LAS VEGAS — If you recall, Rajon Rondo passed on a Celtics trip to Sacramento, while recovering from knee surgery, to celebrate his birthday in Los Angeles about 17 months ago. The move wasn’t exactly embraced or accepted by the organization, which fined him an undisclosed amount for his absence.
The decision was so Rondo. He defied authority, made his own headstrong decision, and dealt with the consequences. Of course back then, Rondo’s stock was higher. He believed he would receive a maximum contract once free agency arrived in July 2015 and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge even acknowledged that.
So much occurred in those 17 months. Rondo recovered from knee surgery, played fairly well for the Celtics, and was traded to the Dallas Mavericks, a five-month stretch that was disastrous for his reputation and image. Clashes with coach Rick Carlisle caused his removal from the team during the NBA playoffs.
His value dwindling, opportunities limited, Rondo accepted a one-year, $10 million contract from the Kings, meaning Rondo will make Sacramento home, at least temporarily, with an opportunity to resurrect his career.
So he arrived in Las Vegas to sign his contract, joining the slew of new Kings signings as the franchise attempts to approach respectability. Rondo has been humbled, not only by his torn anterior cruciate ligament but by the perception — and perhaps reality — that he has descended to a mediocre point guard.
Great point guards can be mercurial. Mediocre ones have to be cooperative. It seems Rondo plans on being great with his new opportunity.
“I’ve been faced with challenges my whole life,” said Rondo, 29. “A lot of people didn’t expect me to come this far in the NBA. I have no doubts about what my talents can do and what I can bring to the team and I’m looking forward to putting my work in and getting the job done.”
Rondo will be the unquestioned starter at point guard and his biggest task will be fostering a positive relationship with coach George Karl, whom he had little familiarity with before signing. Rondo’s relationship with Doc Rivers in Boston was volatile but mostly fruitful. Rondo highly respected current Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
Carlisle? It was a porous bond that added to the perception that Rondo is moody, arrogant, and inflexible. The past year has been an adjustment, and this next year could define his career.
“It hasn’t been tough really. I’m enjoying life. Life is about handling adversity and I’ve been through a little bit of adversity this past season. But I’ve been going through it my whole career,” he said. “I went through the ACL surgery. I came back. I had the third metacarpal [fracture]. I’ve had a couple of things on and off the court that’s happened in my career. I have people around me. I have a great supporting cast. That’s what’s pushed me through is my family and the people that love me.”
Perhaps his maturity is beginning to emerge. He had nothing but positives to say about the Mavericks, although he did not mention Carlisle, likely purposefully.
“It was a learning experience. It was a great experience. I met one of my best friends I consider now in Monta Ellis. I wouldn’t have met Monta if I didn’t get traded there. Dirk [Nowitzki] is one of the funniest guys I’ve met,” he said. “I gained a lot of great relationships with new guys, guys I wouldn’t have even talked to. You know how I am. I love every one of those guys on the team. They were great guys. A lot of guys I continue to hang out with. I can’t say enough about the organization. It’s a great organization. [Mark] Cuban from Day 1 was very honest with me and their staff was amazing.”
He is mature enough to comprehend that trashing the Mavericks will do nothing for the long-term health of his career. He seems genuinely excited about Sacramento.
“I’m excited that everybody is doubting us. Everybody doubting,’’ he said. “All of the negative energy that’s going toward Sacramento as far as me coming, playing with [DeMarcus] Cousins, the George Karl thing. It’s been blown out of proportion .
“There’s been a lot of naysayers, a lot of doubters my entire career, even the day I got drafted. So I love proving people wrong.”
But he tempered his excitement. He advised all to wait until the regular season, when tensions are high and Rondo will seek to take charge of the offense. Is he capable of returning to All-Star form? Will Rondo actually listen to and respect Karl? Has he learned that being right all the time can no longer be his primary goal?
Has Rondo mellowed and comprehended that the league is fully capable of forging ahead without him? Finding the answers to these questions will make the Sacramento season and Rondo’s role fascinating.
“We haven’t played any games. George hasn’t thrown me out of any practices yet, so we’ll see how that goes,” he said. “They are going to get a great leader on and off the court and in the locker room, and a guy that’s going to push guys every day, teach them how to be men. I’m still learning myself but I think if we can surround ourselves around positive people, the sky’s the limit.”