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Three Questions about Rajon Rondo

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There is a reason Rondo was so available in free agency. Can the former All-Star elevate the Kings and reinvigorate his career next year?

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

With the signings of Marco Belinelli and Kosta Koufos, Vlade Divac has beefed up the Sacramento Kings' depth chart significantly using his newly minted capspace. But the biggest haul of the offseason is undoubtedly Rajon Rondo, the mercurial guard who was so highly regarded before he saw the team he rose to fame with deconstructed. Rondo's run with the Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett Celtics seems so long ago, especially with the time in-between marred by injuries, coaching spats, and an unceremonious exit from his last team. His disastrous stint in Dallas flamed out spectacularly in the Playoffs for all to see on National T.V.

There is a reason Rondo was so readily attainable for the Kings. His friendship with Rudy Gay surely helped, but Rondo's stature around the league is at an all-time low. With Rondo looking to rehab his image and the Kings looking to climb the cellar into some modicum of respectability, there are several looming questions that must be answered for this shotgun marriage to work on both sides.

1. Is he healthy?

In early 2013, Rondo tore his ACL against the Atlanta Hawks and missed the rest of the season. It was the beginning of the end of not only the Celtics Big 3 run, but Rondo's effectiveness as a player. He was never the same again.

The difference between his form in 2012/2013 and since his return in 2013/2014 is staggering; Since the injury, Rondo has posted his career-worst offensive rating, true shooting percentage, and per 36 minute scoring averages since his rookie year. His assist rate and turnover rates had remained stable until Rondo was traded to the Mavericks, where he was parachuted into a team that had up to that point been sporting a hilariously good offense. From then on, his assists plummeted to the point where it could not mitigate his inefficient scoring and be a positive for the Mavericks offense overall. Before the Rondo trade, the Mavericks sported a ridiculous offensive rating of 113.6, leading the league by a wide margin. After the trade, their offensive rating declined to 104.1, and their offense was actually better when Rondo sat on the bench.

The drop in his scoring efficiency can be explained by the fact that he is simply not getting shot attempts near the rim at a healthy enough frequency like he used to. Check out his shot table below, courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com:

% of FGA by Distance
Season Age Tm Lg Pos G MP FG% Dist. 2P 0-3 3-10FT 10-16FT 16-23FT 3P
2006-07 20 BOS NBA PG 78 1831 0.418 7.7 0.936 0.482 0.218 0.1 0.136 0.064
2007-08 21 BOS NBA PG 77 2306 0.492 8.5 0.973 0.433 0.182 0.097 0.261 0.027
2008-09 22 BOS NBA PG 80 2642 0.505 7 0.937 0.557 0.141 0.084 0.154 0.063
2009-10 23 BOS NBA PG 81 2963 0.508 8.1 0.912 0.501 0.157 0.087 0.166 0.088
2010-11 24 BOS NBA PG 68 2527 0.475 9.7 0.936 0.415 0.16 0.061 0.3 0.064
2011-12 25 BOS NBA PG 53 1957 0.448 8.9 0.927 0.456 0.159 0.091 0.22 0.073
2012-13 26 BOS NBA PG 38 1423 0.484 10.7 0.892 0.363 0.176 0.069 0.284 0.108
2013-14 27 BOS NBA PG 30 998 0.403 11.9 0.743 0.326 0.211 0.043 0.163 0.257
2014-15 28 TOT NBA PG 68 2018 0.426 11.4 0.867 0.309 0.205 0.06 0.293 0.133
2014-15 28 BOS NBA PG 22 699 0.405 11.7 0.84 0.315 0.185 0.07 0.27 0.16
2014-15 28 DAL NBA PG 46 1319 0.436 11.2 0.879 0.306 0.213 0.056 0.303 0.121

Notice the column for "Distance"; this is the average distance away from the rim for his field goal attempts. Note how its increased pretty much every year. During his most efficient years, Rondo took around half of his field goals around the rim; that has slowly declined to only 30.9% last year. As a result, his field goal percentage has declined right along with it, and thus his offensive efficiency is now in the cellar.

Onlookers have theorized that Rondo has lost a step athletically and he is simple unable to get to the rim. But watching footage of Rondo doesn't make it seem like he's lost much explosiveness. You be the judge:

Here is what Rondo looked like in transition in 2012:

Here is Rondo blowing by Dante Cunningham in transition in 2015:

Attacking a bad closeout from Jeff Teague in 2012:

Attacking a way too aggressive closeout from Evan Turner in 2015:

Slashing in a pick-and-roll in 2012:

Slashing off of a pick-and-roll in 2015:

Its tough to actually say definitively whether Rondo is slower or not based on stats or short clips. Its entirely possible that other factors could be affecting him athletically, such as a lack of stamina to keep exploding to the rim repeatedly. But just from the eye test, it seems like he can still get to where he wants to the same way he used to. This is a dark cloud hanging over Rondo's head as he nears that magic thirty mark in age.

2. Does he have a place in the modern NBA?

There are other possible explanations for Rondo's decline besides diminished explosiveness. Another is that Rondo has been left behind by the modern NBA; that because of a heavy emphasis on three point shooting, motion offenses, and space, that Rondo's skillset (a ball-dominant playmaker with a shaky jumper) has become obsolete.

It is undoubtedly true that the NBA is in a state of evolution. Triggered by the elimination of the zone defense rules, defenses have developed to first choke off isolation play using the principles developed by Tom Thibodeau. Pioneered by, ironically enough, Rondo's Celtics, it has become a staple of NBA defenses to load up the strong side of the court with a rim protector and zone up the weak side. Offenses then in turn evolved by a combination of motion offense, emphasizing off-ball movement on the weak side, and the Steve Nash/Mike D'Antoni philosophies of spreading the floor for a pick-and-roll blitz.

It is true that Rondo has limited value in a motion-based offensive sets. He's not particularly good as a shooter and isn't always decisive in his movement off-the-ball. You could really see Rondo struggle in Rick Carlisle's offense; his natural ability as a playmaker was neutered because he simply did not have the time on-the-ball to dissect a defense as he was accustomed to. He also never truly meshed with Monta Ellis; both preferred the ball in their hands and neither is much of a threat to spot up and space the floor.

But in pick-and-roll sets with the floor spread? This is where Rondo can still use his creativity off the dribble to an advantage. Brad Stevens ran a pick-and-roll heavy offense in Boston, and Rondo was still able to be a league-leader in assists, even without Allen, Pierce and Garnett. This came with Jeff Green, Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger as his primary passing targets.

But that still leaves the question of why Rondo's scoring efficiency was a dumpster fire ever since he returned. Both last year and this year, Rondo's teams have been better offensively when he's been off the court than when he's directing the show. Could it be that NBA defenses have figured out how to eliminate Rondo's scoring efficiency and nullified as a positive force on a team's offense?

Maybe. We won't really know the answer until the season kicks off in October, but here's the argument for why the answer is no.

In reality, Rondo's  effect on a team's offensive rating has been negative since the 2012/2013 season, the year before his injury. The Celtics finished 42-40 and squeaked into the Playoffs as the seventh seed. But, more critically, it was the year Ray Allen had departed for Miami, and where both Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett showed serious signs of decline. Both Pierce and Garnett posted their worst TS% marks in nearly a decade; it was clear that a team built around Pierce and Garnett as core pieces were finished as a contender.

Rondo himself could not save that offense. The truth is that Rondo was never a special scorer; his TS% has never been above roughly league average. In order to sustain an offense that featured a declining Garnett and Pierce, Rondo had to carry a heavy scoring load as well as be the main playmaker. In other words, he had to be Chris Paul. Rondo is not Chris Paul.

When Rondo came back from his injury late in the 2013/2014 season, the entire structure he had known was gone. Doc Rivers had departed to the Clippers and both Pierce and Garnett had been traded to Brooklyn. Without the presence of Garnett and Pierce, defenses could really put the squeeze on Rondo, and he posted career-low TS% marks. Those Celtics were bad, ending with a 25-57 record and finishing in the lottery for the first time in seven years.

The Kings are probably not banking on Rondo as a weapon you deploy as the main engine of a team's offense. He simply does not have the individual scoring chops to be that. What they are probably betting on is that Rondo will thrives in a situation where he is surrounded by top-flight scoring talent and can make it better. The Kings have two top-flight offensive talents in DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay. The hope is that Rondo makes Cousins and Gay better, while also taking advantage of the defensive attention those two receive to be an opportunistic, efficient scorer himself. This is exactly the role he played on those elite contending Celtics teams so effectively.

If you look at Rondo's play in the last year, the only way he got quality looks in the halfcourt was if the defense made a mistake. Lets look at the following play as an example:

Rondo completely fools Kyrie Irving by rejecting the screen, but Verejao is in awful position to defend the play because he is hugging far too close to Sullinger. Defending a Rondo/Sullinger pick-and-roll, this is a mistake; against a Rondo/Cousins pick-and-roll, it may not be as egregious. Cousins has significantly more "gravity" to a defender than Sullinger does and makes the defender think before leaving him. Teams have to account for him which could increase the size of cracks and crevices in the defense for Rondo to exploit.

In this play, note how much attention the defender is paying to Olynyk and Green. Rondo takes that tiny daylight of space and makes an impressive floater off the glass. Imagine if this play is run with Cousins and Gay? That daylight probably gets bigger.

Lastly, here is a situation where Rondo takes advantage of a one-on-one going downhill because the defender, Tyson Chandler, opted to stick with Sullinger on the perimeter. Again, gravity is important. The point is that these situations were not frequent enough for Rondo to be efficient overall. The hope is that next to Cousins and Gay, they will become a more regular occurrence.

Something to closely monitor would be the lineups the Kings play with Rondo on the court. In Boston, Stevens played Rondo with Sullinger, Olynyk, and Tyler Zeller as the bigs; Olynyk has three point range and Sullinger has a reliable midrange jumper. The Kings have Cousins, Koufos, and Willie Cauley-Stein as the main bigs, two of which have questionable midrange games, and none have three point range. To truly the space the floor, the Kings may want to play Gay more at the PF slot; but this means either Casspi, McLemore, or Belinelli at the SF position, where you either give up size, defense, or shooting. This is still a roster hole yet to be addressed.

Not to mention that last season under George Karl, the Kings tried to implement the Dribble-Drive offense invented by Coach Walberg. On paper, Rondo is an excellent fit for the offense, which relies on the individual talents of ballhandlers to attack the paint off the dribble in a spaced floor. It would allow him different opportunities to get into the teeth of the defense and make plays for others. The caveat is that we've never seen Rondo in that kind of offense before. He could be completely uncomfortable in it.

But truthfully, most NBA offenses nowadays are a mixture of different philosophies. Both the Spurs and Warriors won championships using both motion sets and pick-and-roll sets. I'd expect to see a healthy dose of Rondo in spread pick-and-roll sets next year. Last year, with Darren Collison out with injury, Karl didn't really have a point guard good enough for the offense to rely too heavily on pick-and-roll sets. It should be noted that Karl's 2013 Nuggets, with Ty Lawson at the helm, were heavily reliant on spread pick-and-roll attacks.

3. Will he buy in?

Its safe to say that Rajon Rondo is not the easiest personality to get along with. If you haven't already, I highly recommend reading Baxtor Holmes' phenomenal piece on Rondo's personality. Its deep with incredible stories of broken flatscreen T.V.s, the cussing out of assistant coaches, and the merciless destruction of hospitalized children at Connect Four.

But in that story is also the glimpse into the mind of a savant; his memory is impeccable, his ability to think through the game is sublime, and his fire is unquestionable. This is the same guy who in 2012 went head-to-head against a peak LeBron James in the Playoffs and could legitimately claim to have outplayed the generational talent in certain games. He would play through a nasty dislocated elbow. He would take on the toughest defensive assignments and still find ways to get double-digit rebounds as the smallest guy on the court.

Its that same fire that makes him such an unwieldy personality to get a grasp on for a coach. Tubby Smith, Rondo's coach in college, benched him for six games because the two clashed.  Doc Rivers reportedly nearly came to blows with him in 2013; Rondo was rumored to be a big reason for Doc's departure to the Clippers the following offseason. After being traded to Dallas, Rondo and Rick Carlisle publically engaged in a shouting match in February that resulted in a one game suspension, and his exit from the first round Dallas/Houston series needs no further comment. By Rondo's own admission, he hadn't played defense in two years because of Avery Bradley's presence allowing him to coast on one end.

How does this project to the Kings under George Karl? Not all is doom in gloom. One way that Karl would be different from Rondo's previous coaches is the freedom he like to grant the players on offense. In other words, to borrow from the mantra of Russell Westbrook's fans, to let Rondo be Rondo. Karl won't call a play every time down the court. Karl, ever since his bout with cancer, has considerably mellowed in his verbal altercations with players.

Ultimately, regardless of how many reasons we can conjure for why Rondo has been bad the last few years, if it doesn't work here in Sacramento, it's probably the end of Rondo as an elite player in this league. He's got a laissez-faire coach, he's surrounded by offensive talent and depth, and he has all of the motivation in the world to prove that he's not finished. It'll be one interesting ride, but until takeoff, the questions loom large.