Jim Brighters - NBA Editor Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
It's hard to recall a cautionary tale spiral downward so quickly as that of Rajon Rondo.
The final ending has not been written, but the beginning of the end has.
On Tuesday, during Game 2 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, Rondo let his Dallas Mavericks' teammates down in the most inexcusable of all ways - he stopped trying.
His line was pathetic - four points, one assist, two rebounds, one turnover, four fouls, a technical and a benching after 9:55 of action. In a winnable battle for their season's lives, head coach Rick Carlisle believed in Raymond Felton more than Rondo.
What brought about the benching was telling. It was a clear lack of effort in defending Jason Terry, who most in the league can stay in front of, and know, all he's going to do is shoot 3-pointers.
It was an eight-second violation for no better reason than he just wasn't paying attention, or, because his unhappiness led to an outright refusal to pay attention.
It was the baiting the refs to call a foul on him by low-bridging James Harden while the two were jockeying for position. That came after officials stepped in before the start of play to knock it off. Then, a technical, for shoving Harden. That was all Carlisle could stomach.
Rondo never returned. In fact, Rondo will never return to the Mavericks again. He "injured" his back and his status is questionable, however, Carlisle left little ambiguity.
"Do you expect Rajon Rondo to ever wear a Mavericks uniform again?"
Carlisle said, "No, I don't."
Rondo is a free agent at season's end and it's clear there's no mutual interest in staying with Big D. He's not wanted. Rondo may not want to be there, but if options aren't what he thought they'd be, the Mavs made it clear they are no longer a possibility.
One doesn't have to possess kinetic powers to have seen this coming. Rondo, even in his All-Star prime with the Boston Celtics, was not an easy man to handle. Doc Rivers had Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen to police him.
By all accounts closer to the situation than I was, Rondo was a pretty solid citizen when the Big Three left. He got along with head coach Brad Stevens, but Danny Ainge decided to accelerate the rebuilding process and in doing so, actually improved the team to the tune of a playoff appearance. That, in itself, doesn't reflect glowingly on Rondo.
When Rondo was traded to the Mavs, there was a great early period, especially when Dallas returned to Boston. Rondo finished with 29 points, five assists and six rebounds in a 119-101 triumph.
A month-and-a-half later, it fell apart. Against the Toronto Raptors, Carlisle was unhappy with something Rondo did and the two argued loudly and clearly. Rondo was benched, suspended the next game and it seemed clear this was a terrible fit.
Carlisle is long known as one of the most controlling coaches in the league. That's not a knock, but just a fact. Carlisle likes calling more plays than most coaches do.
Rondo is a freestylist. He likes running the offense on his own. You can't fault him for that thinking. Rondo is a four-time All-Star and championship-winning point guard. He has a body of work that supports his ability to run a team.
Time has not been kind to Rondo. A January 2013 torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee robbed Rondo of his aggressiveness, not so much offensively, but defensively. He was a four-time All-Defensive player and can no longer sustain that level of play. Rondo probably sunk to the bottom half of NBA point guards defensively. Watch Chris Paul, or Russell Westbrook fully engaged on the defensive end. Then watch Rondo from some games this season. Rondo can no longer influence a game that way.
Couple that without the opportunity to run an offense the way he wants to, and blowups are the result. Rondo's never been a gifted scorer, or shooter, but he was a great facilitator. That hasn't left totally. He had 18 games with double-digit assists this season.
But Rondo became ineffective with the Mavericks. It was a bad fit. When the Mavs acquired him, they led the NBA in offensive efficiency. When the season ended, Dallas finished fifth.
This was a splashy move by Mark Cuban, Donnie Nelson and the Mavs front office. Rondo was the best available player this season. They tried to improve something that didn't need improvement. The Rondo deal was trying to add another superstar-caliber player to a conference littered with multi-studded teams.
So, it was a bad move for Dallas. That, however, does not exonerate Rondo's behavior. When watching Game 2, Rondo performed like a man who wanted to be ejected or benched. That's unacceptable behavior. Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler and everyone else in a Mavericks' uniform worked an entire season to make the playoffs. The Mavs have a fair chance of upsetting the Rockets, so to have a teammate undermining their own ability to win is indefensible. It's treason in team sports.
Is there a market for step-slower, mercurial genius who can't suppress his feelings to help his team? Of course. Rondo and Kobe Bryant have enjoyed a public flirtation that makes you want to tell them to get a room. The Los Angeles Lakers will have cash and if the interest is mutual, which, it appears is the case, that's the fit.
Rondo won't move the needle. Bryant is at the end of the string and the Lakers are years away from relevance. The worst idea is to waste money on Rondo. They should develop youngsters like Jordan Clarkson and wait out Kobe's contract.
But Rondo will find a home. What he did in Game 2 was reprehensible to me. He quit on his team. That's a big enough flaw for me to be wary in perpetuity. Rondo won't get a max deal. His decline on the court is why, not as much as the implosion with the Mavs.
Either way, an All-Star point guard, who isn't even 30 yet, is putting his career in a hideous light before he was supposed to cash in significantly. Point guard is a brutal position right now in the NBA. Westbrook probably won't make First-Team All-NBA.
Rondo is no longer on that level. He will have to reinvent himself to stay an important figure in the league. He could become a reliable jump-shooter with hours in the gym. He could become a more physical point guard down on the post.
What he has to stop doing is being so difficult. It could be a product of his intelligence, but it's painful to watch. Hopefully, the true final chapter of Rondo's career is a little more positive than the beginning of the end.