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Clippers’ addition of Rajon Rondo gives them a needed ‘orchestrator,’ team president says

Rajon Rondo sets up a play for the Atlanta Hawks against the Orlando Magic on March 3, 2021, in Orlando, Fla.
Rajon Rondo sets up a play for the Atlanta Hawks this month. The Clippers acquired the veteran point guard ahead of Thursday’s trade deadline in a deal that sent Lou Williams to Atlanta.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

Wearing a hooded sweatshirt and a black mask Saturday night as the Clippers took on the Philadelphia 76ers at Staples Center, Rajon Rondo spent most of his first game as a Clipper sitting in the sideline’s second row, talking with assistant coaches.

It was an appropriate seating arrangement for a point guard the Clippers say will act as an extension of the coaching staff when on the floor. It was one reason — combined with his playoff experience and winning two championships — why Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations, said Saturday the team believed it needed to acquire him from Atlanta ahead of Thursday’s trade deadline.

“He’s like a savant,” Frank said on a videoconference with reporters. “I think he’s a guy that we’ve targeted for a while, and when we looked at our needs, I think one of the things, despite the success of this group, we were looking for an orchestrator. And Rajon over the course of his career has been one of the best at doing it.”

The trade with Atlanta to acquire Rondo, 35, left the Clippers with two open roster spots and a void in scoring. Lou Williams, the veteran guard who was sent to the Hawks, was the team’s fourth-leading scorer at 12.1 points per game. The Clippers can’t expect one player to fill that scoring gap, Frank said, who added that a collective effort must do the job, noting the opportunities guards Reggie Jackson, Terance Mann and Luke Kennard will continue to receive.

The Clippers made one move before Thursday’s NBA trade deadline, acquiring Rajon Rondo for Lou Williams and picks. Here’s what it means for the team.

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The team will be aggressive in trying to fill its roster spots on the buyout market, Frank said, but he added that any signing would need to be accepting of a role with potentially spotty playing time.

“Whether it’s point-of-attack defense, whether it’s having another big, whether it’s adding another wing, we’ll continue to look at all of those things,” Frank said. “We’ll be aggressive filling them, but it also has to be the right person. Because if that person isn’t in the rotation, can that person sit and be OK? Because anyone can play and be a good teammate.

“But if you’re not playing, we want to make sure we have really good chemistry in the locker room, and that’s a sanctuary. We just want to make sure that whoever we add there fits with the whole team vibe.”

Frank said the Clippers didn’t approach the trade deadline wanting to deal Williams, who was named the NBA’s top sixth man twice during his three-plus seasons with the Clippers. Williams “gave us swagger … he was our soul,” Frank said.

“Over the course of these past four years, most all our best moments, Lou is a major, major part of and it’s not just that he’s arguably the greatest sixth man who’s played,” he said. “… He was a great connector, and he doesn’t get enough credit for the calmness that he brought to the group, and the leadership and the mentorship.”

“… We love Lou. We love his mom, Janice. And you’re heartbroken doing it. There’s no way to say it other than it really sucks.”

Lawrence Frank, the Clippers' president of basketball operations, at a news conference July 23, 2019.
Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank, pictured in 2019, said Saturday that the team will be aggressive in trying to fill its roster spots on the buyout market.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

Yet as the Clippers evaluated their needs, Frank said a guard who could initiate the offense, get to the paint and elevate the play of teammates including Kawhi Leonard and Paul George was the top priority.

“Look, this group is the second-best half-court offense in the league, so it’s not like it was broke,” he said. “It was actually operating at a high level. The one thing we saw is that Kawhi and Paul were at the start of virtually all our plays, right? Like, they were the initiators. Now, they could be in positions where they’ll get to be able to close and finish some of the plays, so instead of starting the chain, they can be at the end of the chain and able to drive closeouts as opposed to always being the guy that has to get to the ball, move it, so I think he’ll lighten their load.”

The new-look Clippers beat the Spurs for the second night in a row 98-85 in San Antonio without most of their usual starters on Thursday.

Rondo’s on-court skill set was only half the appeal to the Clippers. After Leonard left last season’s postseason disappointment extolling the need for high-IQ teammates, the Clippers in free agency added a pair of experienced veterans in Serge Ibaka, who had won a championship in 2019 with Leonard with the Toronto Raptors, and Nicolas Batum. On March 22, Leonard said continuing the effort that has helped the team built its first winning streak since mid-February would hinge on greater focus.

“It’s between our ears,” Leonard said.

Coach Tyronn Lue said Rondo’s basketball intelligence is rivaled only by LeBron James and Chris Paul. With Rondo having won championships with Boston in 2008 and the Lakers last season, “our guys instantly respect him,” said Frank who, like Lue, overlapped in Boston with Rondo as an assistant coach earlier in his career.

“Just think about our last experience in the playoffs where we’re up 3-1 and mental toughness, this is critical,” Frank said, tapping his temple. “Everyone talks about the physical tools, but the mental part is huge. And understanding kind of different moments and being able to see it in real time, not after the fact, Rondo, he’s a force. He’s a force and I think … he’s really, really going to fit. We really feel like he’s a guy who really can help elevate the group.”

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.

Saturday’s matchup was the Clippers’ first against former coach Doc Rivers since they cut ties with the franchise’s winningest coach in September on the heels of a second-round exit despite leading Denver 3-1 in a best-of-seven series. The Clippers played a tribute video for Rivers.

Frank said the “pain and embarrassment” of last season — while Rondo and the Lakers rolled to a championship — reinforced the need for greater consistency and continuity this season. Health continues to be a major roadblock to the latter, with Ibaka and starting guard Patrick Beverley each recovering from injuries that have sidelined them for nearly two weeks.

Last season, “I think it was fair to say hey, this is a group that would flip the switch,” Frank said. “We want to be a team that turns up the dial. Which is — there’s a difference. It’s that you have different levels and as you get to the second half of the season, you want to turn it up. As you get to the playoffs with each round, you want to turn it up, so we have a long ways to go, and I think we all, we’re all aware of that, and I think our habits every day will determine how far we go.”


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