LOS ANGELES -- On the surface, a rookie and veteran faced off, but zoom out, and you had two players auditioning to be the Los Angeles Lakers’ point guard of the future.
On one end was Jordan Clarkson, their 2014 second-round draft pick who has shown enough promise to look like an absolute steal. On the other end was Rajon Rondo, a former All-Star the Lakers will likely chase in free agency this summer.
The dichotomy of their matchup Sunday was striking, the only compelling dynamic during the Dallas Mavericks’ 120-106 win over the Lakers at Staples Center.
Rondo finished with one of his usual stat lines: 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting, 11 assists and 8 rebounds.
Clarkson had what surprisingly has become a typical night: 26 points on 9-of-19 shooting to go along with 6 assists. It was the third time in the past four games that he scored 20 or more and the 10th time Clarkson has surpassed the 20-point mark.
Clarkson was complimentary of Rondo.
“He was getting everybody involved,” Clarkson said. “He was just making shots.”
And Rondo returned the favor.
"He played really well tonight,” Rondo said. “Shot the ball well, played under control.”
They’re wildly different players. Rondo is a pass-first point guard, perhaps the last in the NBA, and Clarkson tends to be more score-first, which is common in the league today.
And the Lakers will ultimately have to make a decision about whether Clarkson is good enough and ready to be their starting point guard, next season or beyond. So far, he has played well enough that they’ll need to seriously consider the possibility -- plus, he's cheap.
They’ll also have to decide if Rondo is what they need, regardless of what Lakers star Kobe Bryant believes. (Bryant has said he plans to recruit Rondo, a player Bryant deeply respects and has raved about for years dating back to their NBA Finals battles in 2008 and 2010.)
Rondo has loads of accolades, sure, but his struggles in Dallas will give any team pause, and rightly so. There are serious questions about fit, and his shooting -- never his strong suit -- has also fallen off. He has also clashed with Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, which Rondo has done with just anyone he has ever played for dating back to his childhood.
The biggest question mark about Rondo going forward is how he’ll play in the upcoming playoffs, when he has historically performed at his best and at a level few players can match. If he returns to the postseason form he made famous during his time with the Boston Celtics, then a high price tag this summer is justified. If he doesn’t, then concerns linger.
In the end, the Lakers’ decisions will be intertwined, and they will have to consider whether Clarkon’s potential outweighs Rondo’s experience. No easy decision, that.
Of course, there’s the possibility that the Lakers sign Rondo and he becomes a tutor of sorts for Clarkson, who becomes the Lakers’ back-up point guard next season.
“He gets everybody involved,” Clarkson said of that possibility. “He moves the ball, he’s not going to put up a bunch of shots and stuff like that, he gets everybody involved. He’s a good guard.”
Lakers coach Byron Scott did raise eyebrows before the game when asked if a pass-first point guard is what he prefers as a coach. He said in some ways, yes, but the rest of his answer wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Rondo.
“I think in this day and age, you also need a point guard that can be able to score,” Scott said. “You’ve got to be able to keep the defense honest as well.
“Rondo is one of those guys that a lot of people play off to make him shoot. But there’s no doubt, he’s one of the best as far as getting people the ball and setting guys up and running the offense. There’s no doubt about that.”
Credit Scott for his honesty. Rondo’s biggest weakness is his shooting, and that weakness is all the more apparent in today’s NBA, in which ere point guards are no longer just facilitators -- they’re some of the game’s most elite scorers at any position.
Scott also discussed Rondo’s blowup with Carlisle in February, when Carlisle and Rondo engaged in a profanity-laced shouting match during a game that led to Rondo being suspended for the next game. The argument stemmed from disputes over play-calling duties.
“When I saw it, I was like, ‘Whoa, that was different,” Scott said. “Neither guy looked like they wanted to back down neither.”
Scott coached a headstrong point guard before in Chris Paul, when both were in New Orleans, so Scott knows play-calling can be a touchy subject.
“It depends what the head coach wants,” Scott said. “Some head coaches want their guys to have the freedom to call all the plays and some head coaches want to call all the plays.”
He said that early on in New Orleans, Paul would look over to the bench constantly to get plays.
“Finally, I was like, ‘You know the plays. You call them,’” Scott said. “[I did that] to give him the freedom to do that and also to give him the confidence to do that too.”
Scott’s experience with Paul could ultimately help him if Rondo joins the team.
Of course, for the Lakers to return to contender status, there’s plenty of work that needs to be done. Finding the right starting point guard is just one of their many issues.
But it’s an issue they’ll have to solve this summer.
The question they'll face is whether their starting point guard is right under their nose, or if it’s the one Kobe Bryant adores so much. Or if it's somewhere else. There are no easy answers.