The Nets seemed to be in best position to sign Rondo, and many expected that Rondo would spend the first part of his 30s toiling for a rebuilding team. But Chicago entered the picture quickly and scooped up Rondo on a two-year, $28 million contract, giving him the chance for late-career relevance that seemed to have passed him by.
The Bulls are a decent team with a chance at a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference. For a guy like Rondo, this is a shot at reviving or even finishing an always-strange, sometimes-sterling career in the limelight. You know, the good limelight. He needs some of that, but already, he is stepping on his own feet; the Bulls’ one-game suspension of Rondo for butting heads with assistant coach Jim Boylen adds to the too-familiar storyline of Rondo as player who is more trouble than he’s worth.
Rondo tore the ACL in his right knee about four years ago, right as he was inheriting the reins as leader of the Celtics. He’s done little to help his reputation since. The perception of Rondo as a perpetual malcontent is overblown, but there is no doubt that when he loses his composure, he loses it in a big way. Even age has not changed that.
The Celtics, as part of their rebuilding, traded Rondo to the Mavericks in December 2014, and Rondo’s inability to mesh with Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle was so complete that Rondo was eventually asked to leave the team. That was followed by a stint in Sacramento that was mostly anonymous, except for an embarrassing homophobic rant toward referee Billy Kennedy. As many around the NBA knew before Rondo's tirade, Kennedy is gay, and the rant led to a suspension for Rondo and a public coming-out for the veteran referee.
Early in his career, Rondo could get away with these sorts of incidents. For one thing, the Celtics were winning, and he was a part of that, the starting point guard on an NBA champion. Plus, he was young and simply in need of guidance — as he aged, the stories of his off-the-handle encounters with coach Doc Rivers diminished, and he improved as a player.
But Rondo is too old to be here now, suspended for flinging laundry where he should know it should not be flung. He has too much at stake. His contract with the Bulls is a chance not only to win now, but also to establish a legacy and validate the accomplishments from his Celtics career, which included two Finals appearances and four consecutive All-Star selections.
What’s especially troubling is that what happened with the Bulls has been typical of Rondo, who is a collected and thoughtful guy when he's not angry. But even when things are going well, even when he is aware that his reputation is in the process of repair, he is one temper flare-up away from torpedoing all progress.
Just days ago, Carlisle seemed to give Rondo a public pardon, saying that he recommended Rondo to teams considering signing him as a free agent. If even Carlisle had let bygones be bygones, maybe Rondo deserved a fresh look.
Just a few weeks ago, I asked coach Fred Hoiberg about working with Rondo, who had been an attentive learner since he signed with the Bulls, and spent much of August in Chicago watching film with Hoiberg. That impressed Hoiberg.
“I have loved working with Rajon from the minute we signed him,” Hoiberg said. “He’s been completely bought-in with how we want to play. He’s done a great job with his voice, he’s the one — it starts with him. Every time we take the floor, both offensively and defensively, he has done a good job with his pick-up point on the defensive end, applying pressure. Offensively, what he does speaks for itself, the way he gets us out with some pace and, again, makes simple plays, as simple as throwing the ball ahead at times. I’ve absolutely loved working with him, and I hope that relationship continues for a long time.”
That would have been the story of the first quarter-season for Rondo and his new team. Instead, it’s yet another confrontation with his coaching staff. All sides have vowed to move on from the incident, and maybe that will happen — maybe Rondo will help the Bulls into the playoffs and even help them make a run there. But in the meantime, if he’s trying to finish out his prime years on an upswing, he continues to be his own worst enemy.