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Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope lead role players who take star turns for Lakers

Chris Mannix explains how LeBron James' experience was key to leading the Lakers to the 2019-20 NBA title and where the title ranks in his accomplishments.

The Lakers emptied the cupboard to acquire Anthony Davis in a trade, but it was worth the price — adding the game’s best big man to a team with LeBron James made Los Angeles instant title contenders.

The question was always would there be enough around those two top-five talents? Could the Lakers get a third star?

It turns out the Lakers didn’t need one guy to be their third star, they assembled a roster of veterans who would take star turns when needed, when the matchups favored them. That was enough for a team that had LeBron and Davis (plus an elite defense).

“The IQ of the group, Rondo, Danny Green, JaVale McGee having been there, the talent level of the other guys, other guys willing to buy into starring in their roles,” Laker coach Frank Vogel said of his role players. “Just we had a strong belief in this group.”

In the closeout Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the third star the Lakers needed was Rajon Rondo — 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting, and even blowing by a dead-legged Jimmy Butler a few times to get in the paint. He finished 5-of-6 shots at the rim and — flying in the face of years of erratic shooting that led to the “let Rondo shoot” defensive strategy — hit three of four from beyond the arc. Rondo shot 40% from three in the playoffs (he was a career 29% from three before this season), he apparently liked the depth perception better inside the smaller venues.

“To be able to come back and redeem myself and play a big part in this championship is definitely a hell of a feeling and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Rondo said, referencing the 2008 title he won with the Celtics. It had been a long road between titles.

Rajon Rondo was a locker room leader on this Lakers team, along with LeBron and Davis — it was Rondo who spoke up at a team meeting on the off day between games five and six and said if they were going to win it would be with defense. It was Rondo who would take charge of the ball handling and offense when LeBron went to the bench.

In Game 4 of the Finals, it was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who stepped up — a guy Lakers’ fans had turned on because of his struggles last season, and guy some Lakers fans wanted traded, a guy many around the league thought was on the roster because he had the right agent (Rich Paul and Klutch Sports, who also rep LeBron and Davis).

Pope had 15 points in Game 4, hitting some clutch corner threes, plus he did a good job chasing Duncan Robinson around picks and not letting the sharpshooter get going.

“I just pride myself on my defense. My defense gets my offense going,” Caldwell-Pope said. “I’ve been playing that way since college. Just try to get defensive stops, get out in transition, easy layups, either to get to the free throw line or transition threes, open up my game. I try to start on the defensive end, get my energy going.”

In the previous series against Denver, it was Dwight Howard who sparked the Lakers with his physical defense on Nikola Jokic. Howard wasn’t even supposed to be on the team, he was just the best big man available when DeMarcus Cousins went down.

It was like that all year for the Lakers. Some days Kyle Kuzma was their third star for a night, another night it was Danny Green, the next time it was Alex Caruso (who started Game 6 for Los Angeles). There was always someone stepping up.

None of this was the original plan. In the summer of 2019, after acquiring Davis, Lakers’ GM Rob Pelinka tried to add a third star in Kawhi Leonard. When Leonard finally decided to go to that team down the hall, Pelinka was seen from the outside as scrambling to round out the Lakers’ roster and he threw together a lot of challenging personalities — Rajon Rondo, DeMarcus Cousins (and when he got injured Howard), McGee and others. Pelinka said that wasn’t the case, the Lakers had a plan.

“In free agency last year, obviously we made a run to acquire a max free agent, but we had a counter, we had a backup plan and I knew we had a way to pivot and build a team with the other players we were able to acquire,” Pelinka said. “It worked out. It worked out well obviously.”

It worked out because Pelinka went big but athletic — something he could afford to do with LeBron and Davis (two big guys) at the core. It was also worked because LeBron provided strong lockerroom leadership — nobody was getting out of line, the big personalities were not causing big distractions (despite a little Dwight Howard weirdness in the bubble). The Lakers were focused on the task at hand, they were one of the two mentally toughest teams in the bubble.

And of those teams, they were the ones with the most talent. Not just the stars, but the guys around them who could step up as needed.