A few days after winning his second NBA championship, Rajon Rondo decided to opt out of his contract at $2.5 million and become a free agent. Rondo’s worth has skyrocketed since the Lakers' playoff run and he will become a sought-after point guard with a championship pedigree.
But the journey to another title has been long for Rondo.
He went 12 years between titles and 10 between NBA Finals appearances. Rondo, now 34, played with five teams since leaving the Celtics in 2014. In that span he played in 13 playoff games – nine with the New Orleans Pelicans. With the Mavericks, Rondo was banished from the team by coach Rick Carlisle after two games. In Chicago, Rondo led the Bulls to two playoff wins at Boston but broke his hand in Game 2 and the Celtics went on to win the next four games.
He suffered another hand injury in practice as the Lakers prepared for the bubble and went home to rehabilitate a few weeks before joining the club in its first-round series against the Houston Rockets.
He was the difference for the Lakers at point guard. Rondo turned into his playoff dominant self, averaging 8.9 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 6.6 assists in the title run, with 40 percent 3-point shooting off the bench. A player who has been underappreciated and sometimes mercurial because of his attitude, Rondo finally felt the appreciation he has sought since Boston.
“I’ve been through a lot in my career, you play the game this long, 14 years, and I had early success,” he said. "I had a lot of great teammates early [with the Celtics], great coaching staffs early, and I thought that’s what the NBA was. And then obviously down the road, Year 10, 11, things changed for me in my career.
“Every time going into training camp, you weren’t expected to win a championship because of the teams I was on, so that was a different mind-set coming into the season. But to be able to get back to this, this season in particular, understanding that we did have a team to compete for a championship from Day 1, and to be able to come full circle an entire year later, we reached our goal and our dream. So it’s been a long time for me.”
The memories of losing the 2010 Finals with the Celtics, a series Boston led three games to two before losing Game 6 89-67 and then Game 7 83-79, a game Boston led heading into the fourth quarter. For members of the Big Three, it was the most regrettable loss of the era.
“Last time I was in this situation, obviously the result didn’t turn out as well,” Rondo said. “To be able to come back and redeem myself and play a big part in this championship is definitely a hell of a feeling and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
"And so was being able to experience it with my son [Rajon Jr.] here. I’m very blessed to do it while he’s able to understand at 9 years old — soon to turn 9 — that his dad is a champ and he was able to witness it. Twelve years ago, he wasn’t born yet, so for him to be here and my daughter at home watching, it’s definitely a surreal feeling.”
It was Rajon Jr. who was sipping on a bottle of something sitting next to dad on the confetti-filled floor after the championship was clinched last Sunday. Players were allowed to bring family members after the first round and Rajon Jr. was able to see his father make the long-awaited title run.
“He definitely understands, and two nights ago [in the Game 5 loss to the Heat], I definitely feel felt like I let him down,” Rondo said. “He was pretty pissed that we didn’t finish the job two nights ago, and I didn’t sleep well that night. He didn’t sleep well. So for him to understand the magnitude of what we’re in and being a part of it.
"I think the first question he asked when we won, he was like, ‘When do I get my ring?’ I’m extremely excited to be able to get his size, his ring size, and order him one, as well. It’s definitely a surreal moment. He definitely understands what’s going on, and like I said, I’m a proud dad.”
Twelve years ago, Rondo said he thought titles were a yearly guarantee, especially with Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce as teammates.
“This one, by far, is the hardest one,” he said. "Family is everything, and not being able to see your family for so long, it takes a toll on you mentally. Like I said, for us, we’re not eating normal food, as far as our normal routine regiments. I didn’t eat today, so that was taking a toll on the mind and the body. Proper rest, not sleeping in your proper beds, on a certain schedule. So it was a lot different. People might say travel was different or no fans, but mentally this one was tough.
“Like I said, being here for a hundred days, I was fortunate — well, I wasn’t fortunate, I had an injury so I went home for a while. But the time I did spend here, the best thing about it was just being with my teammates every day and winning. So it was an experience, once-in-a-lifetime hopefully, get things back to normal. But other than that, I wouldn’t trade it for nothing. It was all worth it at the end of the day, and we all came here for a mission and we accomplished it.”
Physically, Rondo is in immaculate shape, but he has had to overcome a series of injuries, especially to his hands and wrist. And he got his speed back a few years ago after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament while with the Celtics in 2013.
“Keep believing in God. Keep believing in my family and having a great supporting cast, and just having the discipline and work ethic to stay through it, stay through the tough times,” he said. “My mentor, Doug Bibby, always told me, cream rises to the top.
"Like I said, it’s been a rocky last couple seasons. We didn’t get to the playoffs last year. A couple years ago, a teammate [DeMarcus Cousins] got hurt and we exited early in the playoffs. So just staying the course, never too high, never too low and continuing to grind.
"I pride myself on how hard I work. People that know me know how dedicated I am to the game, and my mind and my body, the work I put in in the offseason, and it’s definitely a blessing to be able to come out and reap the benefits of what I’ve been working for for so long.”
TOUGH PLACE TO WORK
Bubble life was no vacation
There were questions before the NBA bubble began as to whether the champion would carry an asterisk because of the abbreviated season with no travel and the centralized games. If anything, the players should be given more respect and kudos because of the restrictions, which included no family for the first six weeks.
LeBron James, now a four-time champion, was asked about the sacrifices the players made. Several players opted out before the games even began because of COVID-19 related considerations, while others had trouble with the restrictions.
The Los Angeles Clippers just never adapted to the bubble with players Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, and Lou Williams all leaving the bubble for extended times for personal reasons and that affected team chemistry.
James made the commitment to play in Orlando and left his three children behind in Los Angeles because he said there was little for them to do. He was right. Activities were limited in Orlando. Players were allowed to golf and fish, and there were video games and restaurants but admission into the amusement park was not permitted.
Players such as Paul George and Danny Green said they struggled with mental health and confidence because one of the few activities that players could do during down time was check their social media accounts.
And the social media community isn’t kind after poor games, especially to Green, who said he and his fiancée received death threats following his missed 3-pointer in the final second of Game 5.
Of course, these players are paid exorbitantly to play a kid’s game and, medically, the bubble was beyond safe with zero negative tests for players and NBA officials. But it was still a sacrifice, especially with players such as Jayson Tatum with young kids who don’t understand why daddy had to leave for two months.
“I think you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t have ups and downs in the bubble,” James admitted. “At times I was questioning myself, ‘Should I be here? Is this worth sacrificing my family?’ So many things.
"I’ve never been without my family this long. Missing the days of my daughter being in kindergarten, even though it’s through Zoom. Missing my son’s 16th birthday, which we all know is a big birthday, if you have kids. Seeing my middle child continue to grow and be who he is.
"First of all, big-time shoutout to the late great Steve Jobs, because without him, without his vision, those FaceTime calls wouldn’t be possible.”
It seemed as if most players at some point in the bubble questioned their decision to come. Those feelings became more apparent during the players' sit-out in late August.
Those meetings between players were intense and there were some honestly ready to go home after the Jacob Blake incident made them feel as if their social justices messages were hollow.
“Absolutely, I’ve had ups and downs throughout this journey,” James said. “For some odd reason, I was able to keep the main thing the main thing.
"When I talked about all the stuff that I missed, they understood that, too, and that made it a lot easier for me. To answer your second question, it doesn’t matter where it is if you win a championship. A bubble, Miami, Golden State — it doesn’t matter. When you get to this point, it’s one of the greatest feelings in the world for a basketball player to be able to win at the highest level.”
Final thoughts on greatness
Is LeBron James as good as Michael Jordan?
Is reaching 10 NBA Finals ever going to match going undefeated in six?
Those are questions that may never be answered — or it may depend on your generation, or how much you value winning in terms of greatness. But James does deserve immense credit for bringing championships to three franchises.
There are four LeBrons in our image: the young phenom who brought Cleveland to prominence, the Miami Heat James who finally learned how to win and emerged as a megastar in winning two titles, the veteran James who returned to the Cavaliers to help Cleveland win its first professional sports title in 52 games and finally the muscular, athletic behemoth who brought Los Angeles its first title in 10 years as a 35-year-old.
“I think they are all special in their own right,” James said of the four titles. “They all have their obstacles, things that went on throughout the course of the year, both on and off the floor.
"But one is not less than the other, because when you’re able to put yourself in this position to be able to win a championship, first thing you start to think about is how much work you’ve put in over the course of the year. How much you’ve sacrificed, how much you’ve dedicated to the game and to your craft. That’s always been the most fulfilling thing for me, besides seeing my teammates as happy as they are.
"Being able to know that you can put the work in, literally trust the process, live about the process and then see the results. I think not only from a basketball player, but from everybody, whatever craft, whatever workspace you’re in, to be able to put the work in and live along the process and build along the process and be able to see results, I think we all live for that moment.”
The league is mourning the death of Rockets scout BJ Johnson, who passed away Thursday at age 65 in a cycling accident in Houston. Johnson was popular around the league for his affable personality and made everyone around him feel welcome and comfortable. Johnson was one of those familiar faces you’d see on the road or at the All-Star Game and he always had a smile and a handshake waiting . . . Two former Celtics will have interesting decisions to make this offseason. Kelly Olynyk, who played more than 19 minutes in Miami’s postseason games just twice — both in the Finals — has a $13.5 million player option to return. Olynyk has had his moments for the Heat, but the development of Bam Adebayo and Miami’s desire to go small left Olynyk out of the rotation at times. Olynyk may not make $13 million on the open market, but there could be a bigger role as a stretch four. Olynyk shot a career-best 40.6 percent from the 3-point line this past season and could help a team seeking a finesse big man with shooting ability. Meanwhile, Jae Crowder is a free agent, finally concluding that five-year, $35 million deal he signed in 2015 with the Celtics. Crowder is an interesting player because he shot 44.5 percent from the 3-point line in his 20 regular-season games with the Heat and shot 41.7 percent in the first 10 postseason games. In Miami’s final 11 postseason games, he shot 26 percent from beyond the arc. So who is the real Crowder? Probably somewhere in the middle. But Crowder is a staunch defender, a tough, rugged player and just turned 30, so he could cash in with a lucrative contract . . . There are several teams with salary-cap space to watch: the Detroit Pistons, New Orleans Pelicans, Miami Heat (although they could be saving that cash for a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo), Sacramento Kings, Atlanta Hawks, and New York Knicks can all throw big money at free agents if they renounce certain contracts, but it’s not a stellar free agent class, especially with Anthony Davis expected to return to the Lakers. Brandon Ingram (restricted), Fred Van Vleet, and Montrezl Harrell (unrestricted) are the top names on the market, along with Danilo Gallinari, Serge Ibaka, and Davis Bertans.