By signing a one-year deal with the New Orleans Pelicans this summer, Rajon Rondo is on his fourth new team in as many years. Connect four.
Since being traded from the Boston Celtics in 2014, Rondo has played for the Dallas Mavericks, Sacramento Kings and Chicago Bulls, before the Pelicans. Each of his stints have been short and uneven. In Dallas, he didn’t jibe with head coach Rick Carlisle. In Sacramento, he wasn’t the savior ownership hoped for and, in Chicago, he rotated from the starting lineup to the bench and back to the starting lineup. Maybe Rondo will find more stability in New Orleans. It depends on what the Pelicans expect from him.
The Pelicans also invested heavily in point guard Jrue Holiday this summer. Head coach Alvin Gentry plans to start both of them in the backcourt. “I like Jrue off the ball to start the game as a scorer. I like Rondo being on the floor as a leader,” Gentry told FoxSports 1280.
So will this experiment work?
Think about what the Pelicans need, and Rondo helps — on paper.
Gentry wants to run a faster offense and Rondo is a floor general who can call plays on the court and make quick decisions. New Orleans had the 26th-ranked offense last season and Rondo will get teammates better shots:
“He’s really going to help us, because he’s a high-basketball-IQ point guard,” said David Booth, the Pelicans director of player personnel. “Our ultimate goal is to win a championship, and he’s seen what it takes. Guys will listen, because it’s not just surface talk, but coming from someone who knows. He has instant credibility because of that.”
Dive deeper, though, and Rondo doesn’t address the Pelicans’ offensive issues. They shot the 12th-most “wide open” shots as defined by NBA.com last season and the fourth-most “open” shots. The problem wasn’t getting good looks, it was making them. The Pelicans were one of the worst 10 teams in the league in field goal percentage last season. Rondo, a notoriously inconsistent shooter who made just 40.8 percent of his field goals last season, won’t help drive that average up.
As for Holiday starting off the ball, the numbers don’t back that up as a wise decision. He’s a consistently more efficient scorer in pull-up situations than when catching and shooting. Last season, Holiday shot 37.8 percent on pull-ups and 32.1 percent after the catch, per NBA.com. It’s an even wider variance on 3-pointers, where he made 30.4 percent on pull-ups and 37.6 percent after the catch. That’s a big difference.
If the Pelicans are looking for a bright side, it’s comparing a small sample size to a big one. Less than 10 percent of Holiday’s shots came after the catch, as opposed to 45.7 percent off the dribble. Still, it’s going to be a major adjustment for Holiday to suddenly start scoring without the ball in his hands.
And that’s just his fit with Holiday. I haven’t even mentioned how Rondo might get along with the Pelicans’ top two players.
He did get along with DeMarcus Cousins when they spent a season together in Sacramento, and Cousins helped recruit Rondo to New Orleans. Maybe that relationship will help ease the transition. Gentry could do worse than to find minutes for a Rondo-Cousins-and-bench unit when Holiday and Anthony Davis get rest. Rondo’s fit next to both of them, however, is awkward.
Both Cousins and Davis are among the best big men in the league at taking and making contested shots, but don’t make it harder than it already is. Plus, it’s not like they need someone like Rondo to set them up. Both are longer and more athletic than almost anyone defending them. Defenses ignore Rondo and play off him, which could free defenders to double Davis or Cousins. Just look at how the Atlanta Hawks completely ignore Rondo on the perimeter:
Both Davis and Cousins had top-10 usage rates in the league last season. They like to work with the ball in their hands. If Rondo’s man plays off him, the last thing they need is a guard swiping at the ball when they are trying to get their shot.
Rondo needs space and quick-trigger shooters to be most effective, but the Pelicans’ roster doesn’t offer much in the way of shooting. Newly signed Ian Clark will make for a nice backcourt fit, but that’s about it.
Gentry could use Rondo in small-ball lineups, featuring him alongside some combination of Holiday, Clark, E’Twaun Moore, Solomon Hill and either Davis or Cousins, but that takes one of New Orleans’ two best players off the court. It takes a specific group of players to maximize Rondo’s skills, and he’s simply not good enough to base a rotation around.
Rondo will end up playing in awkward units and inadvertently causing problems. Last season’s fit with Chicago — alongside the “three alphas” — was as awkward as it gets.
He’s still capable of magic that overcomes the fit. Rondo was Chicago’s best player against the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. He averaged 11.5 points, 10 assists and 8.5 rebounds and led the Bulls to a 2-0 lead before going down with an injury for the rest of the series.
“It’s unfortunate (Rondo) wasn’t able to continue in that series because it would’ve been interesting to see how it would’ve ended,” Booth said. “We’re looking for the same impact with us, but through the course of the whole 82 games and then into the playoffs. Because we feel like this is a year where we have a roster that can take us down the road to where we want to go.”
If Gentry were to instead bring Rondo off the bench, he might be of more help. He’s better than last season’s options of Tim Frazier, Langston Galloway and Quinn Cook. But one does not simply bring Rondo off the bench. Rondo is like the Tim Tebow of point guards. His existence on the roster garners questions about playing time, and his presence on the court fundamentally changes the way the offense plays. This is why he has had a hard time fitting in and staying with one team.
Things like rising to the occasion and competitive zeal stand out among NBA types, and past teammates have spoken highly of Rondo. Those things, however, only go so far, and they haven’t been enough recently to help keep Rondo in one place for more than a season.
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