Despite the controversy and ugliness Rajon Rondo recently found himself in after directing gay slurs at Bill Kennedy, the storyline around him on the basketball court this season has generally been very positive. There’s been various stories around in major media outlets, all with headlines that can be summed up briefly in just two words.
Rondo currently leads the league in assists at 11.3 per game. He’s also averaging 6.5 rebounds per game, making him one of the elite rebounding guards in the league. In previous years, Rondo has struggled with a low-shooting efficiency, but this season he’s been making 35.7 percent of his three-pointers, just above the league average, while also finishing at the rim at a near 60 percent rate, well above the league average in an are where Rondo has struggled since suffering an ACL tear back in 2013.
If you go back and look at historically great point guards, you’ll find that a surprising number of them had high-level rebounding rates for their position– all the way from Magic Johnson to Jason Kidd and the best example today’s NBA being Russell Westbrook. A point guard being able to sweep in for rebounds allows teams to run fast breaks quicker without a big having to look for a guard to pass to before starting to run towards the opposing rim. When Rondo rebounds the ball, you’ll often find DeMarcus Cousins, or even Rudy Gay, running the floor and sealing their man near the basket for easy layups. Rondo is a master at making accurate the long pass to them.
Rajon Rondo to Rudy Gay in transition
When you have Rondo, you really get every advantage there is to have when it comes to making passes to shooters coming off baseline or pin-down screens, and Rondo is brilliant at getting the pass to the shooting pocket to make a shooter’s life easy. The Kings often use Marco Belinelli to run sets very similar to what the Celtics used to run with Ray Allen, and Rondo’s mix of timing and accuracy is unmatched. Sometimes, it’s even hard to front the post against Cousins with Rondo on the floor, because he can make the pass over the top better than anyone else.
Rajon Rondo to Marco Belinelli assist
Yet the Kings are just 13-20 this season and have been outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions, a mark right in line with their 2013-14 season. Without a major run and one of the teams in the playoff picture above the Kings collapsing due to injuries, it seems very unlikely they’ll make the postseason.
This team really wanted to be good now, evidenced by the Kings paying the Sixers a king’s ransom to get rid of Nik Stauskas to open up space to sign Wesley Matthews, a player they obviously didn’t end up getting. Unfortunately, they’ve been the same old Kings – surrounded by constant trade rumors, internal strife and an unhealthy amount of turnovers (only the Sixers average more) and technicals.
The Kings have been pretty bad with Rondo on the court. The team has been outscored by 5.4 points per 100 possessions with Rondo on the floor, and surprisingly (for some) the Kings have actually outscored teams by 1.5 points without Rondo – equivalent to the difference in net rating between the Chicago Bulls and the New Orleans Pelicans.
For comparison, the Kings are 8.2 points better with Cousins on the court than with him on the bench.
A secret not many people know is that throughout his career, when Rondo has had a major role in the offense, his teams have not been good at that end. Even during the golden years with what is considered to be pretty high-end talent – Paul Pierce, Allen and Kevin Garnett – Rondo has never actually been the head of a good offense. During Rondo’s four All-Star seasons, the Celtics ranked just 15th, 18th, 27th and 24th in offensive efficiency, and only their historic defense made the Celtics a contender.
NBA defenses have become increasingly sophisticated in the past few seasons, and having a player like Rondo that teams aren’t afraid to leave completely open is in many ways devastating for the hopes of a good offense. Every pick-and-roll gets tougher when teams are able to go under the screen and keep a good distance from Rondo to stop him from getting to the rim.
Some guards are able to turn that extra space into a head start, but after suffering his ACL tear Rondo hasn’t been the same force getting to the rim. Particularly when he’s shooting just 50 percent from the foul line and is terrified to draw contact. Too often, the offense is forced to reset with half the shot clock gone just because Rondo holds the ball and can’t get anywhere to draw help and force rotations.
Rajon Rondo trying to drive vs. Ish Smith
This is a problem, considering that we know how a possession degrades in value every second that is lost. This makes sense because the deeper you have to go into your offensive possession, the less likely you are to draw help and put the defense in a bad position (credit to SkepticalSports.com).
Rondo ranks second in the NBA in touches per game at 96.5, and him not being an efficient scoring threat is a huge problem for the Kings. Defenses are able to focus on disrupting passing lanes, which has led to Rondo averaging 3.9 turnovers per game this season. Even for a passer of his caliber, the angles just get too tight and it’s hard to make pocket passes consistently when the margin of error is nothing.
Rajon Rondo turnover
Most of the drop off for the Kings when Rondo is on the court actually comes defensively, which is surprising considering Rondo’s long arms and smarts to come over from the weak side and get into passing lanes for steals.
In many ways, Rondo has shown more effort than he did with the Celtics post-ACL tear, and he’s been considerably better than he was in Dallas… but he’s still prone to bouts of falling asleep and allowing cutters and shooters to get open. Rondo is too often focused on playing the middle of the floor and is vulnerable in back screens and the like.
With an offensive genius at the helm in George Karl and a once-in-a-generation type of force on the inside, mixed in with fun elements of small-ball with Omri Casspi – who’s actually the plus-minus star of the team – and Gay, it’s just so difficult to build a great defense around a high-volume ball-handler who doesn’t shoot at all. The Magic and Timberwolves are going through the same struggles, and will continue to do so with Elfrid Payton and Ricky Rubio – which is something interesting to watch going forward.
This will be an interesting summer for Sacramento and Rajon Rondo. The team hasn’t committed to building with young talent around Cousins, and is now out of multiple first-round draft picks and picks swaps to the Bulls and Sixers, with some additional second rounders with funky protections around them.
Rondo signed a one-year deal last summer and will be an unrestricted free agent during the summer of 2016, just when the cap is about to explode. Rondo’s numbers may be back, and the prospect of getting a triple-double machine and a champion is likely to allure a big offer from a team, but there’s still little proof that Rondo is actually a plus contributor for a good team anymore considering he’s turning 30 very soon.
Mika Honkasalo is an NBA writer, geek, chart maker and most of all fan. He studies computer science and works in software development and business analytics. His writing can be found at Nylon Calculus and Vantage Sports, and you can find him on Twitter @mhonkasalo.