Clippers hope they acquired Playoff Rondo: Five takeaways at the NBA trade deadline

Hawks guard Rajon Rondo attempts a layup against Timberwolves guard Naz Reid.
Hawks guard Rajon Rondo attempts a layup against Timberwolves guard Naz Reid during a game earlier this season.
(Stacy Bengs / Associated Press)

Even as inconsistency crept into the team’s record in the weeks leading up to Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, the Clippers believed that moves made around the rotation’s margins would best serve their postseason potential.

Their activity at the deadline backed up that approach.

Instead of multiple moves shipping out numerous players, as was standard the last two seasons, the Clippers made just one, to acquire Atlanta’s Rajon Rondo in exchange for reserve guard Lou Williams, second-round picks in 2023 via Portland and 2027 and cash.

The move strikes as less likely to upend the Clippers’ starting lineup than potentially change the rotations coach Tyronn Lue might use to close games based on his trust in his new guard. For a team that views a championship as its ultimate goal, the acquisition of the veteran point guard represents belief that his history of strong postseason play will return later this season despite one of Rondo’s worst statistical regular seasons.

That hope that Rondo will return to form in the postseason “is what this is all about,” one league source said after the deadline passed.

Five takeaways from the deadline move:

Here’s a roundup of player movement as the NBA trade deadline approaches at noon (3 p.m. Eastern).

March 25, 2021


1. The trust in Rondo’s ability goes back more than a decade.

Once Lue’s 11-year playing career ended in 2009, he took a coaching job with the Boston Celtics, where Rondo was one year removed from winning his first championship. Lue’s role with the team wasn’t to deal directly with Rondo, but the point guards developed a strong relationship, one that has been maintained in the years since.

2. The Clippers didn’t have to give up Ivica Zubac.

With little draft capital to offer other teams, the Clippers entered the deadline hamstrung on what they could offer. Their most attractive trade chip was likely 24-year-old center Ivica Zubac. Acquired at the trade deadline in 2019 from the Lakers, Zubac has blossomed into a starting-caliber player with tremendous upside offensively and defensively, and he is on a reasonable contract, earning $7 million annually. The starting lineup hasn’t skipped a beat with Zubac playing in place of the injured Serge Ibaka.

A number of teams called the Clippers hoping to pry him loose, but were left disappointed. The team did not seriously consider trading him, believing he is crucial to the roster’s future.

The Denver Nuggets acquired Aaron Gordon, the Bulls added Nikola Vucevic and the Clippers brought Rajon Rondo back to L.A. at the NBA trade deadline.

March 25, 2021

3. Can Rondo resurrect his playoff form?


Last season, Rondo transformed from a regular-season guard with an offensive rating of 103 and defensive rating of 108 into a key piece of the Lakers’ championship run by producing an offensive rating of 115 and defensive rating of 108.

Improving on his regular-season production this season would seem to be a low bar. In a limited role with Atlanta, he’s averaged career lows of 3.9 points, 3.5 assists and 40% shooting from the field, with an offensive rating of 98 and defensive rating of 113. The question over the course of the last two months of the regular season is whether he is closer, at age 35, to being the playoff difference maker from less than one year ago, or the nonfactor he’d become with the Hawks.

4. With Williams gone, who stands to benefit?

The Clippers need scoring punch off the bench with Williams, the highest-scoring reserve in NBA history, no longer around to provide the 12.1 points on 37% three-point shooting he’d averaged this season. That void could suggest a bigger role for Luke Kennard, the best pure scorer among the reserves, who played first-quarter minutes Wednesday for the first time since March 4.

Rondo is the first traditional point guard who will play a major role for the Clippers since Chris Paul left in 2017. He takes 9.9 shots per 36 minutes — seven fewer than Williams averaged this season. That will create demand for scoring from other sources. Kennard, who has made 48% of his three-pointers this season, and with his confidence surging this week, could be in line to reap the reward.

Division III Pomona-Pitzer would be a springboard for Gregg Popovich, but the early years — and one game especially — didn’t augur a legendary future.

March 25, 2021

5. The core of the team that began this rebuild four years ago is now all but gone.


This doesn’t mark the complete end of an era, but it’s close. The Clippers began their franchise retool four years ago by trading Paul to Houston in a deal that brought back Williams, Patrick Beverley and Montrezl Harrell. They became the emotional engine of the team for the last three seasons, with Harrell and Williams combining to win three sixth man of the year awards in that time. The Clippers signaled their intent to begin moving on in free agency by not offering to keep Harrell, who ended up with the Lakers, and now Williams is gone, too.

That trio was around for the chemistry problems that affected last season’s roster, yet this season Williams and Beverley were described as excellent locker room voices who’d helped bring along young teammates such as Terance Mann and Zubac.

“We want to be here for a long time, me and Lou,” Beverley said Feb. 14. “Hopefully it pans out the way we want it to.”

That partnership lasted five more weeks, even after multiple sources in recent weeks said that the team had significantly cooled its attempts to deal Williams. Personally, it’s something of a soft landing for Williams, who became one of the last to travel the preps-to-pros pipeline after starring at a high school just outside Atlanta. He still lives near the city in the offseason. Professionally, it wouldn’t surprise if this move comes as a disappointment for the veteran guard, who in February said the chance to chase a championship pushed him.

“I have one thing that I haven’t done in this business — that’s win an NBA championship,” Williams said Feb. 14. “I feel like we have a high-caliber team that gives us an opportunity to do that, so that’s the thing that gets me up and gets me motivated.”