The Greek Tragedy Of Rajon Rondo (Part Two)
Torn ACLs, interference from the ‘gods above’, and defeat at the end spells up the second half of Rajon Rondo’s Greek Tragedy…
NOTE: This is part two of a two-part series looking at the collapse of Rajon Rondo’s career. Part one can be found here.
LOUISVILLE, KY — Rajon Rondo looks older than 34 years old.
Even in his prime, Rondo always looked to be older than he actually was, but there’s a tired look in his eyes years after his last NBA game.
At least Rondo is defying the legend that old people don’t know how to use modern technology. Working for the University of Louisville as an advisor to student-athletes, Rondo has up on his computer a story about the defending Western Conference champion Sacramento Kings, led by former teammates Jimmy Butler and DeMarcus Cousins.
Like Rondo, Cousins battled attitude issues early in his career and was always a name mentioned in trade talks, but he’s lasted in Sacramento long enough that the Kings figure to be championship favorites.
Is it fate, I ask Rondo, that the Kings turned into an NBA powerhouse all because Cousins matured and decided to stay in that part of California?
“I don’t believe in fate anymore,” Rajon says, pausing to stare at a picture of him alongside Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce during their time together in Boston. “But I do think that after the torn ACL, fate wanted me to fail.”
For a player who seemed to enjoy the stardom that came with playing in Boston, the January 2013 announcement that Rajon Rondo had torn his ACL and would miss the remainder of the 2012–13 season came without much fanfare. There wasn’t a vomit-inducing sight of him sprawled out on the court like Derrick Rose, nor was there a heartwarming moment of him waving to the crowd as he was lifted off.
Nope. During halftime of what essentially became a season-changing win in double-overtime against the Heatles, the Celtics announced that their star point guard and the newest face of the franchise had caught the torn-ACL bug.
“It was a big blow to everybody in here, me included,” Kevin Garnett said after the announcement. “Man, that hurt. It’s tough. We had a tough game, came in, and he told the whole team in the locker room. It’s tough, tough on everybody. (Rondo is) becoming the heart and soul of this team. He’s coming into his own. Had some bumps in the road, but we’re just trying to be supportive for him.”
Somehow, the Celtics survived without Rondo and went 20–17 over the final 37 games (their penultimate game of the season against the Pacers in Boston was cancelled because of the Boston Bombings), but fell in the first round to an upstart New York Knicks team.
But over those final 37 games, the Celtics showed a sense of grit and hustle that would create optimism for the 2013–14 season. Paul Pierce averaged 18.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game at the age of 35, carrying a Boston team in desperate need of their captain. Despite being far from the player he was when he arrived in Beatdown, Garnett still put up 14.8 and 7.8 points a night.
Then, there were the young guys. Jared Sullinger showed flashes before a back injury knocked him out shortly after Rondo’s season ended and Avery Bradley — despite some issues on offense — stole the show with his defense and nearly led a comeback against the Knicks in that first-round.
“There’s a quality young core in place with Rondo, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger and possibly Olynyk,” Royce Young of CBS Sports wrote in the summer of 2013. “Ainge has the flexibility to add to it and maybe turn this thing around sooner than later. It’s one big step back to hopefully take two big leaps forward.”
You’ll notice there that neither Pierce nor Garnett are mentioned in Young’s article despite their successful 2012–13 campaigns and them still being the heart and soul of the Celtics. Well, about that…
I stand by the belief that, to this point, the June 2013 trade between the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics isn’t as lopsided as people make it out to be. Though the Nets mortgaged their entire future, trading three first-rounders and Gerald Wallace — the same Wallace who they gave Portland a first-round pick for not fifteen months prior — to the Celtics for Pierce, Garnett, and Jason Terry, let’s not act like the Celtics landed Karl Anthony-Towns or Joel Embiid as a result of Billy King’s idiocy.
Nothing about this trade made sense. Not the amount of first-rounders being given up by Brooklyn for three players who, if they were getting quality minutes by the time the 2016 season started, then there were bigger problems. Not the fact that the Celtics couldn’t get more player-wise from the Nets (coming off a playoff berth with the talent they had, settling for Keith Bogans, MarShon Brooks, Kris Kardashian, Kris Joseph, and Wallace still seems like too little). Not the fact that both teams were seemingly alright with this.
And now, looking back all of these years later, not the fact that Danny Ainge would put so much pressure on Rondo. Had Rondo played bad enough in 2012–13 to the point where Ainge needed to re-evaluate if he was the future of the franchise, then I could at least accept trading Garnett and Pierce for draft picks and role players because they’d already have entered the rebuilding period.
If you look at the trades purely from a standpoint of the Celtics got three first-round picks from the Nets, then the Pierce/Garnett trade is considered a victory. But then you do some more research and you see that, around the 2013 trading deadline, the Celtics could have sent Pierce to Dallas in a three-way trade that would have netted them Josh Smith from Atlanta. Would that have been a better deal for the franchise in the long-term if Smith immediately agreed to sign an extension with the Celtics?
I want to take this time to say that as it stands right now, the current Celtics core of Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynk, and Al Horford is far from a bad roster. Brad Stevens and Danny Ainge have done a wonderful job speeding up the rebuild, even if they haven’t wound up with a star like Karl Anthony-Towns or a Giannis Antetokounmpo yet. If not for the fact that LeBron James plays in the East on such a deep roster, I’d even argue that Boston would have a serious chance of making the NBA Finals this year.
But it’s because of Rondo that the Celtics are the way they are right now, from Thomas catching fire in Boston to the team acquiring Crowder in the deal that sent their star point guard to Dallas. When you look at a Greek Tragedy — or any story, really — you’re forced to ask yourself ‘what if?’ What if the Celtics did trade Rondo for Curry in 2011 and took a chance on the latter’s injury issues? What if the NBA’s rules allowed a follow-up trade to Doc Rivers being sent to Los Angeles for a first-round pick and Kevin Garnett could have been traded for DeAndre Jordan?
What if, when the Celtics decided to trade Pierce and Garnett after the 2012–13 season, they took another look at their situation. In fact, let’s do that. Ready?
- Rondo was enjoying the best season of his career at age 26 before a torn ACL shut him down. Because Rondo is not a running back, he was still young, and plenty of other NBA players have bounced back successfully from this injury, it would have made sense to have optimism in Rondo’s future.
- In Rondo’s absence, Avery Bradley had established himself as part of the future while Jared Sullinger had made strides before getting injured. Jeff Green also showed major flashes after missing the 2011–12 season after being diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm. In other words, the talent was there and probably a full season away from everything clicking.
- Pierce had one more year on his contract and Garnett had two. Both could fetch something on the trade market, but Ainge would probably have to sell them together.
- If the Celtics went into the 2013 offseason and managed to land a high-name free agent like Tyreke Evans or Andrew Bynum, someone that they wouldn’t have to break the bank for but who could add another dimension to the team while Rondo was recovering? Instead, it seems like once Rondo got hurt, the Celtics said, “well, the future does look bright so let’s make some moves.”
So this is where we’re forced to ask: did Boston change their rebuilding situation because of the Rondo injury, or did they change it because of Brooklyn’s trade offer? Had the Nets not come along offering so many first-rounders, would Boston have tried to add a ‘star’ in free agency to play alongside Rondo, Bradley, and the rest of the new-look Irish?
It’s almost like whatever strategy Rondo had intended on winning another NBA Finals, the higher powers above decided to interfere and change things to their liking.
Of course, that leads to what can only be referred to as the end of days…
With the exception of Garnett and Pierce returning to Boston for the first time in January, Rondo’s 2013–14 season was fairly uneventful when he returned from his ACL tear. As per usual, the trade rumors persisted both before and after his December comeback, with the usual culprits for big name trades — the Knicks, the Rockets, the Lakers for some reason — but Rondo nearly lasted the entire 2014 calendar year in Boston.
But by this point, everyone knew a trade was coming. ESPN and NBA insiders reported nearly daily on who would try to trade for the All-Star next, idiot bloggers made posts with puns like ‘Rondo Lotto’, and the last remnants of the ‘Big Three’ era Celtics were about to be swept away.
It’s funny, in a way, that Rondo quickly went from the guaranteed face of the franchise and the man who would usher in a new era of Boston Celtics basketball to someone that could get a phone call about a trade on any given day. There’s something Greek to that story as the ‘hero’ looks in the mirror to see a clouded future that he can’t control.
To his credit, Rondo didn’t let the pressure of his final days in Boston get to him as he averaged 9.8 points and 8.5 assists over 98 games with the Celtics — but then again, when you’ve been involved in trade rumors for the bulk of your career, why be pressured?
And then, the end of days finally came. A week before Christmas in 2014, with the Celtics sitting at 9–14 and Rondo coming off a game where he scored 13 and had 15 assists against the Orlando Magic, trade rumor #282 turned out to be legit.
Rondo, as shocking as this may be to some now, actually handled the situation fairly well. There were no internet rants, no cursing Danny Ainge out on a viral video that was captured by a fan...only honesty.
“They’ve been a way of life since I’ve been here,” Rondo said on the eve of him being dealt. “It’s just part of it.”
Well, at least Rondo was getting dealt to a contender. In a year where Golden State was taking over the NBA with three after three, Dallas and their savvy, veteran core of Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, and Tyson Chandler, were headed for yet another playoff appearance and another 50 win season.
As had been the case since Jason Kidd’s departure after the 2011–12 season, however, the Mavericks lacked a point guard. Devin Harris was a shell of the All-Star he’d been with the New Jersey Nets and was best coming off the bench, Jameer Nelson lacked the skills necessary to be a starting point guard anymore — though his advanced shooting numbers looked pretty — and Monta Ellis was purely a two at this point in his career.
“The trade involves two teams pursuing different routes to championship contention. The Mavericks (19–8) hope an upgrade at point guard will propel them into the elite echelon of the brutal Western Conference,” Beckley Mason of the New York Times wrote shortly after the trade. “Meanwhile, the Celtics acquire more draft picks and an important trade exception — two things that will aid their long-term rebuilding efforts — in exchange for a player who was probably leaving in the off-season anyway.”
On paper, Rajon Rondo worked and was, for all intents and purposes, the best point guard option Dallas would have if they were to win one more title for Dirk. As Mason did note, what looks right on paper doesn’t always spell a guaranteed result in real-life.
“ Where will Rondo, a poor shooter in the middle of the worst shooting season of his career, fit into this ecosystem? And how will he and Carlisle — two of the most intelligent, stubborn and sometimes abrasive personalities in the league — mesh on the same sideline?”
Oh, how right he was…
If we stick with the on-paper stats, then Rajon Rondo’s 46 games in Dallas don’t sound too bad. 9.3 points and 6.5 assists a night aren’t spectacular, nor are they the stats he put up before the ACL injury. With their new point guard, the Mavericks finished with a 50–32 record on the season and entered the playoffs as the seven seed.
When we take a look at what happened on the court, though, things get a bit ugly. Of his 20 games with double-digit assists, only seven came with the Mavericks; eight of his ten best scoring outputs were after his trade to Dallas, including a season-best 29 against the Celtics on January 2, but Rondo’s -0.7 offensive win shares were the worst in a full season since his rookie year. The same goes for Rondo’s VORP (0.8, which was only slightly better than the 0.5 he put up in 30 games after returning from the ACL tear) and total win shares (1.6).
Then, there was a slight case of the injury bug and just general weirdness across his four months in Dallas. First, there was a collision with somehow-still-playing Richard Jefferson that led to fractures in his nasal and orbital bones.
Then, Rondo’s attitude when it came to coaches popped up in February, leading to a one-game suspension.
“The events of last night are now in the past, and we’ve got to move forward,” Carlisle said when the suspension was announced. “I need to say this very clearly: He is an extremely important part of our team. Our efforts to get to the highest possible level largely hinge on him playing and playing well with him. He needs to play well with us, and we need to play well with him. It’s a two-way street.”
Rondo getting into a fight with coaches and teammates was nothing new and hey, maybe all of the trade talk over the years had led to him being mentally drained. That’s what Carmelo Anthony claimed during his trade rumors with the Knicks, at least.
Maybe Rondo just needed to get the weirdness of being on a new team out of his system. Maybe cursing out a coach was the last awkward thing that would happen for a few months and the Mavericks would be all cool entering the playoffs.
We could end the article right there. I could end this Greek Tragedy with the storybook-like image of a player, once among the best at what he did, quitting on his teammates after things didn’t go as expected.
But wait, there’s more. After Rondo missed the rest of that series as a result of a ‘back injury’ sustained against Houston, the Mavericks voted against giving him a playoff share. Seriously.
“Players determine how the team’s playoff shares are divided. The players did not vote to exclude Rondo, the source said. They were simply presented with a list that did not include him, and there were no objections,” ESPN’s Tim McMahon reported in April 2015. “The other 14 players on the roster evenly divided $208,940, which is awarded to teams that lose in the first round of the playoffs.”
Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks president of basketball operations, properly summed things up when the season ended.
“That was definitely something worth pulling the trigger on. In our opinion, that was kind of the one piece that was missing. Certainly, a guy that’s 28 with the accolades and the championship experience and all defense and we’ve had a history of doing well with pass-first point guards. Sometimes when things are written down on paper, they look great; when things are going into the oven they feel great and a lot of times when it comes out sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It was one of those things that in our estimation certainly wasn’t risk free, but it was certainly worth the risk. If we would’ve had to do it all over again, we would’ve pulled the trigger again.”
And again, the story could end there. The Rajon Rondo experiment failed, a young point guard who once was the face of the Celtics turned into a journeyman who caused havoc wherever he went, and I could call it quits and hit publish.
But, again, there’s more. Rondo signed with the Sacramento Kings on a one-year deal in July 2015 and, despite the dysfunction that is the Kings organization, enjoyed a major bounceback season. Leading the league in total assists per game with 11.7 a night — tying a career-high set in 2011–12 — and grabbing a career-best 6.0 rebounds a night, it looked like things were finally on the up-and-up for ole Rajon Rondo.
I mean, aside from the whole Bill Kennedy incident. At least we got some good out of that with all of the support he got from the NBA community.
All things considered, though, Rondo had a nice time in Sacramento even as the team missed the playoffs. You may be asking what his thoughts were after a year with DeMarcus Cousins and reviving his own career.
“It’s just, maybe, the personnel in this situation,” Rondo told David Aldridge of NBA.com in January 2017. “I mean, last year — I hate to keep talking about last year — but you couldn’t name three people on my team, the Sacramento Kings, and I led the league in assists.”
Never tell yourself that Rajon Rondo is a liar because, no matter the situation, his honesty will prevail. But, Rondo’s honesty about wanting to win prevailed when, surprisingly, he signed with the Chicago Bulls in the 2016 offseason as the replacement for Derrick Rose.
Maybe, unlike Rose, Rondo could stay healthy and — you know what, I don’t have it in me to play the maybe game with Rondo anymore. In fact, there are a lot of words one could use to describe Rondo’s tenure in Chicago. Messy. Depressing. Astonishing. Frustrating. Maybe isn’t one of them.
The word I like to use, though, is unsurprising. Putting Rondo on a win-now team that should have been in a rebuild under a second-year coach who the players clearly don’t respect is a recipe for disaster and it didn’t take long for the Celtic legend and Fred Hoiberg to clash.
First, it was a one-game suspension in December for conduct detrimental to the team. Then, it was being benched because he posted a plus-minus rating of minus-20 during 11 first-half minutes in a loss to the rival Indiana Pacers. After all of that, Rondo returned to the lineup and the Bulls kept losing.
Normally, a veteran player like Rondo will try to call a players-only meeting or give the media short, sweet responses as to not make anyone want to introduce him to Jimmy Hoffa. Remember what I said about Rondo’s honesty, though?
And that, right there, is why I called Rondo’s stint with the Bulls unsurprising. We knew it was destined to end badly, so why should we have been surprised when he took to social media to bash everyone?
What may surprise you, though, is how he’ll look back on it years later.
“Myself, Dwyane, and Jimmy on the same team when we all wanted to win — especially after what LeBron did to the Warriors — it was a tough situation,” Rondo will tell me years later. “Maybe Fred wasn’t the right guy. Maybe D and I made mistakes going to Chicago. Who knows?”
Part of Rajon Rondo’s job at the University of Louisville is talking to student-athletes in a mentor role — not as a coach, not as a parent — but as someone who can listen without bias and tell the players what they need to hear.
Shortly after we finish, Rondo will be meeting with one of Louisville’s point guards who, much like him, has a bit of a problem with honesty. When asked after a recent loss to Miami how such a thing could happen, the player in question had to be held back by his teammates.
Thankfully, that reporter wasn’t me, so I can laugh as Rajon and I discuss the incident. While Rondo may have smirked at a comment like that in the past, his face resembles stone as he locks eyes with me.
“If I had to choose again between the NBA — where people are always out to get you and pull childish shit — or helping people to learn from the mistakes people make in the pros, I’m doing that,” Rondo tells me. “No need for others to make the same mistakes I did. What happened right there, that was a mistake I’d have made. ”
Sitting in an office near the locker rooms during the NBA preseason, Rajon Rondo and I both know that he should be playing right now. At 34 years old, there has to be a team that could his presence on the court.
And yet, the man seems satisfied with where he’s ended up. So I have to ask him: does he have any regrets?
“I won a championship, I played with some of the greatest to ever step on the court, and I kept true to myself,” Rajon says, finally cracking a smile. “I’m alright with that at the end of the day. We’ll look back at the story of Rajon Rondo and, hey, I can say that the story was certainly eventful.”
In Greek Tragedies, there’s usually some kind of lesson learned or an ending that’s fitting for our protagonists. The ending of Rondo’s story falls into the latter because he knows who he is: a man too honest for his own good.
Homer would be upset he missed this story by a few millennia.