Rajon Rondo has played his final game with the Dallas Mavericks but when he leaves this summer in free agency – either for the Los Angeles Lakers or any other team willing to take a chance on a former all-star point guard with a championship ring – don’t blame his departure on his repeated clashes with Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle over how to run the offense.
Rondo was in a more intense war between the dynamic player he used to be and the diminished player he has become. A knee injury and a broken wrist contributed to Rondo’s decline from an elite point guard to the bottom half of starters at the position. And that daily battle, combined with the same ornery, combative disposition that made him great, now works against him and created an untenable situation.
Down 2-0 in their first-round series against the Houston Rockets, the Mavericks have now shut down indefinitely their prized acquisition from last December with what the team is calling a back injury.
Carlisle didn’t mention an injury as his reason for benching Rondo for most of the second half of the Mavericks’ 111-99 loss on Tuesday in Houston. In his 10 minutes on the floor, Rondo had four points, four fouls and picked up a silly technical foul for shoving James Harden in a move that came across as a desperate surrender. Rondo left Toyota Center without speaking to reporters, moved at a relatively swift pace and displayed no obvious discomfort. And the numbers actually supported Carlisle’s dramatic move: the Mavericks had a net rating of minus-34.3 with Rondo on the floor and plus-10.6 when he sat in the first two games of this series.
After arriving in Dallas averaging a league-leading 10.8 assists, Rondo has only had seven double digit assist games with his new team. And in the final 25 games of the regular season, the Mavericks were outscored by 108 points with Rondo on the floor.
When they made the bold trade with the Boston Celtics, the Mavericks had hoped that a change of scenery and the opportunity to possibly compete for a title – with a championship-winning coach and a former most valuable player – would be enough to inspire more consistent performances. But the move merely exposed Rondo’s limitations, sunk Dallas and helped the Celtics become a surprising playoff team.
The Mavericks were sixth in the Western Conference when they acquired Rondo and dropped one spot to seventh. But the most damaging number, which will surely hurt him when negotiating a new contract, is that the Celtics were 9-14 with Rondo running the show but finished the season 31-28 after the trade.
Rondo was unmanageable in his physical prime but Doc Rivers and Tubby Smith were able to tolerate their numerous run-ins because the talent more than compensated for the occasional headaches. In Dallas, Rondo hadn’t earned the benefit of the doubt because his production wasn’t worth the constant push back. He was an unsteady test-drive that veered off the side of the road, sending an offense that was best in the league to mediocre levels. And Rondo wasn’t doing enough on the defensive end for Carlisle to ever develop a trust in him.
Carlisle had a reputation for being both controlling and demanding, qualities that have made him one of four active coaches with a championship ring. He has confidence in his schemes because they’ve worked. Rondo believed he should have been given more freedom and had a public spat on Feb. 24 that resulted in an expletive-filled exchange and a one-game suspension. Their relationship never improved and they have both spent the past two months waiting for it all to be over. It was a failed experiment, but mostly because Rondo’s body has failed him.
He can’t move the same, break down defenses or set up his teammates in a manner that he once did surrounded by future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. That bull-headed defiance allowed Rondo to have a few magical moments but they were rare after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in January 2013, and practically non-existent in Dallas.
Rondo’s shortcomings weren’t because he didn’t care or didn’t want to compete; he had too much at stake to coast or be disorderly. He wouldn’t have welcomed a trade to the Mavericks without considering it a possible long-term home. He wouldn’t have played so poorly while auditioning for the maximum salary contract that the Celtics didn’t believe he was worth. And he wouldn’t have been a bad fit for both Boston and Dallas this season if he was still that long-armed defensive menace and passing maestro.
With a franchise that is trying to squeeze out all it can from a 36-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, had another ball-dominant guard in Monta Ellis and likely won’t have Chandler Parsons for the rest of the season, Rondo is no longer viewed as the missing piece. The old Rondo has simply gone missing and isn’t ever coming back.