Rajon Rondo is a very good basketball player. He is also, to borrow a phrase from the late Winston Churchill, a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. By his own admission, Rondo is a difficult player to coach. He’s proud. He’s tempestuous. He’s exceedingly strong-willed. These things surely came as no surprise to the Dallas Mavericks upon trading for the point guard mid-season, and yet there was still optimism that he might be the missing piece to a championship puzzle. Instead, the tenuous relationship between Rajon Rondo and the rest of the team, including Head Coach Rick Carlisle, devolved more quickly and completely than anyone could have predicted. How did it come to this?
Good Rondo, Bad Rondo
Rajon Rondo, at his best, is an absolute nightmare for a defense to handle. Intelligent, crafty, unselfish to a fault and blessed with seemingly preternatural anticipation, Rondo can be a maestro on the court. He sees angles that hardly anyone else in the game can see. He understands the game of basketball like few others, and his legendary memory provides him with a gigantic Rolodex full of plays and statistics and situations from which to draw at any given time. He combines that with an excellent all-around game, snagging rebounds with unnatural ease for such a small guard and playing lock-down defense when he feels compelled to do so.
But Rondo is also a nightmare for coaches and teammates to handle. His battles with then-coach Doc Rivers – a former strong-willed point guard himself – are the stuff of legend in Boston. The two routinely butted heads, nearly coming to blows once after a particularly hostile dust-up. On another occasion, a heated film session culminated in Rondo shattering a television with a water bottle and storming out of the facility, kicking a door off its hinges in the process. The same supreme self-confidence and single-minded drive that allows Rondo to excel on the court also makes him extremely difficult to manage off the court. The duality of Rajon Rondo is a tough nut to crack.
And so, in the midst of a rebuilding process triggered by the breakup of the “Big Three,” the Celtics sought to move their temperamental point guard. The Dallas Mavericks seemed a natural fit, with a need at point guard and legitimate championship aspirations. However, it didn’t take long for problems to emerge. Rondo’s poor shooting and ball-dominating style almost immediately proved to be a poor fit in Head Coach Rick Carlisle’s free-flowing motion offense, which requires players to make quick passes and take open shots when they become available. Rondo also clashed with Carlisle over play-calling, with Rondo demanding the ability to run plays of his own choosing and Carlisle hesitant to cede control to a newly arrived player.
Rondo was benched for the final five minutes of a game in January. The next month, he was suspended for a game following a heated verbal altercation provoked by his refusal to run plays called by Carlisle from the sideline. Things marginally improved as the season progressed, buoyed largely by the hope that Rondo would return to form once the playoffs started. Instead, the first-round series against the Rockets brought more of the same. Rondo and Carlisle sparred over strategy and play-calling, eventually leading Carlisle to bench his point guard for good during the second half of game two. So contentious was the relationship that the Mavericks were forced to conjure up a phantom back injury just to get Rondo away from the team.
It’s clear that Rajon Rondo has played his last minute of basketball for the Dallas Mavericks, so where does the troubled point guard go from here? His lackluster play and temperamental behavior have almost certainly cost him the max deal he was expecting to receive in free agency, but there should still be plenty of interest from teams in need of a point guard. At 29 years old, Rondo still has several years of good basketball left. His court vision, anticipation and knowledge of the game are nearly unparalleled, and he still flashed moments of brilliance during his rocky tenure with the Mavericks. It will require a special kind of coach, but the good Rondo can still outweigh the bad.