Rondo will force change, but just might improve the Pelicans

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Published: July 19, 2017

If the arrival of DeMarcus Cousins in New Orleans signaled one set of changes for the Pelicans’ organization, then the courtship and acquisition of Rajon Rondo represents a full evolution. Gone is the versatile, defense-first team that stayed above water for 50 games last season; in is the opportunity for a more Gentry-fied offense. Cousins was the skilled, stretchy unicorn that Gentry needed to play five out and create mismatches. Rondo is supposed to be the playmaker who allows that type of player to thrive next to Anthony Davis.

Pelicans fans have wanted Rondo intermittently over the past two seasons, but that idea intensified this summer with Cousins in tow and Rondo a free agent. The two played together in Sacramento two years ago, and share the Kentucky tie that also bonds them to Davis. They are buddies, and the offense they led in Northern California two years ago was extremely productive. As passers and basketball chess players, Rondo and Cousins represent the kind of teammates with which Davis is at his best.

However thanks to a rough go to end the 2016-17 season, expectations are tempered for the Pelicans. Despite Cousins’ arrival, the team’s best five-man lineup to play over 100 minutes together was the ultra-switchy look from early in the season featuring Davis, Dante Cunningham, Solomon Hill, Jrue Holiday and Buddy Hield. That group outscored opponents by an average of 10.6 points per 100 possessions. It feasted on low-IQ offenses and let Davis go to work on offense. Rondo’s presence, supposedly as a starter, immediately changes the team’s identity on both ends.

In 2015-16, a season in which Rondo averaged nearly 12 assists per 36 minutes and posted a True Shooting percentage of 50.6, he produced a lot of offense for the Kings. It was his most valuable statistical season since at least 2012-13 (by box score numbers), when he was an All-Star in the East. And yet Sacramento’s 15th-ranked offense was still worse with him on the court. It was his first season since his Boston peak in which he had full independence and got to play quickly, and so he posted some jaw-dropping stats. But the impact he had on winning basketball games is questionable.

How can he help the Pelicans? The hope is that he can make his teammates better. When he’s on the court with Holiday, it will force Holiday off the ball into a role close to what James Harden did in OKC. Holiday will be able to find his spots, get open looks, and read broken defenses. When Rondo sits, he’ll resume running the offense, as he has for his whole career. Perhaps slashing his responsibility as a floor general will make him even more effective as a scorer and defender.

Rondo will instantly be the best pick-and-roll option for Cousins and Davis on the entire team. Holiday has always been more effective looking for his, Tim Frazier was still developing, and E’Twaun Moore is a big tier below these guys. Sure, there may have been other options on the market, but getting Rondo for one of the team’s exceptions (or even perhaps the minimum) is good value. In that lone Sacramento season, however, the veteran point guard ranked in the 42nd percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, far behind Holiday, Frazier and his backup Darren Collison.

As a point guard, Rondo remains a stellar passer and smart tactician on the offensive end of the floor. He will feed everyone, and add to the playmaking potential for this team, which now features five above-average passers by position in the starting lineup. Defense and shooting will be the concern, but there is reason to believe that he can fit into the system that Gentry has been constructing for three seasons, creating and making open shots.

However, the Pelicans’ new starting point guard hasn’t been definitively valuable since the 2012-13 season, before he tore his ACL. Rondo produced a Box Plus-Minus of 1.8 and Boston was even on both ends when he was on the court. He also shot 48 percent from the field that season and 65 percent from the free-throw line in one of the best shooting seasons of his career. His best teammates that year were Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett (in their mid thirties) and Jeff Green (first season back following heart treatment). If there is any season for him to regain form, it will be in a free offensive system next to the two best big men in the NBA.

As Michael Pelissier noted on Sunday, the bar Rondo must clear to have value is merely the level of Moore or Frazier. But the bar he must clear to take this team to a new level and exceed expectations is one he set for himself, a disastrous injury and several unproductive seasons ago. The Kings season is not a mirage, but it is also not proof that Rondo can make the Pelicans better this year. There may be no player with greater difference between reputation and production in the league than Rondo, but he has a tremendous chance with this organization to close that gap.

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  1. […] If the arrival of DeMarcus Cousins in New Orleans signaled one set of changes for the Pelicans’ organization, then the courtship and acquisition of Rajon Rondo represents a full evolution.Read more » […]