Rajon Rondo is a Flat Circle
After spending the back half of his prime as a forgotten journeyman, the New Orleans Pelicans point guard is back to defying expectations. Haven't we been here before?
All Illustrations by Elliot Gerard/ @ElliotGerard
About an hour after the New Orleans Pelicans fell into an 0-2 hole in their second-round matchup against the seemingly unbeatable Golden State Warriors, Rajon Rondo strolled into Oracle Arena’s interview room, handed his black dopp kit to a Pelicans staffer, and, flanked by Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday, took a seat at the well-lit podium in front of a few dozen media members.
In a game that was overshadowed by Steph Curry’s highly anticipated return to the postseason, Rondo’s performance was masterful. He finished with an efficient 22 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds, and five steals, while the Pelicans outscored the Warriors by two points in the 38 minutes he was on the floor. Rondo was everywhere, barking into Draymond Green’s neck right before halftime, drilling three out of his four three-point attempts, exuding fearless aggression inside a building that takes fewer prisoners than any other in recent basketball history.
Coming off a post-All-Star break run in which only four teams finished with more wins than his Pelicans, and followed by the stunning ceremonial slaughter of the Portland Trail Blazers in Round 1, for the first time in a very long time, Rondo has grabbed the emotional and strategic reins of a successful basketball team. It’s a full-on Rajonaissance, featuring a dynamic nobody ever thought we’d see again: One of the NBA’s 30 franchises needs him more than he needs them.
As they answer questions, New Orleans’s trio balances playful scorn with outward frostiness. Rondo sits through most of the session like a statue, unblinking and stiff. His voice is monotone. He knows what went wrong in Game 2, has a clearer understanding of how to fix it than anyone in the room, and reveals no more than 3 percent of what he’s actually thinking.
His stellar play is one of the more surprising developments in the entire playoffs, and, for better or worse, he's currently perched as New Orleans’s primary voice. Rondo’s reconnection with the NBA zeitgeist is somehow both implausible and a clear manifestation of his own intelligence, wit, and physical ability. He’s somehow still writing chapters to a book that ostensibly ran out of narrative juice (at least) a couple years ago, and now, as he sits on a stage reserved for the league's most important figures, there’s no telling when it’ll actually end.
Over the past couple weeks, I asked several players and coaches what differences they see in present-day Rondo compared to the four-time All-Star who insidiously ravaged opposing teams half a decade ago. The answers were virtually unanimous.
“He’s always been like this. He’s just a wicked smart point guard.”
“Nothing. I’m not trying to be funny. Nothing,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr says. “He’s always been like this. He’s just a wicked smart point guard.” Rondo’s own coach, Alvin Gentry, agrees: “I don’t think it’s any different. I mean, he still gets a ton of assists. He still rebounds the basketball as a point guard. He pushes the basketball and makes plays for other people. That’s kind of what he’s been since he came into the league.”
In a way, this is true. Rondo is as savvy and pesky as ever. He’s a traffic cop on defense who relentlessly chirps out opposing coverages and whisks impossible bounce passes through the narrowest canals. He leads the postseason in assists, harnesses a disrespected jump shot that’s barely good enough to punish those who ignore it, regularly flirts with triple-doubles, and is leading his teammates with innate qualities possessed by very few.
Now is as good a time as any to announce that Rondo is my favorite basketball player of all time. I was born just outside Boston and watched him blossom from an intriguing accessory on a veteran-led world champion to the heartbeat of a routine title contender.
My religion was apologizing for his undeniable flaws, and for at least two years the Celtics PA announcer bellowing his name in front of a raucous crowd (RONDOOOOOOO!) was my ringtone. Boston traded him to the Dallas Mavericks on my Mom’s birthday. I was so bummed I almost forgot to call her. (Key word: “almost.” Love you, Mom!)
Some of my most memorable NBA experiences, professional and otherwise, aligned with Rondo’s initial ascent, and as I sit in an Oakland hotel room covering his surge back into relevance, I can’t help but think back to all the times his individual genius lifted Boston above and beyond where the general consensus expected it to go. It was inspiring, the way he dominated so fluidly with no reliable way to generate points on his own.
So many of Rondo's box scores belong in a vault, but none are more important than the superstar-cementing masterpiece on May 9, 2010, two days after the Celtics fell victim to a 29-point shellacking in the worst home playoff loss since they acquired Kevin Garnett.
It was a crucial Game 4 against LeBron James and the heavily favored, top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers. I was in Quito, Ecuador at the time, vacationing through South America after my college graduation. NBA broadcasts were almost impossible to find, but a relatively boisterous section of the country’s capital city called “Gringolandia” had a few bars that would illegally stream games from a projector if you asked nicely.
I was the only one who really cared, though, and my Spanish was choppier than the feed. Whenever the screen froze, I’d race up to the bartender, point at the wall, and mime a jump shot until he refreshed the link. ¡Rondo, por favor! An argument can be made that this performance—a 29-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist gem in which the Celtics outscored the Cavs by 14 points in his 47 minutes—was what drove LeBron to the Miami Heat. It was a must-win game against a hungry team that was poised to win it all. Instead, Rondo carried Boston to another level by anchoring a magic show.
He forced himself to the free-throw line for a career-high 16 attempts and extended Boston’s status as a championship contender when they made a second Finals run in three seasons a few weeks later. (This also wasn’t the last time Rondo stepped into a critical playoff game and outplayed a couple Hall of Famers.) Nights like this are what turned Rondo’s critics into disciples, a trend that steadily continued into his mid-20’s.
"¡Rondo, por favor!"
But even at his apex, Rondo’s game was picked apart in ways that made me like him even more. The jump shot was cancerous. His confident genius rubbed people the wrong way. He padded stats. His defense was lazy. Through it all I obsessed over how unique Rondo truly was, from how he froze defenders with a behind-the-back fake that will live on in younger generations long after he retires, to his impossible resilience. It was stylish, gritty, and effective. For the first six years of his career, Boston’s net rating, offensive rating, and effective field goal percentage were excellent with Rondo on the court but took a notable dip whenever he sat.
“He has a great computer in him,” says Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams, who spent one season with Rondo as an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics. “He sees things quickly, and then his ability to act on what he’s seeing—not react, but to act—it’s a real gift as a player, and everyone doesn’t have it.”
Two years after Rondo demolished the Cavs, I sat eye level with TD Garden’s vertigo-friendly catwalk, far enough from the court that any sound of a ball chiming off the rim was seen long before it was heard, covering my very first NBA game.
Back and forth they went, the unflinching, erratic Philadelphia 76ers against what felt like an entire era of Celtics tension. Dull jabs were exchanged while LeBron and his eventual champion Heat lay waiting in the Eastern Conference Finals.
It was Game 7 and stakes were unusually high for both teams as they fought to preserve a time in their organization’s history that was on the verge of imploding. With four minutes left and Boston up three, disaster struck. Paul Pierce drove middle off a high screen, crashed square into Thaddeus Young’s chest, and picked up his sixth personal foul. The Celtics would have to win without their go-to scorer in the exact type of game Pierce was born to drag them through.
But it didn’t take even 30 seconds for Rondo to answer, when he scooched baseline for a layup. The Sixers responded by backing Evan Turner down on Ray Allen, then coughing up a tough baseline turnaround. Rondo crashed in for the rebound then set Garnett up with a post switch on Turner. Philly swarmed the left block with a wide-eyed Elton Brand, and the possession petered into a game of hot potato.
With the play all but broken, Brandon Bass passed to Rondo and ESPN’s play-by-play announcer Mike Breen needed four words to set up the sequence: “Daring Rondo to shoot.” With a toe on the line and four seconds on the shot clock, he drilled a 23-footer. The crowd exploded.
Boston’s offense stalled again on the next play, and again Bass flipped a live grenade to Rondo with four seconds on the shot clock. This time he stood at least three feet beyond the arc on the right side of the court. For all intents and purposes, the game ended as soon as the ball fell through the net.
He was a full-blown star, coming off his third-straight All-Star game and recognition as an All-NBA guard for the first (and only) time in his career. It was also eight months shy of the torn ACL that drove his career into a downward spiral.
But until then, few players could force game action to flow through their own intentions better than Rondo. He was a singular maestro who momentarily delivered sweet chin music to the league’s revolutionary embrace of the three-point shot. Somehow, half a decade later, he’s found a way to do it again.
Rondo is 32 years old, on his fourth team in four years. He hasn’t sniffed an All-Star team or been considered one of the premier players at his position in what feels like an eternity. Before New Orleans, he fell into one controversy after another, and heading into this season—his 12th—Rondo was more relic than vanguard in every way possible.
According to Synergy Sports, defenders went under the screen more frequently when he ran a pick-and-roll than against anyone else in the league by a significant margin this year. He’s a man of contradictions and maddening variance who’s also responsible for some of the most beautiful and inventive basketball you’ll ever see. “He’s probably created different passes throughout his career,” Kevin Durant says with a chuckle after Game 1.
This is not Rondo’s peak, but it’s by far the best he’s consistently looked since his days as an All-Star, and it’s no coincidence that right now the Pelicans are the most complete they’ve been since Davis became their savior. In hindsight, maybe this sea change was somewhat predictable. A good fit, in more ways than one, is everything for almost everybody in the NBA. For someone like Rondo—an accomplished, idiosyncratic agitator who requires more than specific skill-sets by his side to blossom—nothing matters more. He’s thriving in an unstructured environment that lets him orchestrate as he wishes.
Even before DeMarcus Cousins tore his Achilles, Rondo found himself playing for a head coach who lacks ego, inside an organization that was happy to let him infiltrate and mold their culture. After Cousins went down, Rondo’s circumstances transformed into even more of a mutual benefit—Davis and Holiday are ideal complementary pieces on both ends—and playing with legitimately high stakes hasn’t hurt the degree to which he's engaged.
“Each year is different,” Rondo says. “Personnel is a lot different. The organization is completely different, so it’s been different. It’s been a learning experience. I try to learn everywhere I go.”
The third act of Rondo’s career, wherein he morphed into a journeyman, was as sobering as it gets. The league-wide migration out to the three-point line poured gas on his weaknesses and then lit a match. Beyond Connect Four jokes, Rondo had all but faded from the public consciousness as a malcontent/mercenary, and when news first broke that he was headed to New Orleans it felt more like a depressing final stop than an actual opportunity for him to give his own career CPR.
What we’re seeing now—him flourishing in an uptempo system that allows its point guard to improvise whenever he wants—has the potential to recontextualize his entire career. The IDGAF persona is glowing. The oft-acerbic way he communicates with co-workers has drawbacks—Rondo likes to antagonize Pelicans coaches during film sessions with questions seemingly intended to test their intelligence, and has a habit of running sets that aren’t even in New Orleans’s playbook—but has also turned him into a beloved figure who’s appreciated by teammates, both in and away from the game.
“One of the nice things I think someone can say about you in your life is that you’re eccentric. It’s not a negative term,” Adams says. “We have Draymond Green on our team and I love Draymond. My first couple years here there would be things that would happen and he’d yell at me on the bench. But Draymond, like Rondo, [is] about winning, and they also have a standard that drives them, that they try to impart.”
What’s happening right now is deeper than “Playoff Rondo,” a concept Rondo hates and has always been, frankly, a rude way to explain his success. (Most players who study the game as often as Rondo does find the opportunity to dig into one opponent for two weeks, with more rest and less travel, advantageous.)
“The ‘Playoff Rondo’ thing is almost an insult, really, because it’s saying that [his] game completely changes when the playoffs come,” Gentry says. “And me, personally, I don’t see that at all.”
Narratives are unbelievably powerful in the NBA, particularly when attached to a mercurial dissident who’s appealing enough to create a cult of personality among his most devoted fans. But Rondo’s presence was critical before the postseason began. The Pelicans outscored opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions whenever he took the floor with Davis and without Cousins. (A quick glance at Nikola Mirotic’s numbers with Rondo on and off the floor shows how helpful the point guard has been; Mirotic recently called Rondo one of the best teammates he’s ever had.)
His bounce passes would reach their destination even if the court were a piano string, and his half-court lobs are soft enough to bounce off a spider’s web. “In terms of really trying get guys going, how to get guys going, there’s a certain precision in the way his basketball mind works,” Pelicans center Emeka Okafor says. “He’s very, very particular and sees everything. Everything.”
On the other end, as someone who deteriorated from a perennial All-Defensive team candidate to a disengaged freelancer in recent years (that’s an extremely charitable description), New Orleans only allowed 99.2 points per 100 possessions with Rondo on the court after the All-Star break, a mark that would’ve ranked second in the league.
What makes him so valuable to the Pelicans stretches beyond all that he does on court, though. Through a group text among players that was created before the season began, Rondo tries to get everyone together as often as possible, whether New Orleans is on the road or not.
“It usually works out, building chemistry and camaraderie on the team,” Rondo says. “We all don’t have to get along off the court, but for the most part you make a small sacrifice when you come on the road and you do group activities.”
On their first night in San Francisco before this series began, Rondo arranged for dinner at Crustacean, an upscale restaurant located in the city’s historic Nob Hill neighborhood. Before that was a yoga session, which has become one of his favorite ways to get new faces on the team to bond.
“My suspicion is he’s at the peak point of his career in terms of leadership,” Adams says. “I think he’s happy to be on a really good team, and I think he’s probably grateful for the people he gets to direct...My perception might be wrong on that, but that’s what I see on the team at the moment. I think he’s probably a better leader and probably less volatile than at one point in his career when he was younger.”
Throughout the season, Rondo has gone out of his way to invite teammates over to his house, just to relax, eat dinner, play ping-pong, whatever. And the competitive edge he carries with him in just about every area of life—during pre-practice warm-up sessions, Rondo likes to tease younger players whenever he gets lower than them during a stretch—has been contagious.
At 1 AM on the night New Orleans lost Game 1, Pelicans guard Ian Clark’s phone started to buzz. It was Rondo. Where you at? Let’s watch film. “I watch more film independently this year than I have over the course of my whole career,” Clark says. “He’s always texting me. ‘Hey young’n did you watch film? Did you watch your minutes?’ It never stops with him.”
Sometimes the best way to shake a toxic reputation is to lean in and own it. Rondo hasn’t exactly done that, but he’s also stayed true to who he is. In so many different ways, landing in New Orleans when and how he did is the lucky pivot point that’s nearly propelled him back to where he once was. It’s a perfect place for him to be, and he’s taken advantage in several different ways.
“I think Alvin is a really good head coach for him to be around at this point,” Adams says. “Alvin’s very eclectic and he’s innovative, and he’s accepting. A lot of good things from the standpoint of his coaching that I can see working well with Rondo.”
It wasn’t always like this, though. The explosive end to his brief tenure with the Dallas Mavericks cost Rondo a chunk of his stature and respect around the league; a disgusting, abusive episode with referee Bill Kennedy crossed a line of human decency; and Rondo publicly feuded with Chicago’s franchise player and hometown hero in his one season with the Bulls. All those events are impossible to ignore—especially when he’s your favorite player—and, to varying degrees, should weigh into any discussion another team may have this summer when deciding whether signing him is actually worth it.
“I would just say if you’re not strong willed, strong minded, he’ll attack you,” Clark says. “It’s nothing personal, but you just can’t be sensitive around him.”
What we’re seeing in New Orleans may just be lightning in a bottle, mostly thanks to Cousins’s injury and the trickle down effect it’s had on Gentry’s rotation. (Rondo, Cousins, and Davis on the floor at the same time had a negative point differential this year, and the Pelicans were atrocious whenever Rondo and Cousins played without Davis.) But as a free agent this summer, Rondo probably can’t find a better situation than the one he’s in, supporting a top-five player who’s yet to reach his prime. Look across the league. Individual and team success is beyond slim in any other environment, even if he’s willing to come off the bench.
"If you’re not strong willed, strong minded, he’ll attack you...It’s nothing personal, but you just can’t be sensitive around him.”
The way Rondo yearns for control can grate those who're around him all the time, whether it’s the need to be a dealer shuffling cards on the team plane or opining when the team bus should leave from the hotel to the arena. His general desire to exist above traditional hierarchies is ironically both what makes him great and a massive headache. Rondo is not for everyone, but those who value what he has to offer will often walk away from interactions with a different viewpoint.
“He’s a guy who you could say what’s on your mind, and he digests it, thinks about it,” Adams says. “And I think I found over the years, people like that are, first of all, fun to coach and they keep you on your toes. But the relationship you grow with people like this I think is special simply because there’s a level of honesty. You might not agree all the time, but there’s a level of candor there that I found really appealing with him.”
There’s no simple way to analyze Rondo the man, and understanding who he is ultimately boils down to competing perspectives. But a more transparent takeaway from these past few months is that his play can still border on brilliant when it needs to, and the Pelicans wouldn’t be close to what they are had they never let him behave the only way he knows how.