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Rajon Rondo Finding His Groove in Sacramento

After a few seasons of inconsistent play, Rajon Rondo is finally looking like his old self with the Kings.

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When the Dallas Mavericks traded for Rajon Rondo last season, they hoped he would be the missing piece to their championship puzzle. Unfortunately, Rondo was, at best, an awkward fit. He gummed up the Mavericks’ efficient, improvisational offense, provided inconsistent effort defensively and was such a disruptive presence that he was eventually told to stay home in the postseason.

After tearing his ACL in January of 2013 and flaming out in Dallas, the free agent market was uncertain for Rondo this past offseason. It wasn’t clear how much teams would be willing to invest in the 29-year-old former champion. Rondo is a four-time NBA All-Star and was selected to the All-NBA Third Team once, the All-NBA Second Team twice and led the league in assists twice (2012, 2013). However, since his ACL tear, Rondo has not been able to play at his pre-injury level consistently and has a well-documented history of clashing with his coaches, which also hurts his value.

Fortunately for Rondo, the Sacramento Kings had the financial flexibility to make some major additions last offseason and offered him a one-year, $9.5 million deal. The contract was criticized by members of the media and fans as being risky and lacking long-term value. To be sure, there are issues with giving a one-year, make-good deal to a veteran point guard who is looking to rehab his image. But if the Kings’ only concern was having vintage Rajon Rondo on their squad for the 2015-16 season, then the signing has been a success so far.

Last season, Rondo averaged 11.6 points, 8.2 assists, 5.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game with the Mavericks. This season, Rondo is averaging 12.8 points, 11.2 assists, 7.5 rebounds (a career-high) and 1.9 steals per game.

Through 17 games, he has tallied four triple-doubles and was one rebound away from his fifth against the Miami HEAT, which would have tied Sacramento’s all-time single season triple-double record, set by Chris Webber in 2005. He also set the franchise record for assists in a single game by racking up 20 against the Charlotte Hornets. In his last game, he registered 16 points, 16 assists and four rebounds and became the first player since 1977-78 to have 16 points, 16 assists and no turnovers, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

So how has Rondo managed such a dramatic turnaround just months after being told by his former team to go home during the postseason?

Well, there are a couple of factors involved.

He is handling the ball significantly longer than any other player on the team, and is fourth overall in the league in time of possession, behind only Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard and Reggie Jackson. Some may view this as a bad thing since Rondo has been criticized in the past for dominating the ball too much in his quest to rack up a large number of assists. However, while Rondo does have the ball in his hands a lot this season, he is consistently moving the ball quickly and decisively within the flow of Sacramento’s offense.

For example, Rondo touches the ball a league-leading 101.3 times per game, but is 33rd in the league in average seconds per touch (4.56 seconds), first in passes per game (79.2), first in potential assists (19.7) and first in assists points created (26.7). So while Rondo is still handling the ball a lot and dribbling into the lane waiting to find open shooters, he is not dominating the ball to the detriment of his team’s success. He is looking for his teammates releasing off of pin down screens, in the pick-and-roll and off of his own penetration through opposing defenses.

Perhaps we should have expected Rondo to be racking up assists this season. He is the lead guard under head coach George Karl, who is known for coaching his teams to push the pace on offense. This season, the Kings are number two in pace and have a decent core of shooters for Rondo to target (five of Rondo’s teammates are shooting above 38 percent from beyond-the-arc on more than 36 three-point attempts). Factor in the shooters, the pace and Rondo looking to reestablish himself as an elite point guard, and it becomes more obvious that this sort of start was a possibility for Rondo.

While passing has always come naturally to Rondo, his shooting has always been an issue. For his career, Rondo is shooting 46.9 percent from the field, 26.9 percent from three, 60.5 percent from the free-throw line, maintaining a 50.2 True Shooting Percentage. However, Rondo is shooting much better overall from the field this season than he did last season with Dallas and Boston, as we can see in his shooting charts below.

Rondo’s shaky shooting has always been an issue, so there’s reason to believe his percentages could dip moving forward. However, at least through the early part of this season, Rondo has shown an aggressive edge to his offensive game that we didn’t see consistently last year in Boston and Dallas. He is currently shooting 12.5 field goal attempts per game, which is a career-high (though his field goal attempt rate is similar to last season on a per minute basis). But more importantly than simply taking a healthy amount of shots per game, Rondo is attacking the basket with more aggression and is stepping into his jump-shots confidently and has more burst attacking the rim, which is helping him finish over defenders more consistently than last season.

While it’s encouraging to see Rondo racking up assists and shooting more effectively from the field, it should be noted that his individual success is not translating into team success. As of November 28, the Kings are 6-11 and rapidly falling out of playoff contention in the always competitive Western Conference. The Kings have put together an above league-average offense, but their defense has been a mess, giving up 105.6 points per 100 possessions. Poor team defense is not specifically Rondo’s fault, but he doesn’t necessarily help the situation either. With Rondo on the court, the Kings are giving up 106.3 points per 100 possessions. In fact, with Rondo off the court, the Kings are only being outscored by 0.7 points per 100 possessions, as opposed to 4.6 points per 100 with Rondo on the court. In addition, Rondo has a 0.62 Real Plus-Minus rating, which is good for 19th among all qualified point guards, and places him behind players like Mo Williams, Ronnie Price and Cory Joseph. These plus/minus statistics can be somewhat misleading so early in the season, but they provide some context and show that despite Rondo’s individual statistics, he’s not exactly helping the Kings win games.

There are a lot of big picture questions that still remain with Rondo. The first one is whether he can keep up his recent play? As previously stated, Rondo has always been a gifted passer and as the lead guard in George Karl’s up-tempo offense, with a decent amount of shooters around him, he should be able to maintain his league-leading assist rate. His improved shooting could drop off, though he recently stated that he believes he still has room to improve.

“I worked my (butt) off this summer and I’m continuing to get better,” said Rondo following the team’s game in Miami. “Now, I still have room to improve. I want to improve my shooting, my free throw shooting, keeping my turnovers down. I still have a lot of room to grow.”

We have seen players with shaky shooting mechanics start off hot after a full offseason of training, but often times those players regress as the season progresses. Again, it’s likely that Rondo’s three-point shooting will eventually regress to the mean, but since he is such a threat with his passing and he looks more explosive than last season, there is reason to believe he will continue to shoot effectively at the rim.

The problem for the Kings is that they only managed to sign Rondo for one season. If he continues to play at this level, he will certainly find a big offer next offseason when the cap is set to explode and multiple teams will suddenly have financial flexibility. If Sacramento wants to keep Rondo, they will likely have to offer him a big, lengthy contract. Considering the fact that he hasn’t really helped the Kings play at a higher level and his notable history of creating discord, it’s not clear that he’s worth that kind of investment.

Furthermore, as great as Rondo has been so far, it would not be surprising if he suddenly regressed midseason. What happens if and when the Kings fall completely out of the playoff picture and have nothing left to play for?

It’s great to see Rondo returning to his preinjury level of play. It’s encouraging to see him look dialed in and invested in Sacramento’s success. But even though he is leading the league in assists, shooting the ball relatively well and looks healthier than in recent seasons, there are still a lot of questions that surround Rondo. But as long as he keeps racking up assists, setting records and posting triple-doubles, he is bound to get a huge offer from someone, for better or for worse.

 

Statistics are courtesy of NBA.com/stats, basketball-reference.com and statmuse.com.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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