A little over seven months after Rajon Rondo's messy exit from the Dallas Mavericks playoff series last season against the Houston Rockets and subsequent permanent leave of absence, the two met again in Sacramento this week. Rondo, a member of the Sacramento Kings now, is playing up to the elite level he was known for in Boston, averaging 12.9 points, 10.7 assists (a league high) and 7.1 rebounds. He scored 21 points and added 5 assists Monday against his former team, which seems to have no hard feelings for him.
After the Kings defeated the Mavericks 112-98, Dirk Nowitzki had nothing but positive things to say about Rondo and that the system in Sacramento works well for him.
"I'm happy for him ... he gets to run the show here, he's got the ball a lot. He dribbles a lot, he finds their shooters, he finds cutters and it's a perfect fit for him, perfect system and he's playing well," Nowitzki told Sactown Royalty. "He's directing guys around like he was doing in Boston and they got the shooting around him, DeMarcus [Cousins] is playing great, so they've got a nice set up for him."
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, who clashed with Rondo in Dallas over play calling, admitted their system was not a good fit for Rondo and was open about not having enough shooters around him last season. The surge from Rondo in Sacramento is not surprising to Carlisle.
"Rondo is having a great year like I expected him to. Really, anybody that knows him expected that. They've created a great situation for him and he's doing a good job with it," said Carlisle, who elected to go with a Hack a Rondo in a late-ditch effort to slow down the Kings on Monday.
The Mavericks were left trying to figure out their offense after only scoring 98 points against a Kings defense that ranks at the bottom of the league in opponent points score per game (108.5). Several wide-open shots clanked off the rims and echoed throughout Sleep Train Arena Monday night. A lack of cutters and an inability to deal with the physicality of players like Cousins could end up catching up to the Mavericks as the season progresses.
Wesley Matthews turned down a reported $65 million offer from the Kings in the offseason to sign with the Mavericks. Mathews said after Monday's game that the Kings play different now with guys who can space the court, move and slash, with shooters around Cousins. With Kings head coach George Karl giving Rondo the keys to do as he pleases in the offense and a one-year deal seeming to fuel his play, Matthews can see Rondo is hungry.
"He's playing with a chip on his shoulder ... He's playing well, controlling the game, looking for his teammates and he's got a good group around him," Matthews told Sactown Royalty.
There is definitely a chip on his shoulder - Rondo admitted as much after the game when he said that while he has love for the Mavericks, the fact that it didn't work out in Dallas made him work that much harder and motivated him to succeed in Sacramento.
Chandler Parsons said he has no idea why things didn't work out with Rondo in Dallas, but like Nowitzki he is happy for his former teammate.
"He's playing well, he's always been capable. He's always been a very smart, crafty, unbelievable passer. He's in a good rhythm right now and he has the ball a lot in his hands in this offense and guys are moving without him and he's finding guys and he's making shots so I'm happy for him," Parsons said.
We may never know what really happened in Dallas, but if Monday's praise from his former team and coach are any indication, things may have not been as bad as they seemed. Nowitzki said Rondo sent him a text before the season began and wished him luck and made it clear that even though it didn't work out in Dallas, he shouldn't be viewed as a bad guy. It also sounds like the story of the Mavericks not giving Rondo a piece of the playoff bonus money last season was overblown.
"He wasn't a problem in the locker room with us, with the guys he was great," Nowitzki told Sactown Royalty. "Obviously, with the coach he had a couple run-ins but to the players, to the guys he competed with every night, he was fun to be around, he was always joking around. Him and Monta [Ellis] got along really, really well, but things just didn't work out."
The Kings now have a player in his prime playing at an elite level. That's great for the time being, but if he keeps it up and the team isn't headed in the right direction by the end of the season, he could walk. But then again, that was part of the risk the Kings took when signing him to a one-year deal reportedly in the range of $10 million. If Carlisle is anywhere close to being right about Rondo pulling max-deal type offers, the Kings could be under that much more pressure to win now. The hope is that the Kings win total increases at the same trajectory of Rondo's stock around the league.