During a March 2014 game in Boston, the Golden State Warriors called a side out-of-bounds play they’d randomly named “C Up,” which they hadn’t used in a game in months. Despite the obscure nature of the play call, then-Warriors assistant coach Darren Erman looked out onto the TD Garden floor and saw Boston defender Rajon Rondo directing his Celtics teammates on exactly what the Warriors were about to do. Somehow – perhaps from extensive video study, perhaps due to his uncanny, photographic memory – Rondo knew the play.
“We hadn’t run ‘C Up’ in 30 games, so there was no way it was on their scouting report or any way he could’ve (reasonably) known about it,” Erman said. “But he heard us call it, looked at the alignment and immediately directed everyone.
“I turned to (fellow Golden State assistant Brian) Scalabrine and said, ‘He just went through his Rolodex, scanned through all the plays and figured it out.’ ”
Erman – who spent a total of 4 1/2 seasons in the Boston organization with Rondo, from 2007-11 and then for part of the 2014-15 campaign – tells a number of similar stories that illustrate why he describes the 11-year NBA veteran and four-time All-Star “if not the smartest player in the league, one of the top three or four.” The two men, coincidentally both Louisville natives, are now reunited in New Orleans, after the 31-year-old Rondo signed a free-agent contract with the Pelicans on July 20.
Although many basketball analysts understandably have focused on the tangible or on-paper aspects of what Rondo may bring to New Orleans, Erman shares a different perspective, having seen the University of Kentucky product up-close during his steady rise (Rondo was an All-Star with Boston every year from 2010-13). Erman sees a point guard who can’t always be fully appreciated by examining statistics or scoring output – Rondo carries a modest career average of 10.7 points per game, for example, but contributes in a variety of other ways.
“He’s a great decision-maker,” Erman said, which led to Rondo averaging double-digit assists four separate seasons and leading the NBA in dimes three times. “People don’t understand that he has two other great things – his intelligence and his competitiveness. His will to win is unbelievable. I was talking to a couple coaches in Chicago, and they said in the last month of the (2016-17 regular) season, he just willed them to the playoffs. When we were in Boston, he willed us to games when we absolutely had to win. Big games, you know he’s going to show up. He’s extremely bright and extremely competitive.”
“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. “He comes from a winning pedigree and has won a world championship (as a starter for the 2008 Celtics). Players respect other players for what they’ve done in their career. Rondo’s resume speaks volumes. 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.”
A different kind of leader
Rondo comes to a New Orleans team that’s generally taken its cues from lead-by-example players, but he’s never hesitated to be vocal when the situation calls for it, according to Erman. Rondo has no problem getting in a teammate’s face or expressing displeasure if they’re not doing what most benefits the team.
“It’s extremely important to have that, especially from the position he plays,” Erman said. “Point guard is like the quarterback. He’s not afraid to lead, he’s not afraid to call guys out that need it, not afraid to pat guys on the back, or to keep (passing) to a guy who’s missed a few shots. All of his teammates have loved playing with him.
“Sometimes you have to tear into players, but they respect you if they know you care. Rondo cares a lot. In Boston, (his teammates) would take the criticism, because they knew it was coming from a good place. In Chicago (last season), he took their young players under his wing, helped them, encouraged them, watched film with them. He was a great mentor, so they loved playing with him.”
Erman, who was a coaching assistant with Boston and Golden State’s associate head coach, also calls Rondo unique in terms of his extensive preparation, challenging everyone to raise their level similarly. Failure to do so may bring repercussions.
“You have to be really honest with him and you have to know what you’re talking about, because he knows what he’s talking about,” Erman said of Rondo’s prep work. “We don’t always agree on things – no one in this world agrees on everything – but he’s very smart. So if you’re prepared and have substance to back up what you’re saying, he respects your opinion, if it’s a well-thought-out one. We were always good, because that was one of my strengths, to at least have an informed opinion. Now, he would let me know if he disagreed on something, but at least he always understood where I was coming from.”
A throwback floor general
Based on ESPN.com’s positional designations, seven of the NBA’s top 20 leading scorers in 2016-17 were point guards (a group that doesn’t even include No. 2 James Harden, listed as a shooting guard by the site). That’s the highest number of top-20 point producers for any position, a drastic change from Rondo’s ’06-07 rookie season in the NBA, when only one PG ranked in the top 20 (Washington’s Gilbert Arenas was third; next-best was Steve Nash at 27th). Although the prototypical point has transformed greatly over the past decade, there’s still considerable value in having a pass-first player running an offense. In the Pelicans’ case, they already have two perennial top-10 scorers in All-Star bigs Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, who ranked fourth and seventh, respectively, in points per game last season. In addition, third scorer Jrue Holiday has averaged 15.5 points in his four seasons in New Orleans.
By landing Rondo, the Pelicans see a player who can effectively pilot an offense, partly by making sure other players get the ball in the right spots. New Orleans has also tried to play an up-tempo style under third-year head coach Alvin Gentry, which is easier to achieve with a point guard who is adept at making play calls and is also an above-average rebounder at his position (Rondo was third among PGs in ’16-17 at 5.1 rpg).
“What stands out is his ability to recognize in-game situations,” Booth said. “Sometimes you need a guy who is a coach on the floor. He recognizes who to get the ball to at the right times. That’s going to stand out, because we have some offensive firepower. He understands mismatches and who’s hot. That’s going to complement the whole team. His unselfish mindset is going to translate to everyone else, because it’s contagious. Being a pass-first guard, that’s really good for us, because we have three guys who can really score the ball.”
Despite the presence of Davis and Holiday last season for 75 and 67 games, respectively, as well as Cousins for 17 games after the All-Star break, New Orleans still finished just 26th overall in offensive efficiency (103.3 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com). In fact, over the past four seasons, despite considerable talent at that end of the floor, the Pelicans have only finished in the top 10 once, ranking ninth during their playoff year of ’14-15. An old-school point who focuses on distributing could make a notable impact.
As Erman observed of this spring’s Chicago-Boston playoff series that swung completely after Rondo broke his thumb late in Game 2 – the Bulls won twice on the top-seeded Celtics’ home floor with Rondo playing, but went 0-4 without him – the guard’s impact on an offense has rarely been more evident.
“It’s not always about how many points a guy scores himself,” Erman said of Rondo, who approached averaging a triple-double in the two games. “He was improving the efficiency of the entire team, even though he’s not a great shooter by some standards. It’s not about his shooting; it’s about him getting other guys better shots. The thing is, though, he’s made big shots throughout his career. He makes timely shots.”
“It showed how important his value was to that team,” Booth said. “Everyone who was watching saw that series shift immediately, not by chance. It was because he was controlling the tempo of both games. He had kicked his game up a couple gears. I wasn’t surprised. He’s a seasoned veteran who has been there before.”
As it turns out, Rondo’s injury perhaps indirectly benefited the Pelicans, because he may not have been available in free agency this summer if he had remained on the floor. Chicago’s first-round defeat to Boston helped trigger a decision by the Bulls to rebuild with young players, starting with a trade of All-Star wing Jimmy Butler to Minnesota. It’s possible Chicago never makes that call if it had upset the No. 1-seeded Celtics and advanced in the Eastern Conference field.
“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.”
Ultimately, the Pelicans see Rondo’s greatest value in the potential domino effect it may have on the rest of the roster. For example, Rondo nearly doubles New Orleans’ collective postseason experience by himself, with 96 playoff games. The next-most among the Pelicans in that category is Omer Asik’s 37. Rondo has played in 13 NBA Finals games; only four current teammates have even appeared in that many playoff contests.
“He’s going to get guys easier shots, because of his ability to get into the lane and his passing ability,” Booth said. “But his leadership is what I’m really looking forward to. Guys are going to respect him, because of how his career has gone. He brings so many intangibles off the floor and has so much experience in a winning culture. That’s something you won’t see on paper, but it will impact the other guys, because of the confidence they have in him.”