Grade the deal: Kings get desperate, agree to terms with Rajon Rondo
Toxic player and toxic team have joined in the ultimate marriage of convenience.
Unrestricted free agent point guard Rajon Rondo has agreed to sign a one-year, $10 million contract with the Kings, according to Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix. The deal allows Rondo to enter the market as a free agent again next summer, when the NBA's salary cap is expected to increase to $90 million. Yahoo Sports and USA Today Sports first reported the signing.
Rondo, 29, has seen his value fall off a cliff since a knee injury cost him good chunks of the 2012-13 and 2013-14 season. Sent from Boston to Dallas in a midseason deal last year, he saw his numbers slip from bad to worse. The four-time All-Star who won a title in Boston and twice led the NBA in assists while a member of the Celtics finished 2014-15 averaging 8.9 points, 7.9 assists and 5.5 rebounds, his worst numbers since his rookie season. The advanced stats were even more unkind: Rondo's 13.5 Player Efficiency Rating ranked No. 40 among point guards and his -3.21 Real Plus-Minus ranked No. 69 at his position.
Once regarded as both the ultimate pass-first maestro and a strong defender with a nose for creating turnovers, Rondo has regressed in virtually every area. After his surgery, his unsightly shooting numbers have fallen even further, as he shot just 42.6% overall and an abysmal 39.7% from the free-throw line. To make matters worse, Rondo has never shot better than 32% from deep during his nine-year career, and his lack of range has become increasingly crippling as the three-point shot becomes more and more important.
Rondo's gaudy assists totals have rarely translated into an efficient team-wide attack. Boston ranked in the top 10 just once during Rondo's tenure there (2008-09) and his effect on Dallas's offense last season was profound. Prior to the trade, the Mavericks posted a 113.6 offensive rating (No. 1 in the league). After the trade, Dallas slipped to 104.1 (No. 13). Although Rondo can't be entirely blamed for that decline, his -3.55 Offensive Real Plus-Minus ranked dead last among all point guards last season. His combination of needing the ball in his hands, his inability to shoot from outside, his total inability to get to the free-throw line and his diminished ability to get to the rim is hard for even the most efficient attacks to sustain.
As recently as two or three years ago, Rondo was viewed as a franchise point guard who would likely command a maximum contract this summer. Since then, the league has caught on to his weaknesses and his strange behavior certainly hasn't helped his cause. Shortly after reports of locker room issues surfaced in Dallas last year, Rondo mentally checked out of the Mavericks' first-round series against the Rockets, and he remained away from the team for the final three games of the series. The crux of the problem was a reported disagreement with coach Rick Carlisle over playcalling, and a profane exchange between player and coach cost Rondo a one-game suspension in February.
Take all of those issues together, and most reasonable executives would conclude that Rondo simply isn't worth the trouble at this stage of his career. "Reasonable" isn't really a word that applies to the Kings, though, who freed up cap space for their pursuit of Rondo and shooting guard Marco Belinelli by trading away 2014 lottery pick Nik Stauskas, forwards Jason Thompson and Carl Landry, and multiple draft assets for nothing in return.
Rondo, a strong candidate for the league's most volatile point guard, now finds himself in perhaps the NBA's most volatile environment. Kings owner Vivek Ranadive is on his third coach and second GM of the last year, and this summer has been spent fighting off rumors of a serious rift between franchise center DeMarcus Cousins and his current coach, the set-in-his-ways George Karl. Now, the spin cycle hits the point guard position again, where 2013 starter Isaiah Thomas gave way to Darren Collison last year and where Collison will presumably give way to Rondo next season.
Or not? On paper, Collison is a more effective player, a more manageable personality and a better fit for Karl's preferred up-tempo style. How will Karl manage that when Rondo boasts the higher salary, more experience, and close ties to Rudy Gay, one of the Kings' building block players? Again, this sounds like a potential powder keg that would scare off many teams, or at least give them serious pause, but Ranadive and his newly-minted rookie GM Vlade Divac are racing ahead to court the drama on Day Three of free agency after missing out on the likes of Monta Ellis and Wesley Matthews. Remember, Rondo was in a contract year last season, playing for a playoff-bound team and a deep-pocketed owner in Dallas's Mark Cuban, and yet he still imploded down the stretch. What happens when the carrot of winning is again removed from the equation?
With major downside clearly in play, it's worth asking: What, exactly, is the upside here? In a best-case scenario, a Rondo-led Kings team wins possibly 42 games on the strength of further progress from Cousins, Karl's coaching ability, and a slightly improved defense. If that does come to pass, Rondo will want to re-up on a longer-term, even bigger-dollar deal or jump ship to a team with more plausible aspirations of postseason success. Is that really a route Sacramento wants to go down? How does Rondo fit into what should be a draft-oriented, youth-driven organic rebuilding effort?
These hypothetical questions don't really have good answers. The easiest response might also be the right answer: Sacramento simply couldn't get anyone else, and it got desperate. Pro-tip to Ranadive: It's a bad sign when the league-wide reaction to your off-season's biggest addition is gleeful anticipation of your upcoming chaos. This wasn't a move worth making for Sacramento at most prices, and certainly not at the $10 million number.