Mavericks hit the postseason, posting ridiculous numbers that remind everyone why he's one of the game's finest when the stakes are highest -- and why he's worth top dollar.

He could also continue his current level of play once he hits that stage, which would be a pretty strong indicator that, like Bryant, he just isn't the player he once was.