The Ballad of Rajon Rondo

The genius point guard might have just seen the NBA pass him by.

If Tuesday night marks the end of Rajon Rondo’s time with the Dallas Mavericks, and it seems like it will, it’s appropriate that his last play, with 11:26 left in the third quarter, resulted in a foul against the Rockets’ James Harden. Rondo swatted at the ball, and Harden made him pay by jumping into Rondo’s outstretched arm while heaving the ball in the air from behind the arc. The refs had to check the replay to confirm that Harden’s mid-air whole-body spasm was indeed a shot attempt and not an epileptic seizure. Harden sank all three free throws on his way to 13-13 from the line.

Harden is coming off an MVP-caliber regular season and has come to epitomize the era of efficiency in the NBA. He creates the kind of high-percentage shots—particularly free throws (so many free throws)—that coaches like the Mavs’ Rick Carlisle salivate over. But Carlisle doesn’t have Harden, he has Rondo, whose inefficient mid-range shots fell farther and farther from the basket as the season progressed. Meanwhile, Rondo’s flaws as a shooter allowed defenders to hang off him, gumming up the works of a once-fluid Mavs offense.

Just like last season, when he returned to the Celtics lineup following a partially torn ACL, Rondo was thrust into a new system, with a new coach, and no training camp during which to try to fit the pieces together. The day after he was traded, Rondo praised Carlisle as “a guy that doesn’t control much of the game. He lets the players make the plays.” But Rondo was wrong. While Brad Stevens proved amenable to adapting his system to the decimated Celtics’ last remaining star, Carlisle was not so eager — and why would he have been?

When Rondo arrived, the Mavs were the top offense in the league, on pace to claim the highest offensive efficiency in NBA history, while making even Monta Ellis look like a team player. The Mavs hoped that Rondo’s arrival would provide them with some much needed defense without sacrificing too much on the offensive end. But while the defense did improve, the offense plummeted from great to average, dropping over nine points per 100 possessions (though some drop-off from such a historic high is probably to be expected).

Watching Rondo clash with Carlisle and the Mavs’ offense this season, I have been repeatedly reminded of the story of John Henry,  the steel-driving railroad-building man who battled to preserve his dignity over the machine that threatened to replace him and his kind. John Henry won the battle, as we all know, but he lost the war. He beat the machine, but he died from his effort, while the machine survived. Likewise, what makes Rondo special, his craftiness and intelligence, his ability to read the floor and make the right pass at the right time, may be becoming redundant in this new age of analytics. Rondo’s headstrong style and poor shooting were never going to be conducive to Carlisle’s system, which aims to accomplish the same tasks but through distributed ball movement rather than the vision of one gifted player.

Rondo, of course, has his own mythos surrounding him, and despite his struggles during the regular season, Mavs fans held out hope that he would shine in the playoffs. Because regular season Rondo has always been just a man, the story goes. But playoff Rondo, 2012 Rondo, 10 career-playoff-triple-doubles Rondo, is something else. Playoff Rondo is a hero, a wily floor general who can see things the rest of us can’t, who can transcend the Xs and Os when needed to take his team to the next level.

Those hoping for the return of playoff Rondo couldn’t be too disappointed in his performance in the Mavs’ game one loss. He shot 44 percent from the floor, including an impressive streak from the dreaded mid-range neighborhood. But despite solid play, his plus-minus was negative-25, as Houston’s defenders refused to clamp down on him, giving him space while preventing Dirk and Ellis from doing what they did so well before Rondo arrived. Playoff Rondo may have been real in game one, but he wasn’t the hero Dallas needed, and after a lackadaisical cameo in game two, during which he played a career playoff-low 10 minutes while picking up four fouls, a technical, and an eight-second violation, it seemed that he’d accepted his fate.

For Dallas, the time of Rondo seems to have come to an end, an end ushered in by the cold, calculating machine that is the Houston Rockets. Though the Mavs stuck around for a while, the Rockets closed out game two with a barrage of dribble handoffs and pick and rolls that made Dirk show his age and lead to the most team dunks in a playoff game since the 2001 Lakers. The Mavs needed Rondo — all-defensive-team Rondo — on the court. But Rondo was done, sitting on the bench, away from his team, one of the last true mavericks left.

Rondo was ruled out indefinitely yesterday due to a back injury sustained in the game, though how he could have strained anything in those ten minutes is hard to imagine. Asked if he expects Rondo to wear a Mavericks uniform again, Carlisle responded, “No, I don’t.”

So what’s next for Rondo? With a growing number of teams committing to efficiency, his options may be dwindling. The Knicks and the Lakers are possibilities — two teams that also seem stuck in the past, the former clinging to the triangle while the latter seems consigned to the kind of mid-range shots that Rondo loves. Ties with the Lakers have been rumored before, and Kobe has expressed interest in him, but the emergence of rookie Jordan Clarkson, as well as the dream of acquiring Westbrook in 2017, could end up complicating things.

What is certain is that any hope Rondo had of getting a max contract this summer certainly wasn’t helped Tuesday night. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, Rondo got up from the bench and sauntered onto the court in his WE ARE ONE shirt to grab a post-game rebound over teammate Charlie Villanueva. John Henry promised to die with his hammer in his hand, and as Rondo’s tenure with the Mavericks came to an end, all he could seem to think about was having the ball in his hands.

Photos by Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images