Opinion: Is Rajon Rondo the missing piece to the Clippers’ championship puzzle?

The answer revealed plenty about how Los Angeles Clippers view their newest acquisition and how Rajon Rondo’s presence changes their team dynamic. It also may have offered some subtle clues about what the Clippers lacked last season as a playoff underachiever.

When the Clippers acquired Rondo before last week’s trade deadline from the Atlanta Hawks for Lou Williams, the reasons went beyond Rondo’s on-court savviness with his playmaking. With 1½ months left before the playoffs start, the Clippers also wanted a proven player that had the credibility to give unfiltered feedback both to the team’s stars and role players after winning two NBA championship with the league’s most respected franchises in the Boston Celtics (2008) and Los Angeles Lakers (2020). As Clippers forward Marcus Morris Sr. said, "he’s going to be big factor in us trying to hang that banner."

"We’re going to listen to him. I look at him as a leader of this group," Paul George said after the Clippers' 104-86 win over the Lakers on Sunday. "He holds a lot of weight in the locker room. As he gets more comfortable in the system and getting games under his feet, he’ll hold us accountable. That’s what you need in the locker room — somebody that’s going to say what needs to be said."

The Clippers are hopeful Rajon Rondo can provide steady playmaking and veteran leadership as they get ready for the playoffs. (Photo: Gary A. Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)

The Clippers sorely needed things to be said last season as they showed inconsistent chemistry due to numerous injuries and complacency. Or when the Clippers squandered a 3-1 series lead in the Western Conference semifinals to the Denver Nuggets. Upon reflecting on those unpleasant memories, did George feel the Clippers lacked a locker-room leader that could speak truth to power? The answer became obvious through George’s long pause and pivot.

"We just know it’s coming from a good place," George said. "It’s coming from personnel and somebody that won and has won multiple times. And the point guard holds the leadership role by nature. We know what time it is. It’s coming from him."

Clippers coach Ty Lue maintained he "thought the accountability was there last year," even if he took the head-coaching spot after the Clippers and Doc Rivers parted ways. Lue has mostly chalked up last season’s chemistry issues more to overlapping injuries and lack of practice time than players simply not liking each other. After all, the Clippers spent last season missing a combined 114 games due to injuries and fielding 33 different starting lineups. With Leonard missing 13 games because of his injured left knee and George sitting for 16 following offseason shoulder surgery, the Clippers limited practice time so they could remain fresh for the actual games.

The Clippers have not completely escaped those challenges this season. They have missed a combined 79 games due to injuries, fielded 17 different starting lineups and are currently without Patrick Beverley and Serge Ibaka. All NBA teams have faced limited practice time because of the league’s health and safety protocols regarding the coronavirus pandemic. The Clippers (33-18) have the Western Conference’s third-best record after playing with either brilliance or maddening inconsistency.

Catching up with Kawhi Leonard after the Clippers beat the Lakers – on where the team goes from here, fun with the Morris twins, and his newest teammate, Rajon Rondo. pic.twitter.com/SBTxbnWUE3

But with Rondo on his way to a Hall of Fame induction partly because of his basketball smarts, he won’t need as much of that time to become familiar with the team’s playbook.

"It was difficult at times last year, especially without the practice time that we didn’t have, to run a play down the stretch where you didn’t already have the ball in PG or Kawhi’s hands. Now, you don’t have to do that," Rivers said. "You can actually run a set where Rondo can deliver a ball. I think as important as that’s going to be, I think his voice is going to be more important. I think he’s going to be one of those guys who will speak up and will speak the truth and hold everybody accountable."

No one but the Clippers truly know their success or failure with holding everyone accountable. But from afar, there appeared to be various factors in play that suggested it needed improvement.

Leonard and George did not have as much command as they would have liked mostly because of their injuries. Though Leonard was mostly reliable with his play and work ethic when healthy, he prefers to lead more with his own play than with changing how others play. Fault George all you want for his playoff struggles, but also show some empathy for the mental health challenges he admittedly struggled with in the bubble. Throw all the punchlines you want at Williams for getting caught at an Atlanta strip club on his way back to the bubble, but he still helped the Clippers with consistent scoring and empowering those around them.

Even if the Clippers did not have toxic personalities, they lacked someone who could have become an effective crisis manager. Rondo fulfilled that last season with the Lakers. Even with limited production during the regular season and an injured right thumb that sidelined him for the Lakers’ eight seeding games and the first round of the playoffs, Rondo played a significant factor in the Lakers winning the NBA title. Credit LeBron James and Anthony Davis, especially considering the Lakers' struggles against the Clippers on Sunday mostly stemmed from their ongoing absence with injuries. But credit Rondo for helping James with playmaking responsibilities, motivating Davis to increase his dominance and offering consistent production in points (8.9), assists (6.6) and steals (1.4) along the way.

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