The Sacramento Kings knew they were taking a risk by signing Rajon Rondo. The point guard was coming off a stint with the Dallas Mavericks so disastrous his addition felt like a total wild card. Would the Kings get the game-changer we remember from those playoff runs in Boston or the talented malcontent who could rack up assists but little else?
It seemed early on that Rondo’s tenure with Sacramento would fall somewhere in the middle. He was putting up big numbers but the wins weren’t coming. A “powerful meeting” in early December to clear the air with star big man DeMarcus Cousins and coach George Karl showed that things were clearly a work-in-progress. Going 5-8 for the month after that didn’t offer much encouragement.
And then something clicked. Since the beginning of January, the Kings are 8-5. Rondo’s still putting up big numbers and now it’s leading to results. Cousins is playing like the NBA’s best big man. The offense is humming at a level that brings back memories of Chris Webber and Peja Stojakovic. And at the center of the storm is Rondo, the enigmatic point guard who has finally found his new home in the NBA.
THE RIGHT FIT
Rondo could’ve gone to any team as an unrestricted free agent over the summer and chose Sacramento. “Sky’s the limit,” Rondo said of his new team when the deal was announced. Karl pointed out his familiarity working with “strong-willed” point guards like Gary Payton, Sam Cassell, Allen Iverson, Chauncey Billups and Andre Miller. For both sides, this would be a welcomed challenge.
In many ways, it seems like the perfect pairing in retrospect. Rondo needed a coach he could be on the same page with. Karl is a veteran who has tweaked his style to take countless teams to the playoffs. He’s managed egos before. And while the two didn’t immediately kick it off and take the league by storm, Karl was prepared to give Rondo’s game something it could really use: a chance to run the show for a high-pace team.
The slower nature of the Mavericks’ offense was one of Rondo’s key hurdles with that team. In his 46 games with Dallas, the team averaged a pace of 97.95 possessions per 48 minutes, according to NBA.com. This season, the Kings are averaging nearly 104 possessions per 48 minutes with Rondo on the floor.
That’s a pace much more suited to Rondo’s slash-and-dish style. Too often in Dallas, Rondo got stuck playing the halfcourt game that would magnify his shooting struggles and inability to create chances at the free throw line. It became too easy to key in on Rondo’s weaknesses, and as time passed, you could see the frustration growing (and occasionally boil over).
With weapons like Cousins and Gay, Rondo has options to create plays. And because the team plays at a pace similar to the Warriors — which is to say, blazing fast — Rondo is able to challenge defenses in transition with his unique combination of speed, vision and ball skills. When Rondo is barreling down the court and you know Cousins and Gay are right behind him, there are some difficult decisions to be made as a defender.
That’s when Rondo is at his best: the playmaker who can get stars their shots. The 29-year-old is one of the smartest players in the league. He has an almost supernatural understanding of passing angles and how his teammates like to be set up. His 11.8 assists per game leads the league and it’s not even close. No other player is even averaging double-digits.
Rondo makes more passes per game than any player in the league and only eight players have recorded more drives to the basket this season, per SportVU. He remains of the game’s premier players at penetrating defenses and now he’s being asked to constantly attack and create. There’s really no better role for the point guard, especially when he has scoring talent like Cousins and Gay to work with.
THE ONE-TWO PUNCH EMERGES
The growing on-court relationship between Rondo and Cousins has been incredible to watch. Two players long known to give coaches headaches, they’ve seemed to bond in a special way over the past couple months. There’s a synergy between these two right now that makes Sacramento a devastating offensive unit. Rondo is getting Cousins the ball just where he wants it and the big man is making defenses pay. It’s been the spark to ignite the team’s emergence as a top-10 offense in January.
“I think chemistry is the most undervalued thing in our league today. I just love our chemistry right now,” Rondo said Monday after a 129-128 double overtime loss to Charlotte. Cousins scored a career-high 56 points in the game.
But it’s also clear Rondo depends on having a good feel for his teammates. Last season in Dallas, that never came to fruition as the point guard regularly butted heads with Mavs coach Rick Carlisle and the team’s style. When Rondo doesn’t have that sense of the offense, his lack of shooting ability and need to have the ball in his hands can be an ugly combination.
In Sacramento, building out that sense for his teammates’ games took some time. From opening night through Dec. 31, the Kings were outscored by 6.5 points per 100 possessions with Rondo on the floor, per NBA.com. When he was on the bench, the team outscored opponents by 1.5 points per 100. Rondo averaged 11.9 points and 11.2 assists per game, but the offense’s efficiency was strained getting those numbers. Cousins being in and out of the lineup due to injury and suspension put the team behind the learning curve.
It appears that Rondo and Cousins were simply using those first few months, during which the Kings posted a 12-20 record, to feel out the team’s fast-paced attack. Now that the Kings’ one-two punch has an established rapport and some rhythm, you’re seeing what an offense is capable of with Cousins as the motor and Rondo as the captain.
In January, the Rondo-Cousins tandem has played a combined 366 minutes and outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possessions. Cousins is playing out of his mind with per-game averages of 33.1 points, 12.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists. The big man has never had a playmaker like this to help him out and it shows. Rondo is assisting on over 40 percent on Cousins’ baskets this season.
The past month has forced us to finally beg the question: Should the Kings commit to Rondo? He’s gotten Cousins to finally start playing at the next level. He’s helped get the team in playoff position for the first time in years. And he’s helped transform their identity by being the smart, experienced on-court leader their backcourt lacked before.
All of that will ultimately be decided by the next few months. If Sacramento can keep this up, reach the playoffs and maybe even steal a game or two from whoever they play in the first round, Rondo could be positioning himself as a long-term piece. He’s shown the struggles in Dallas were a fluke and he’s still capable of being an elite creator. Now the question is just how far this team can get with the current core. Cousins is understandably the talk of the league right now, but Rondo is the biggest difference between last season for Boogie and the Kings.
Satchel Price is a fan of the Blackhawks, Bulls, Cubs, and Bears. He’s a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., with a background covering sports, culture and technology. Satchel is also managing editor for Second City Hockey and his work has appeared on SB Nation, ESPN.com and Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @satchelprice.