“Back injury” was the official diagnosis for what ended Rajon Rondo’s 2015 season.
He purportedly suffered it during Game 2 of Dallas’ series versus Houston, in which he played just 10 minutes and his team lost convincingly. That was time enough to complete this memorable sequence for the Playoff Rondo mixtape:
The NBA has seen it’s share of “unintentional” (intentional) poor play in recent seasons, but the above is enough to make any Tank Commander blush. It took Rondo 6 dribbles to cross half court from the foul line. And his “Which way did he go?” on the inbound could have finished with Speedy Gonzales (or Jason Terry) popping his head through the Warner Bros. logo. The cynics among us would suggest neither play was a mistake.
It’s hard to believe in coincidences when there’s much evidence to the contrary.
Rondo and Rick Carlisle clashed throughout his brief stay in Dallas, as early as a few games into their relationship. The famously hard-headed Rondo was referred to as “super stubborn” by his first employer, Celtics’ owner Wyc Grousebek, who followed with “I don’t know how coach-able he really is.”
Even his 2 week stint as Team USA’s starting point guard painted Rondo as a guy who isn’t a happy subordinate – in short, he didn’t like his demotion to the bench and quit.
Most convincing are the documented 9 years of his insistence to play professional basketball his way. The refusal to develop an outside shot, at a position almost mandatorily requiring one in today’s game, is as much ideological as it is physical. Yes, his shot his awkward – right elbow cocked out way to the side, body usually on a 30 degree lean backwards – but reliable shooters have owned worst techniques or worked to fix them.
Rondo’s game is the manifestation of accepting that his man will stand 5 feet off him. He has built it with a showbag of ball fakes and a cadence designed to exploit the space he knows he’ll have. This far into his career, it’s fair to wonder if he rathers it this way. Having a defender play up on him, while it would make things easier, would also mean he has to change.
Factoring in Rondo’s demonstrably headstrong nature, it’s still sacrilegious to accuse a player of throwing a playoff game - or at least the part they were involved in - in the name of spite. Unfortunately, the case for his “back injury” wasn’t exactly well argued.
Speaking to the media post-game, Carlisle gave uninformative answers to any related questions, except one:
Do you expect Rajon Rondo to ever wear a Mavericks uniform again? "No, I don't," Rick Carlisle said.
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) April 22, 2015
The man himself didn’t speak to anyone. He cleared out his locker and never came back to the team.
Along with his tarnished reputation and an “eff you” from his teammates, Rondo left Dallas with averages well below the nightly double-doubles he turned in as a Celtic.
The decline in production wasn’t all to do with his attitude, as he suffered a torn ACL midway through his most impressive statistical campaign in 2013. A 6’1” guard with a shaky jump shot simply can’t afford to lose a step.
The Mavs trumpeted their hope that a move away from a rebuilding environment would snap him out of the 30 game funk he’d started when he returned to the floor in Boston. As it turned out, neither better (at least, on paper they were better) teammates nor a win-now ethos were enough to right the ship.
The obvious analogy is that Dallas wanted Rondo to be a “square peg in a round hole.”
Carlisle’s vaunted pick and roll spread offense is best captured by this Tyson Chandler quote about his time in it: “The ball dictates the shot, not the person.” It’s for this reason that ‘square peg’ doesn’t go far enough to explain Rondo’s struggles and poor chemistry with apparently everyone in the organisation.
When a team acquires Rondo, Rondo dictates the shots. The better metaphor, perhaps, is that he is not a cog in a machine, he’s the CPU – he tells all the cogs what to do.
Per NBA.com, Sacramento’s top 5 offensive line-ups this season (by points per 100 possessions) all include Rondo. He trails only Westbrook for the league lead in assist percentage, a measure of the made baskets that player assists while he’s on the floor. Rondo’s is a sky high 45.8% so far – so in other words, when he’s in the game, almost 1 out of every 2 Kings buckets comes from one of his assists. (For reference, John Wall paced all comers at 44.6% last season.)
He’s resumed his role as a genuine floor general, a mantle held by CP3, the aforementioned Wall and few others. Their teammates aren’t asked to do much more than get to their favourite spot and wait.
It’s been said that LeBron, with his ability to do everything at a high level, can “bend” a defense however he likes before taking advantage of the weak spot he’s created. Rondo and his small group of peers don’t so much bend a defensive unit as lull it into a false sense of security. They make it think it has everything covered, when in reality they just haven’t seen all the possibilities.
From a strange union of damaged goods – Rondo, the player; Sacramento, the franchise – has come a mutually beneficial outcome. The Kings are 8-15 after a horrific 1-7 start and, safe to say, would be even better placed were Cousins able to keep himself off the injury and suspension lists.
In the battle royale that is the Western Conference, where all except the Lakers, Nuggets and Blazers would likely claim to have playoff aspirations, 40-45 wins may be enough to qualify. To this point, matchups amongst potential seeds 3-8 have been best-team-on-the-night propositions.
Rondo has averaged 16, 7 and 11 and shot .440 on 3’s (woah…) in the Kings 8 wins. Cousins is clearly the franchise player, and you can basically pencil his 25-10 into the boxscore before each game, but it may well be Rondo’s play which decides when the Kings’ 2015-16 season ends.
Regardless of whether it’s this year or in three or five, from those of us who love to watch a point genius at work, may the next act of the Playoff Rondo saga feature his talent instead of his attitude.