Of the thirty franchises in the National Basketball Association, it is perhaps our very own Sacramento Kings that have been the most arduous to predict how their 2015-16 season will unfold.
On one hand you have an organization that seemingly can’t get out of it’s way, hasn’t been a playoff participant in nearly 10 years, and is best known for it’s musical chairs at head coach over the same time frame. On the other, you have a pristine new arena well on it’s way to completion, a Hall of Fame bound head coach implementing his system from day one, and an entirely rebuilt and rejuvenated roster full of players who largely haven’t been here for those aforementioned struggles.
Will the Kings remain a bottom feeder in the ultra-competitive Western Conference? Or will the newly arrived talent lift them to playoff contention? Only time will tell, but perhaps no individual has more to do with the success or failure of the 2015-16 Kings than new point guard Rajon Rondo.
One could argue that Rajon Rondo, a household name due to his All-Star level play and considerable playoff success with the Boston Celtics from 2008-2013, is the biggest name free agent Sacramento has signed in the last 10 years. A few factors played a role in Rondo finding his way to the Kings, who by most accounts were the only team to express interest in signing him. In January 2014, Rondo suffered a partially torn ACL injury. In the opinion of many observers, he hasn’t been the same player since that unfortunate ailment. Last year was arguably his worst as a professional, highlighted by his free throw shooting falling off a cliff at a ghastly 39%. In December he was dealt from the Celtics to the Mavericks, and the immediate reaction was extremely positive.
But Rondo’s arrival (and lack of floor spacing) curtailed what was an explosive and efficient offense, and his clashing with Mavs’ coach Rick Carlisle has been well documented. Two games into Dallas’ postseason, Rondo was dismissed from the team. A move basically unheard of come playoff time, particularly for a roster that was depleted by injuries and needed able bodied NBA players as they fought to stay alive against the Houston Rockets.
This all doesn’t warrant a lot of positives for Rajon Rondo going forward. But he is still just 29 years old, still has elite level vision and passing ability, and has a great deal of motivation as he is determined to confirm that he can still play. And perhaps most importantly, he is the most unselfish player in the entire NBA–an important and underrated trait that has been lacking severely in Sacramento the last several years.
The Kings have proven scorers throughout roster, scorers who have largely depended on themselves to get those points. Rarely does DeMarcus Cousins get an easy bucket off of a well executed screen and roll. Seldom does Rudy Gay get a wide open jump shot off of the brilliant creativity of a point guard. Ben McLemore, who unlike Cousins & Gay struggles to create his own shot, stands to benefit most by playing alongside the former Celtic. Ben would at times go six or seven minutes without touching the basketball in years past. That won’t happen alongside Rajon Rondo. With his pass first mentality and coach level basketball IQ, he will immediately create scoring opportunities and make life easier for Cousins, Gay & McLemore.
Another area where Rondo can positively impact the Kings is on the defensive end. By his own admission, his defensive effort and interest the last few years hasn’t been anywhere close to what it was earlier in his career. With multiple All-NBA Defensive teams to his credit, I’m of the belief that Rondo can closely return to the defensive irritant he was during his prime years. Defense has been another Achilles’ heel of the Kings seemingly since they arrived in Sacramento 30 years ago, but the roster suddenly seems equipped with several capable defensive aces.
Rondo’s acquisition upgraded the Kings bench instantaneously as well, moving incumbent starting point guard Darren Collison to the sixth man role. A common denominator among playoff teams is a dependable scorer/playmaker off of the bench. This is a role Sacramento has failed to adequately fill for the last decade, since Bobby Jackson was in his prime. Collison enjoyed the best season of his career a year ago, averaging 16 points per game and nearly 6 assists. He can create shots for less talented bench players, he can score himself, and offers enough offensive versatility to play alongside Rondo for extended minutes.
In a best case scenario for the Sacramento Kings: Rajon Rondo will more closely resemble the Boston Celtic version of himself, creating havoc on defense, playing passing lanes, display his elite basketball acumen, aid in placating DeMarcus Cousins when his big man gets hot headed, setting up teammates and averaging close to double digit assists. Darren Collison will embrace his super sub role, score efficiently and dish out six or seven assists, contend for the NBA’s 6th Man of the Year award, and also contribute alongside Rondo when called upon.
If both Rajon Rondo and Darren Collison play up to their potential, this team’s goal of a triumphant and long awaited return to the playoffs may indeed be a realistic possibility.
Photo courtesy of the Sacramento Kings