Rajon Rondo Unplugged

Ric Bucher

If the Toronto Raptors are in need of a strategy to finish off the Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Lakers point guard Rajon Rondo has one he devised last summer. It featured LeBron James, but as Rondo says: "I could definitely coach in the playoffs, because it's all about adjustments. Give me a couple of days to go back and figure out, 'OK, what are you going to run?' or 'What do we need to run?' I'm great at that."

That Rondo, LeBron and the rest of the Lakers failed even to make the playoffs, much less face the Warriors, did nothing to convince him otherwise. And all that would be easy to dismiss as delusional coming from someone other than "Playoff Rondo," the alter ego he acquired for his recurrent ability not only to elevate his game in the postseason but also to transform underdog squads into nightmares for top-seeded opponents.

"I was strategically thinking before the season, 'OK, I can match so-and-so with Cuz [DeMarcus Cousins] ... I can match LeBron with such-and-such.' I was already planning on how to beat these Golden State Warriors," he says.

"Regardless of my roster, LeBron James on my team, my expectation is we're going to the Finals. I didn't want to be the guy that doesn't get him there. He's not only the best player in the world but one of the smartest. So you put my IQ and LeBron's IQ versus Draymond Green's. Not to discredit Steph [Curry] or any of those other guys, but all three of us have always been the most vocal guys on the court, and two versus one is better. That's what my mentality was. ... It obviously just didn't unfold the way it was supposed to."

Sitting in a Manhattan Beach sidewalk cafe last weekend, Rondo reflected on a tumultuous season with LeBron and the Lakers; his series of one-year stints with four different teams after eight-and-a-half seasons, four All-Star appearances and one championship with the Boston Celtics; his Playoff Rondo persona; and the lingering perception that he is equal parts agitator and organizer.

He concedes his reputation as a disruptive force was valid earlier in his career.

"I feel like a lot of people are intimidated when I come into a system or organization because of what they've heard versus actually knowing me," he says. "I get so many people who are like: 'Oh, I'm so surprised. It's unreal how you really are.' You're judging me off of articles and what you perceive of me on TV versus understanding who I really am and my daily routine and how I work at it."

Being the father of an 11-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son has been part of his transformation.

"As you get older, you mature and look at life different," he says. "I can be pretty selfish at times. ... Now it's not about me anymore. It's about my kids. It's the mindset of thinking of them first. My legacy is going to be how people view them. That's just life.

"During the early years in Boston, some days I'd be great, some days I wouldn't. I'd shy away from the weight room. I was like, 'I'm 21, I feel great, I don't need to stretch, I don't tie my shoes when I play.' It was about understanding that you have to do it consistently, and that's one of the hardest things in life to do: be consistent. It didn't happen right away for me."

Consistency eluded the Lakers on almost every front this season. Rondo's vision of knocking off the Warriors reached its high point on Christmas Day, with the Lakers thrashing them in Oracle Arena, 127-101.

"That was a big momentum game for us," he says. "It wasn't playoffs, but it was the biggest game of some guys' careers. Christmas game, against the champs, and guys stepped up. That gave me hope as far as, 'In the fourth quarter, this is another guy I can depend on' or showing LeBron, 'This is a guy you can trust' or 'This is a guy you'd love to be in a pick-and-roll with because of how he played it against the champs.' Because their defensive schemes are unreal compared to every other team that we play. But then we were all like, 'Shit, LeBron' because that's when he went down."

Rajon Rondo spent much of last offseason trying to think of ways he could maneuver the Lakers past the Warriors in a playoff matchup that never happened. Noah Graham/Getty Images

James missed 18 of the next 19 games with a groin injury. He returned to a team in disarray thanks to trade rumors that had half the young roster being shipped to New Orleans for Anthony Davis.

"Even some of the old guys were affected," Rondo says. "I can't say a name, but I remember me and the guy were on the bench for the Atlanta game right before the [All-Star] break. The guy was cussing and talking bad about the situation during the game. I was like: 'Snap out of it. That shit is over with. We'll get through it. As vets, we have to move forward and not focus on what the young guys are focusing on. Set an example.' It was a little crazy to see a vet distraught over that.

"Me, I'm kind of numb to it. I was in trade rumors every year in Boston. Eight straight years. You can't really relate to it until you've gone through it. Not knowing the future, waking up every day—and now you're on the phone reading stuff. When I was going through it, there wasn't so much social media; it was just on TV. You'd hear it, or someone would text you about it, but it wasn't so much in your face, with eight different blockbuster or proposed trades and your name in every one of them. Every Instagram scroll, you're in it. So, psychologically, it probably took a toll. ...

"Guys may have felt like, 'Oh, I need to prove myself so I won't be traded' or 'They're going to trade me anyway.' Each game you didn't know what the mentality was for those guys: 'Should I give my all to this organization that is about to trade me in two days?'"

The rumors were compounded by the fact that James had dinner with Davis, gushed about how much he'd like to play with him and is represented by the same agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports Group.

"Every guy on our team, LeBron was their favorite player growing up," Rondo says. "Everyone had the shoes, his jersey. You're the biggest fan in the world. It's like you're playing with MJ, and then you get there, and it's like your mom and dad, or the person that you looked up to and idolized, doesn't want you. And then to have that sitting in your gut, not knowing. Guys aren't at the age where they can have a man-to-man conversation versus texting you. Everybody wants to text you: 'How you doing? We cool?' People don't understand how to have a real conversation and talk out problems."

Team president Magic Johnson's abrupt resignation sent another ripple through the locker room.

"We walked in, talked about it a little as a team, tried to focus on the game," he says. "But it was such a distraction you really couldn't focus."

For the most part, though, Rondo argues playing for the Lakers wasn't as chaotic as it has come to appear from the outside.

"Biggest market, biggest media, you know what you're coming into with LeBron James on the team," he says. "To me it wasn't as crazy. The way things ended, the way Magic exited, maybe. Things happen. You learn. ... I think we held it together as best as possible."

A recent ESPN.com article detailing the turbulence within the team pinned some of it on James' agent, Paul. That wasn't apparent to Rondo.

"He wasn't around that much," Rondo says. "I'm not a fool, but he doesn't have a dominant personality; he's not, 'Look at me.' He's super chill. We've had a lot of conversations. I didn't see him as a threat or controlling anything at all."

While Rondo praised James for his work ethic, his generosity as a teammate and his contributions off the court, he also sees someone who didn't have the early benefit of Hall of Fame veterans to mentor him, as Rondo did.

"No one person can have it all," Rondo says. "Who did he respect coming in? Who were his vets that showed him the ropes on how to be a leader?

With both Rondo and LeBron James hurt for large swaths of the season, it was difficult for the two veterans to form bonds with the Lakers' young roster. Harry How/Getty Images

"That's why KG was so big for me. When things didn't go well in Boston, Kevin would be one of the first guys to call me and tell me, 'That was right today' or 'That was wrong today.' The biggest thing he taught me was that you can't pick and choose when you want to be a leader. You have to do it every day. ...

"I was fortunate, later, to have great leaders like KG and [coach] Doc Rivers. Sam Cassell came in; Eddie House, Keyon Dooling, PJ Brown. I took a little bit from all of them. ... I don't know who LeBron had his first couple of years as far as how to be a leader or what it takes. He might not be a vocal leader or deal with confrontation, but he's in the gym every day. He's leading that way."

Injuries undermined whatever leadership the Lakers had. Along with James' absence, Rondo, thanks to two separate hand injuries, missed 31 games.

"We were on the training table a lot together," Rondo says. "Seeing him go through that, never been injured, that was obviously tough dealing with. A guy like that, when you have to sit still, that changes a lot of things: your perspective, not trusting [your body] again, trying to get back. I'm sure he went through a whole bunch of that."

It's also tough to lead from the training table.

"It's different between being a player and a hurt player," Rondo says. "You're not playing, so [if you] judge everyone else ... people may not be as receptive. They'll be like, 'Oh, you sound like a coach now; you don't understand.' LeBron misses games and doesn't travel, I don't travel—all that time away from the team, you can't come together as quick as you want. We couldn't get the chemistry together."

Once the team began to fray, having six players on one-year deals didn't help.

"If the organization doesn't give a guy a multiyear deal, how much can that guy really invest in the team?" Rondo asks. "His thinking is: 'You don't really believe in me. You're just trying to fill a void. I'm just a plug-in.' You can say you're playing for a contract; on mediocre teams, OK, but on championship-caliber teams, it doesn't work that way. Guys aren't willing to make sacrifices."

For someone who wants—maybe even needs—to know exactly what he's doing before he does it, changing teams every summer is not ideal; being dealt midway through the 2014-15 season by the Celtics to the Dallas Mavericks was even worse.

Coach Rick Carlisle saw similarities in Rondo's pass-first mentality and floor leadership to the Hall of Famer who had left the team in 2012, Jason Kidd, and hoped Rondo could immediately fill the void.

"Whenever I go to a team, I just sit back and let things unfold," Rondo says. "Everybody kept telling me, 'Be like J-Kidd, be like J-Kidd.' I'm like, 'I'm not J-Kidd, but I understand the mentality of what you're trying to get me to do.' They said J-Kidd pretty much controlled a lot of things as far as pace and offensive flow. Coming in midseason, that couldn't be my mindset. Because I needed to understand what Rick wanted from me as a point guard. Understanding the personnel—Tyson [Chandler], getting used to Monta [Ellis], where Chandler Parsons needs the ball, where Dirk [Nowitzki] likes his spots—it wasn't a challenge. It was just a matter of time to figure it out."

Time that the Mavs opted not to invest after they won 50 games but got bounced in the first round by the Houston Rockets. Rondo was benched midway through the second game of the series, after which he and the team agreed to part ways. Then it was on to Sacramento for a season of trying to keep a lid on a feud between Cousins and coach George Karl.

Rondo points to being benched at his next stop, with the Chicago Bulls, and then returning to the starting lineup and helping lead them to the playoffs as a lesson in patience and restraint.

Rondo was perplexed at why the Bulls brought him and Dwyane Wade to Chicago only to start playing younger players halfway into the season. It was a decision the team reversed as it almost scored a first-round win over the Celtics in the playoffs. Rocky Widner/Getty Images

"The team tells me, 'We want you running the show; we don't want you looking to the sidelines,'" he says. "About 40 games in, we're playing Indiana, and at halftime I had a [plus-minus of] negative-20. We come out of the locker room for the second half, and [coach Fred Hoiberg] says, 'You're not starting.'

"We have a meeting the next day, and they say, 'We want to experiment.' I'm thinking we're trying for a championship. ... Why would you go younger when you have a future Hall of Famer [Dwyane Wade] and Jimmy Butler on the rise? We're not trying to win?

"I had to eat that. It wasn't ego. They paid me $14 million. It's the most I've been paid in my career for one year. You say this is what you wanted, but you trade for Cameron Payne and you start Michael Carter-Williams and Jerian Grant over me. We went through four point guards, and I was on the bench, just sitting there, still being professional, still getting my work in.

"People in my circle would tell me: 'Stay with it. Don't give them what they want. Don't overreact.' That was tough because knowing what I could do with this team, it was, 'Fuck, I'm not even playing?' ... If you're going to start one- or two-year point guards with no experience, Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler are going to eat their ass up on the court. They won't even be a factor. I know how to keep guys happy. I know how to manage the offense, who needs shots, who doesn't."

Rondo was reinserted into the starting lineup, and the Bulls stunned the higher-seeded Celtics by winning the first two games of their first-round series before Rondo broke his thumb and the Bulls lost four in a row.

"I wouldn't say it was satisfying ... [but] what they did backfired on them," he says. "There was no, 'Let's figure this out, let's go over the game plan.' It was, 'We're done with you, put you on the shelf,' and then obviously they had to come back to me. I finished playing Game 2 with a broken thumb, and then we don't win another game. How is that even possible? I guess I am important."

His most satisfying moment came in a hotel ballroom before Game 2 against the Celtics.

"Teams always go back and make adjustments," he says. "But if I put in an offense for Game 2 that they haven't seen, in the fourth quarter when I hit you with it, it's going to be too late.

"So me, Jimmy and Dwyane were in the ballroom for an hour and 20 minutes after the shootaround for Game 2. We put in the offense. I explained to them how we were all interchangeable in these positions and this is where you can attack. It was unbelievable because we went out and did it and we won. It was just how I had envisioned it that morning."

He had a similar impact at his next stop, in New Orleans. Even though Cousins, then with the Pelicans, suffered a season-ending torn Achilles tendon in January, New Orleans rallied to snare the sixth playoff seed and then swept the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers.

Rondo found out this season how much he meant to the Pelicans when they played the Lakers in L.A. and people throughout the organization told him "Coach 'Do" was missed. But his run with New Orleans ended as it did with the Mavericks, Kings and Bulls: with an exit interview in which he was praised for what he contributed but not offered a chance to stay.

"They're blaming my age," he says. "Nah, I don't believe that's the case. Guys at 33 are getting four-year deals. It seems like there's a GM exit pitch: You compliment on this, this and this. You don't really get to the nitty-gritty but say, 'We love you, and good luck.' ... Then, when July 1 comes, things change. But I don't have a clue what it could be."

He'd welcome a second chance at making his plan for LeBron become a reality, but he has no idea if he'll get it. If not, he will look for another place where he can give younger players rides to the airport, invite them over for meals and share what he's seen over the first 13 years of his career.

"I tell those guys, 'Anything I can help with, call me, because I've been there,'" he says.

As for Playoff Rondo, he considers his postseason performance the result of a rather simple equation: more rest plus more time to prepare plus more playing time.

"Being able to lock in on one team, I can break down as much tape as I want," he says. "Give me the time and personnel, and I'll be able to dissect and figure it out."

He thirsts to help another superstar make a title run. For now, though, he's simply watching the Finals, devising schemes to knock off whatever team comes out on top. He may not know where he's playing next, but he's already working on what he wants to do when he gets there.


Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.


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