Now with Bulls, Rondo looks to reset reputation

Rocky stops in Dallas and Sacramento behind him, Rondo sees opportunity in Chicago

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO — Rajon Rondo got to town more than a month ago, eschewing the veteran’s prerogative of a just-in-time training camp arrival with the Chicago Bulls to settle in early.

He already knows more alternate routes to United Center than most locals, as well as the handiest places to order-out grub. And while some of his new teammates are still messing with the cable guys and their maddening four-hour, hook-up “windows,” Rondo is home, clicker in hand.

“Get situated,” the Bulls’ new point guard said after a morning practice this week. “I don’t want to come in a week before training camp, trying to get my place set up. I want to be able to have two or three different ways to get to the arena. I want to know the area.

“I want to get familiar with everyone on the staff and get in a routine, get in a rhythm. If I’m all set for a month and a half, then I’m already at home.”

The Bulls benefited from Rondo’s early arrival when he hit the Advocate Center practice facility for workouts and wound up participating in their unstructured scrimmages. That gave some of the team’s younger players — rookie Denzel Valentine, Doug McDermott, Tony Snell, several others — a glimpse of and chance to bond with the man who’ll be delivering them the basketball (or not) this season.

“His voice has been off the chart,” coach Fred Hoiberg said Wednesday, “really since he’s been here since back in August.”

Yet when it was suggested to Rondo that his eagerness to get started on this season in the thick of summer might have been a way to lock away last season as a definite thing of the past, the 30-year-old playmaker shook his head.

“I feel like I had a great season last year,” Rondo said. “I shot my highest percentage from the three [36.5 percent]. I led the league in assists. I was top 5 in turnovers, but … I think I had a really decent year.”

Of course, he had it in Sacramento, where for the past decade NBA success and reputations too often have gone to die. The Kings burned through five coaches in five seasons until Dave Joerger was hired for 2016-17, missed the postseason every year since 2006 and finished with 29 or fewer victories for eight consecutive seasons until last year’s 33-49 mark.

For a guy of Rondo’s pride and pedigree — one ring, two trips to the Finals, four All-Star appearances — that did not cut it.

“We didn’t do it record-wise, but with what we had, I’m making no excuses,” he said. “We played hard every night. We had an opportunity to win a lot of games. But with a team like that, it’s hard to close games. You’re in the game, then you lose in the last five minutes.”

Give Rondo credit for embracing the “we” in discussing the Kings, considering how transitory his stay in Sacramento was. To some, it seemed as if he had been banished, a penance to be paid for his flame-out in Dallas late in the previous season after the Mavericks acquired him from Boston in December 2014.

“Yeah, I guess you can get lost out West,” is how Rondo puts it now.

He butted heads with coach Rick Carlisle during his half season in Dallas, disagreeing over the Mavericks’ plays and pace. He got suspended in February after heated exchanges during and after one game, and was abruptly bade adieu after two games of a five-game first-round playoff series against Houston.

Last season, Rondo and Kings coach George Karl were said to have an uneasy alliance. But with Karl’s job security in doubt and Rondo playing on a one-year, $9.5 million contract, there might have been a misery-loves-company aspect to it because both speak well of the other now.

Actually, that’s one of the intriguing things about Rondo. Never mind his stubborn tendencies, his willfulness, his refusal to sugar-coat. He’s been known to chafe with teammates as surely as he irritates opponents. Yet wherever he plays, he leaves behind a coach who, once the aggravation subsides, offers nothing but praise for the swaggy native of Louisville.

Doc Rivers, who had Rondo at his best in Boston, also spoke highly of the point guard’s basketball intelligence, even while coping with his prickly temperament. Carlisle graciously put the Mavs-Rondo combustion on the organization, saying it was a bad fit that the front office and head coach should have anticipated before trading for him.

This summer, Karl said of Rondo on a Chicago radio station: “There’s book smart, street smart and basketball smart, in my opinion, but Rajon is pretty intelligent all the way around.”

And in a phone conversation Thursday, Karl dove deeper.

“Rondo is trying to re-establish himself as one of the premier point guards in the league,” said Karl, who ranks fifth all-time in NBA coaching victories (1,175). “The game is changing, the game is evolving, so I think he’s trying to figure out what he has to do.

“He loves the game, he knows the game. Sometimes I think he thinks too much. Sometimes I think he thinks he knows the game when he should just play.”

Karl said he saw Rondo improve at running pick-and-rolls as last season played out. Ditto for his willingness to play faster.

“The only thing I didn’t see, my only criticism would be, I remember him being a pretty damn pesky defensive guard. I don’t think he did that last season as much as he used to,” Karl said.

Rondo did, however, forge a bond with Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins, a remarkably talented big man with a shaky reputation in team commitment. “He tried to get DeMarcus to do things he’d never done in his life and it worked pretty well,” Karl said. “I thought DeMarcus and Rondo had a good connection. It would have been interesting to see where it evolved.”

Rondo said it was no accident that he and Cousins clicked.

“What I’m most proud of [last season] was the relationship I developed with Cous,” he said. “I tried to be a big brother to him just like [Kevin Garnett] was to me. Because I don’t feel like no one’s ever shown him the ropes his first six seasons.

“That’s why I felt it was meant for me to go out there — I wanted to play with a guy like that, because he’s misunderstood. But he’s a warrior. After KG, I would say he’s going to bring it every night. And dominate, and want to destroy the guy in front of him. I love playing with guys like that.”

With the Bulls, Rondo has Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade as his kindred competitive spirits. Meanwhile, Hoiberg is on the clock now as Rondo’s coach. The two spoke for several hours before Rondo even signed with Chicago. And after three days of camp, Hoiberg had nothing but praise for him, citing Rondo’s and Wade’s willingness to interrupt practices to instruct teammates, whether in the fine points of a play or the need to shut up while they’re all working.

“Rondo is a very high IQ player,” Hoiberg said. “If we give him three keys, three triggers to go out there, he can get you into an offense or a secondary offense based on where guys are on the floor. He has the ability to do that because of his vision and because of his smarts.”

There will, undoubtedly, be tests. A long season is just beginning. It’s not clear how much better the Bulls got with their offseason moves in terms of basketball, but they did create some buzz. Look no further than the coach/coach-on-the-floor relationship.

Said Karl: “I think he and Hoiberg will have a very interesting and positive season. Hoiberg has a good offensive mind. I think he and Rondo will figure out some good stuff.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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