Controversy has seemingly followed Rajon Rondo throughout his career, yet the New Orleans Pelicans decided to take the plunge in free agency, agreeing Saturday to a one-year contract with the former member of the Chicago Bulls.
Over the last few days, Rondo has been a divisive topic of conversation among the fan base, but in reading through all of the comments, I’m not sure that most know his full story nor completely understand why Dell Demps felt compelled to take such a risk in a pivotal upcoming season.
Let’s change that.
By most accounts, Rondo’s career has spiraled downwards since leaving Boston. From consistent run-ins with Rick Carlisle in Dallas to the accusations of selfish play and stat-stuffing in Sacramento to another public difference of opinion with an assistant coach in Chicago, Rondo has left a trail of questionable play and unwanted drama at every stop.
I’m not here to deny any of it, and furthermore, his past history concerns me too — as it should all of you. However, I feel too many have this image of Rondo in mind where he played a crucial role amid Boston’s last championship run and then relived the good old days with a momentary 2-game blip in the 2017 postseason, yet nothing but years of total disappointment sit in between.
After some diligent research, I simply do not believe this to be true. Let’s start with the obvious factors that played a part in his arrival to New Orleans.
For months, Alvin Gentry hinted the Pelicans would like to see Jrue Holiday operate more off the ball; thus, adding another ball-handler once Tim Frazier left for Washington became a top priority — practically as high as the need for additional shooters. Yes, Quinn Cook did some wonderful things in the most recent edition of the summer league, but if you watched the games closely, he’s not ready to be asked to shoulder such a large burden.
With the trade market apparently proving unfruitful or too risky — I’m looking at you, Reggie Jackson — the front office opted to go the less costly veteran route, perhaps saving their future assets for a scorer/deep perimeter threat.
Despite Rondo’s rocky history, it’s hard to overlook the list of postseason success on his resume, especially for a team that has struggled to keep playing past the end of the regular season. Though the new blue collar approach has made strides, namely in the effort and defense departments, it’s notable the process has yet to produce an appropriate number of wins and crunch time minutes are an alarming nuisance on offense. The thought is Rondo’s playoff tested experiences may help just as much as any deft pass he has in his arsenal.
Next, Rajon has a wonderful relationship with DeMarcus Cousins, a figure who was reportedly instrumental in bringing the free agent to New Orleans. According to Rondo, Cousins was immediately drawn to him because they were the fiercest of competitors, and at the same time, assholes, knuckleheads and hard-headed players. Did you know Boogie came to respect the veteran even before they became teammates in Sacramento?
Cousins was a rookie known more for being a hothead than a hot talent. Rondo was an All-Star but also known for being a hothead.
So when Rondo’s Boston teammate Kevin Garnett tumbled and landed next to the Kings’ bench and Cousins stood over him, Rondo did what came naturally.
He shoved Cousins.
“That just was just him taking up for K.G.,” Cousins recalled recently. “I respect him for that.”
That respect has grown as the two became teammates this season.
For years, Kings management tried to find players who could mentor Cousins in the ways of being an NBA superstar. The Kings may have struck gold with Rondo, the first former All-Star added to the mix. He’s the first player who can relate to the pressure and perceptions Cousins deals with.
So, yeah, it’s not a shock as to why Cousins once hinted at wanting to see the Kings keep Rondo past the one-year deal in Sacramento — threatening to kidnap him if need be — and now, why Rajon has in all likelihood accepted a below market deal to come to New Orleans. The pair share an unmistakably rare bond, and with Boogie’s contract expiring next summer, it’s all about making the decorated All-Star happy while better preparing the roster for a postseason run.
In addition to Boogie’s trusting presence on the roster, Rondo has close ties to Darren Erman, or Baby Thibodeau, if you prefer. Rondo is on record for showering praise towards Tom Thibodeau while he was a defensive coach for Boston, and with Erman exhibiting the same qualities as his predecessor, a similar fondness grew to exist. The best part is the now associate coach of the Pelicans already possesses a history of getting through to Rondo unlike more prominent coaches in the league.
Darren Erman got through to Rondo. As to where others have failed like Rick Carlisle, Erman did not. How did he do it? I'm not sure, but I do know that he got Rondo to read through and understand an 100-page scouting report on the Atlanta Hawks back in 2008. Years later, he exhibited this preparation ability in a game between the Celtics and Warriors where Erman's team ran a seldom used play and Rondo showed he was more than ready for it.
So to quickly recap: the Pelicans had a specific need for another ball handler, preferably a veteran littered with postseason accomplishments, yet to be able to take a risk on a temperamental option, the team needed proper safeguards in place. The primary hope is Rondo’s relationships with Cousins and Erman fit that bill.
If you’re a close follower of the Pelicans, a lot of this is probably not news; however, there’s a lot more to the story which I don’t believe is common knowledge yet likely played a key role in the front office deciding to sign the well-traveled journeyman.
Rondo is on a much longer streak of good play than just a two-game playoff sample.
The Chicago Bulls held an unthinkable 2-0 lead against the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2017 playoffs and Rajon Rondo’s play was widely considered the biggest difference maker. Following a fractured right thumb injury and the Celtics proceeding to win four straight games only furthered to grow the legend of Rondo’s two sublime performances.
Those not easily enamored by the smallest of sample sizes, though, were heard shouting skeptical remarks from rooftops. They’re right, two games should be considered largely meaningless in a broader spectrum, but the problem is Rondo’s streak of effective play is an exponentially larger one. Have a look at Rondo’s pre and post-All-Star statistics with the Bulls last season.
|Points per 36 min.||Assists per 36 min.||Steals per 36 min.||FG%||3FG%||eFG%|
|Pre All-Star Rondo||8.9||8.9||1.8||37.2%||31.6%||40.7%|
|Post All-Star Rondo||14.0||9.2||2.3||47.3%||46.3%||53.5%|
Rondo’s offense came to life well before the start of postseason. He was only one of four players to average a line of 14/6/9 or better per 36 minutes last season following the All-Star break. Once his clash with Jim Boylan and the controversy with Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler were in the rear view mirror, one could say vintage Rondo showed up on the scene.
Nightly onlookers claimed the individual defense could have been more consistent, but it came together in the postseason when Rondo set the tone against the Celtics. Additionally, it’s difficult to fully account for that side of the ball amid so many team-oriented statistics. For instance, the advanced numbers point out Wade had one of the most detrimental +/- on the Bulls, and despite Rondo’s pre-All-Star numbers serving as a huge anchor, Rondo was still able to post a positive net rating overall in the minutes Wade sat.
According to NBAWowy, a Rondo-Butler pairing was stronger than a Wade-Butler pairing, holding opponents to less points while running a much more effective offense. Before the Bulls traded Butler away, there was a growing consensus that Rondo should remain a starter next season but the team would be better served with Wade coming off the bench.
The Bulls learned an engaged Rondo still had value and the allure of playoff Rondo was worth the risk — even at $13.4 million. Management was reportedly prepared to guarantee the team option on the second year of his contract up until when Butler was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves, commencing a rebuild in the city of Chicago.
Rondo isn’t that ball dominant and showed he can still finish with the best of them at the rim.
In addition to Rondo’s dramatic improvement over the course of last season, the numbers bear out he was far from being one of the most ball dominant guards in the league.
Based on average seconds per touch, there were 73 players who held the ball longer than Rondo. His 4.47 second mark came in lower than notable shooting guards like C.J. McCollum, DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler, who all preferred to pound the air out of the ball for longer stretches.
Notice in the video below how decisive Rondo is with the ball in his hands as compared to say Tyreke Evans, a player you should all remember well who struggled to display the requisite movement in Gentry’s system.
Another thing to take from this clip is Rondo’s success on drives to the rim. It’s no longer a secret: teams want to maximize shot attempts from close to the hoop and behind the three-point line. According to NBA Stats tracking data on drives, Rondo posted the 11th best field goal percentage among players who averaged six drives or more per game following the All-Star break — that’s possibly a good sign for future trends.
If you glance a little further down the list, both the names of Cousins and Holiday appear. Expect the Pelicans to give opponents problems from start to finish with multiple penetrations into the lane as so many players on the roster are now adept at taking the ball to the rack.
Rondo is more mature than you think and he’s usually a teammate favorite.
When it comes to getting under a coach’s skin, is there anyone more famous for making waves? For all four franchises he has played, Rondo has been linked to everything from immature behavior to a downright toxic attitude.
His worst moment came while a member of the Dallas Mavericks where Rondo decided to display a "It’s Gotta Be Me or Rick" mantra in Game 2 of a first round playoff series against the Rockets two years ago.
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Well, Rondo found out because his antics wound up not only costing him further court time in the 2015 postseason but also his monetary playoff share.
Look, I’m not about to make any valid excuses, but it’s widely known that Carlisle can be a difficult head coach to heed. Rondo isn’t the first nor likely the last to clash with one of most demanding and controlling coaches in the league as Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon can eagerly tell you.
Honestly, I’m not sure if Carlisle understands humor in all it’s forms because he doesn’t seem capable of loosening the collar even just a little bit.
Story I forgot to tell yesterday: Rick Carlisle got heated when someone parked in his AAC spot last year. Wanted car towed. It was Rondo.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) December 1, 2015
As for Rondo’s time in Sacramento, did you know he was responsible for fostering a meeting between DeMarcus Cousins and George Karl when the two were at each other’s throats?
Sacramento Kings coach George Karl was on his way to work out after a team film session last week in Milwaukee when he was summoned by DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo. After Cousins’ verbal tirade aimed at Karl in early November, the Kings’ coach might have had reason to be nervous.
What was supposed to be a 15-minute discussion became a positive two-hour meeting. The Kings (7-12) have been 2-2 since the meeting, with Cousins playing just one of those games – Monday's 112-98 win over the Dallas Mavericks – because of a lower back strain.
“It was a powerful meeting for all three of us,” Rondo told Yahoo Sports.
Rondo said he had been hoping in recent weeks to get a meeting with just himself, Karl and Cousins, adding that the discussion felt “natural” and Karl was receptive, positive and open-minded. Rondo and Cousins were also able to get some lingering frustrations off their chest, and Karl offered back his thoughts.
Fellow teammates of Rondo in Sacramento didn’t see a selfish player who was just in it for Boogie and himself. For example, read this glowing report by Caron Butler.
“Rondo doesn’t get enough credit,” Caron Butler, a teammate in Sacramento, told The Vertical. “Obviously there are some things out there from when he clashed with coach Carlisle. Maybe he was tough to play with. I witnessed something totally different. Watching him in Sacramento last year, watching him take Ben McLemore to the gym, watching him watch film with DeMarcus Cousins, letting him know where to be, where the double-teams were coming from. Taking over the film sessions. He’s a great thinker. He loves the game. He takes great care of his body. He takes his craft seriously. He was honest. That’s what you appreciate in a basketball player.”
This theme of love from teammates continued during his tenure in Chicago. It’s well documented that Rondo came to the defense of the younger group of guys on the Bulls after Wade and Butler questioned their effort following a loss, but did you know Rajon stayed true to them throughout the entire season?
"He meant a lot to me. He's like the brother I never had," Bobby Portis said. "He always called me, making sure I was good. When I wasn't playing at the beginning of the year, he always invited me over to his house to eat, talk to me about other things going on. For him, it was bigger than basketball because you're only playing this game for so long. But the relationships that you build last forever."
Denzel Valentine believed that the frustrations vented among the team’s veterans helped clear the air and made the playoff run a reality. In addition, the whole ordeal showed Rondo’s true character.
"Rondo was going to stand up for what he felt was right,” said Valentine. “I respect him a lot for that. He already has a bad rep in this league. For him to go out and do that and put himself on the line, that shows his true character to me and how much of a leader and a people person he is. He cares about his teammates that much."
Nikola Mitotic’s favorite teammate along with Pau Gasol? Yep, Rajon Rondo.
Even the veterans sung Rondo’s praises at one time or another. Take Taj Gibson, for instance, after the incident with Jim Boylan.
“One thing about that is, I’m super happy how he handled it,” veteran forward and longtime Bull Taj Gibson said. “That just speaks to how he’s grown, when you talk about it. I missed him the last couple of games, I really did. He’s a great player. He facilitates the ball. I’m just happy he didn’t overdo it. He’s a pro. He’s been great in the locker room.”
Jimmy Butler followed in Gibson’s footsteps, stating that he believes Rondo most certainly isn’t deserving of the bad reputation that follows everywhere.
“I don’t feel his reputation fits him at all. Rondo’s an incredible basketball player, friend, brother to me now, to us. I think we love him here. I think the fans love him as well, the organization, I think everyone has nothing but great things to say about him. I don’t see where that reputation came from at all.”
Think about the list of players who have most recently been charged with helping Jrue Holiday at point guard: Norris Cole, Nate Robinson, Ish Smith, Jarrett Jack and Tim Frazier. Now consider that Rondo is going to be paid on the high end of around $4 million, a sum that is currently exceeded by 168 players on HoopsHype.
Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck once wanted Rondo to stay in Boston for the long-term for a myriad of valid reasons.
“You just watch him. He played through sort of a broken elbow, a ripped knee. He’s a gamer, he’s a competitor, and he’s got world-class talent.”
While he’s lost a step, Rondo will still run through a brick wall and his basketball IQ might be the highest we’ve had since Chris Paul. He can still find open teammates. He can make game-changing plays on both ends of the floor. And believe it or not, he sounds like he can be a unifying force in the locker room and on the sidelines.
“It’s just not that I’m hard to coach,” Rondo said at a sponsored event for Red Bull, “it’s just that I may challenge what you say. I know the game myself, I’m out there playing the game. So I may have saw something different versus what you saw from the sideline.”
Rondo’s time in New Orleans might end up being measured by his stubbornness, but it’s a good thing a support system is already in place. Alvin Gentry is a true player’s coach, sitting on the opposite end of the spectrum from Rick Carlisle. Seriously, the Pelicans seem to have an environment in place that should be more conducive to dealing with Rondo’s personality better than any other organization in the league.
And we must not forget one very important detail here: the Pelicans were awfully successful in handling DeMarcus Cousins after last year’s midseason trade. He was a player whose attitude had been questioned for years, but he made a tremendous turnaround by significantly reducing the number outbursts, both on the court and off. Anthony Davis and company could be up for a similar task, and it may not be as insurmountable as many envision because an older Rondo might just fit better than most people think, too.
Rajon Rondo’s laundry list is long but so is his list of positives, hence why the Pelicans have taken the bet. Considering the alternatives, I think we should all be in tentative approval.