NBA Sunday: Rajon Rondo Will Bounce Back

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This summer, Rajon Rondo is going to make someone look very smart, just like Pau Gasol has done for Chicago Bulls general manager Gar Forman.

Over the course of the past season, the deterioration of the relationship between Rondo and Dallas Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle has received quite a bit of attention, with two incidents more than others causing a whirlwind of negativity.

In a February 2015 game against the Toronto Raptors, trailing by seven points, despite the presence of three white jerseys, Rondo, Dirk Nowitzki and Richard Jefferson were beat to a loose ball by Amir Johnson. Johnson scooped up the ball as the three Mavericks lazily watched. He laid the ball into the basket over Tyson Chandler and suddenly, Carlisle had seen enough.

After signaling for a timeout, Carlisle and Rondo got into a profanity-laced exchange as the point guard headed to the bench. From there, Rondo would watch the remaining 20-some-odd minutes of the contest. With Rondo on the bench the remainder of the way, the Mavericks would outscore the Raptors 46-30 and turn what was a 62-53 deficit into a 99-92 win.

“It’s an emotional game and we had a difference of opinion,” Carlisle said afterward.

“There was an exchange and then, in my mind, it was over.”

The coach was referencing the altercation, but he could have just as easily been speaking of Rondo’s career as a Dallas Maverick.

Prior to that point, Rondo had noticeably had a tough time fitting in with Carlisle and his well-renowned preference to call plays from the bench. Carlisle’s reluctance to give his point guards the freedom to operate the offense has long been a source of frustration with his point guards. That list includes quite a few of Rondo’s predecessors.

Over time, the two became mutually frustrated with one another, with Rondo becoming unhappy because he felt as though Carlisle’s offensive schemes relegated him and his role, and often took the ball out of his hands and pushed him to weak side corners. Because he is a poor shooter, taking the ball out of Rondo’s hands and pushing him to a corner while some combination of Monta Ellis, Nowitzki and Chandler played pick-and-roll doesn’t exactly qualify as “effective usage.”

Hoping that the 29-year-old Rondo could provide a long-term solution at point guard for the Mavericks, Carlisle and Mark Cuban each did their best to move on from the February incident, but Carlisle and Rondo—each strong personalities in their own right—had already soured on one another. Disagreements and disrespectful encounters filled with snark and sarcasm became rather routine, according to one person around the team, and by the time the playoffs had begun, Rondo had not only passed the point of no return, he had become the point of no return.

A few months later, in Game 2 of their first round series loss to the Houston Rockets, there were a number of instances wherein Rondo and Carlisle were obviously not on the same page, but their relationship was fractured beyond repair long before that.

Now, as he is set to become an unrestricted free agent, his failed trial in Dallas, coupled with the fact that he still has not looked like the player he was prior to tearing his ACL in January 2013 has many wondering just what Rondo has left to give, what kind of value he can provide an NBA team and whether or not he would even be worth the trouble.

For the right price, he is still a risk worth taking.

* * * * *

In a quiet corner of the Los Angeles Lakers practice facility, the Spaniard had just finished another routine day. It was April 2013, and Pau Gasol—the four-time All-Star and two-time NBA champion—answered questions about how he fit and what had become of his team.

Over the years, under both Phil Jackson and Mike Brown, Gasol had become a bit of a punching bag. When the Lakers seemed to lack toughness, they blamed Pau.

When the team lost winnable games, they blamed Pau.

Sometimes, even when Kobe Bryant shot a bit too much, the solution, often, was to blame Pau.

Gasol’s pre-Mike D’Antoni tenure as a member of the Lakers, will be remembered for his rising as a champion just as much as it will be remembered for being marked by questions about his motor and his fire and why, for some reason, he seemed unable to play each day with the fire and passion that seemed to be there only sporadically.

Under D’Antoni, though, things were a bit different.

Unlike his predecessors, D’Antoni openly questioned Gasol’s ability to flourish in his offensive system—a system, mind you, that hadn’t won a thing. D’Antoni rode into Los Angeles extolling his virtues and that of his vision and attempted to sell a fan base and player personnel on a vision that, at that time, was unproven.

Publicly, never one to hold his tongue, D’Antoni often made snide and crude remarks and took jobs at Gasol as he mandated that the four-time All-Star and two-time NBA Champion get more comfortable playing with his face to the basket and develop his three-point shooting ability.

So now, after their relationship had become poisoned and after D’Antoni had benched Gasol in favor of Earl Clark earlier in the season, here Gasol was after another routine day in practice, answering questions about how, why and whether he should fit into the offensive system of a coach whose credentials pale in comparison to his. How ridiculous.

With a nonchalant shrug, Gasol said it quite simply as he nodded, his curly hair soaked and his lips perched.

“The personnel that we have here is not fitting in with his philosophy,” Gasol said.

The Lakers, who had lost Kobe Bryant due to a ruptured achilles tendon suffered three days prior, would go on to the playoffs and get swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.

To say that Gasol and D’Antoni did not get along would be putting it lightly. The two had exchanged jabs back-and-forth in the media, with Gasol indirectly indicting the head coach by criticizing the “lack of discipline” that he often felt his team played with. D’Antoni made remarks about Gasol needing to “stop crying” and needing to be “mentally tough.”

Gasol may have been a scapegoat prior to this point, but he had never been publicly disrespected or used as a punching bag.

Predictably, Gasol’s body language deteriorated and his effort waned. He averaged just 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds per game for the Lakers over the course of the 2012-13 season and, thanks in part to the departure of Dwight Howard, 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds per game during the 2013-14 season.

His final year in Los Angeles, however, saw the Lakers turn in a 27-55 record. Missing Bryant for all but six games doomed the season, but the relationship between Gasol and D’Antoni had been doomed before that.

Entering free agency in July 2014, at 32 years old, after dealing with a number of nagging injuries over his latter years in Los Angeles and after having seen his more productive years pass him by, it seemed that Gasol had begun his inevitable descent into mediocrity.

Gasol’s advancing age and waning production led to questions as to whether or not he could still be a primary contributor on a championship contender.

Sound familiar?

Now, one year later, the three-year, $22 million deal that Forman signed Gasol to last July may be one of the best value contracts in the league, considering that Gasol is coming off of a season in which he was named an All-Star for the fifth time in his career. How and to what extent newly installed coach Fred Hoiberg utilizes Gasol will certainly play a role here, but there is no question that Gasol both still has something left in the tank and that he can still contribute at a championship level.

Gasol hand-picked his new home and that’s the beauty of free agency—a breath of fresh air, a new lease on life.

What Rondo experienced in Dallas is no different than what a host of other NBA players experience over the course of their careers. Gasol included.

Now, Rondo has the opportunity to make his own decision.

* * * * *

One of the least discussed things as it relates to NBA players and their productivity is their psyche. The gross majority of the basketball-watching public does not interact with NBA players on a day-to-day basis or ever have real life conversations outside of basketball, so it is often easy to forget and overlook the fact that even your favorite superstar is human.

People who are happy at work tend to perform better. So when Rondo becomes a free agent, rather than listening to the critiques that others have of him, he will have the opportunity to interview head coaches and general managers and discuss with them where, when and how he can fit.

Rondo will have the opportunity to talk basketball with prospective teammates, imagine fitting in with personnel and honing parts of his game to better his team. These are opportunities that the 29-year-old never had with Doc Rivers, Brad Stevens or Rick Carlisle. But now, the opportunity to choose his new home? One may be surprised by the profound impact that often has on a player whose best days seem to have passed him by.

It’s called rejuvenation. This past season, we saw it with Gasol and, to a lesser extent, coincidentally, with Rondo’s current teammate, Tyson Chandler.

Although Rondo has a reputation for being ill-tempered and a sometimes challenging personality, he is not far removed from being one of the best floor generals in the entire league. As a point guard, his timing, instincts and rebounding ability were off the charts. His ability to find teammates in spots and situations where they could be effective was second to none. This is past tense, of course, but at one point, the masses similarly thought that both Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose were “done” from a productivity standpoint.

Not exactly the case, was it?

Often, it takes a player two years to fully recover and revert to pre-injury form after suffering a debilitating injury. The great many of us just lack patience and understanding. There is no guarantee that Rondo will revert to his pre-injury form, but it is also too early to proclaim that the 29-year-old is no longer a championship contributor because of what has transpired over the past few years.

After one year in Chicago, Gasol has re-entered the conversation as being one of the top big men around. And one year from now, it should strike nobody as a surprise if Rondo, like Gasol, is helping a team lead a playoff charge and making some general manager look very smart as a result.

In Dallas, Rondo is the point of no return. But Gasol and Forman will tell you, a change of scenery can work wonders.