Author: Kevin L. Chouinard (@KLChouinard)
Once upon a time, Lloyd Pierce had to act as a stand-in for Rajon Rondo.
The situation for the 44-year-old Hawks head coach and his 34-year-old point guard might not be quite what you expected.
Back in 2010, Cleveland Cavaliers Head Coach Mike Brown was trying to figure out a way to slow then-Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo in the Eastern Conference Semifinals following Rondo's first All-Star regular season. He wanted to field a Celtics-like scout team against whom his starters could practice. The biggest challenge was finding someone to play Rondo's part. Brown first tried another member of his staff before eventually turning the role over to Pierce, who served as a player development coach for the Cavs.
"Now, that's a lot more like Rajon Rondo," LeBron James said of Pierce's performance.
Pierce recalled the practice vividly.
"The one thing that I was proud of in that practice – other than rolling my ankle and then having to hop on the airplane to go to Boston, because that didn't feel good in the air – was that I got a steal. One of the things that we were trying to emphasize was that when you get a defensive rebound be aware of where Rondo is because he's always poking around the bigs trying to get a steal. And I was able to get one in that practice with our players which was pretty cool."
Another task given to Pierce in that practice: apply 94 feet of full-court pressure to mimic Rondo in a season that saw Rajon lead the NBA in steals while earning a First-Team All-Defense berth for the first time. Pierce embraced that job, too.
In the end, Rondo and the Celtics proved to be too much for the Cavs. Boston adapted to Cleveland playing under every pick-and-roll by setting screens closer to the basket and freeing Rondo to do his thing in the paint. He averaged 20.7 points, 11.8 assists, 6.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals as Boston claimed the series in six games.
Ten years later, a twist: Rondo now has to act as a stand-in for Lloyd Pierce.
The Hawks signed the four-time All-Star with the idea that he can be both their backup point guard and their veteran coach on the floor. Along the way, they want him to tutor Trae Young on the finer nuances of leadership, anticipation, defense and game management in a way that propels Trae, already an All-Star starter in his own right, to his best personal version of floor generalship.
"Rajon has played (Trae's) position in this league and has won two championships doing it," Pierce said. "Playing alongside and studying alongside a guy like Rajon is the necessary growth and the necessary mentorship that we can provide for Trae. It's part of the reason why Rajon is here."
Trae, who averaged an eye-popping 29.6 points and 9.3 assists in his second NBA campaign, is on board with the plan.
"He's won, obviously, two championships. I want to win championships," he said. "How do you get there? How do you do so well in the regular season where you put yourself in a good spot in the playoffs that can ultimately lead you into a championship? I know there are steps that you have to take, and Rondo has obviously done all of the steps to win a championship and be a point guard in this league at a high level. For me, it's all about learning because I don't have the answers yet."
Rondo says that he is more than happy to point the way, even as he quipped that he is slowly coming to grips with the fact that for the first time in his career, he's not only a leader, but also the oldest player on the roster.
"I've had so many great veterans in my career that have helped me become the player that I am today," Rondo said of players like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, LeBron and Dirk Nowitzki. "It's only right for me to give it back full circle."
The acquisition of Rondo, a three-time NBA assist leader, could also help lead to more off-ball situations for Trae as he explores a part of his game that was overwhelmingly positive in 2019-20. (In 105 possessions last season, the Hawks averaged a bonkers 1.33 points per possession when Trae got a spot-up opportunity.) Newcomer Bogdan Bogdanovic could also figure in here as a part-time offensive initiator. President of Basketball Operations Travis Schlenk said that he wants to use the tactic to get Trae some easier shots away from the teeth of opposing defenses.
"When you have the ball, there are five sets of eyes on you, right?" Schlenk said. "When you don't have the ball, you might have one set of eyes on you but chances are that that guy is looking at the ball, too."
Rondo, fresh off a championship run that saw him average 6.6 assists in just 24.7 minutes per game, looks to be up to the task.
For the Hawks to make the most of Rondo joining the roster, they need to make some of their own playoff history. Part of that calculus is that the playoffs are the expected payoff when a team invests in a number of quality player acquisitions in the same offseason. But the other part is that Rondo is the ultra-rare player who has played significantly better in the postseason than the regular season. To see the best version of Rondo, the Hawks will need bright lights and big stages.
Rondo sees opportunity in the Hawks' roster and current situation.
"Trae Young, John (Collins), Kevin Huerter, the young guys have an extreme amount of upside," he said. "To me, honestly, I didn't think the East was very tough this year as far as the talent. I think it was kind of up for grabs as far as which team would prevail to the top. As you've seen, anything can happen in the playoffs."
Before the Hawks can talk about what they might do in the playoffs, they will need to tally up a significant number of wins (in a 72-game season) over the course of the next five months. In the meantime, Rondo is relying on a Hawks legend to help him get acclimated to the city of Atlanta.
"My brother, Josh Smith, lives here," Rondo said. "We were roommates at Oak Hill many, many moons ago. We have so many ties. I've actually probably been over his house every night for the last couple of nights as I'm looking for a place to stay still."
If Rondo fits the way that the team hopes, he'll earn a home in the heart of every Hawks fan.