When Rajon Rondo joined the Clippers, it was a chance for him to reunite with the so-called “Rondo whisperer” in Ty Lue, a nickname that had been bestowed upon Lue by Doc Rivers when the three were all with the Celtics.
And when DeMarcus Cousins followed suit less than two weeks later, it was an opportunity for the big man to reunite with his favorite point guard Rondo, who many consider to be the Cousins whisperer himself. The two former Kentucky Wildcats have a deep bond that extends off the basketball court, as Rondo was a groomsman in Cousins’ wedding in 2019.
Cousins and Rondo have attempted to play together at three prior stops in their NBA careers, starting in Sacramento, then in New Orleans, and most recently with the Lakers before an ACL injury ruled Cousins out for the season. Now, they’re back together on the other side of the Los Angeles divide, and the partnership is a perfect way for both players to get up to speed with the Clippers despite arriving fairly late in the season.
Rondo is a basketball savant. Lue says the point guard started picking up the team’s plays before he even got on the court; he’s always talking and asking questions, and Cousins says that he knows for a fact Rondo is the smartest player on the floor no matter who else is playing. It’s been pretty seamless for Rondo to get on the same page with the rest of the Clippers, especially since he has the ball in his hands.
For Cousins, the transition is a little trickier, since he’s a play finisher rather than creator. He’s previously remarked that the Clippers playbook is as thick as a dictionary, and Lue has played Patrick Patterson at backup center — despite a heavy talent disadvantage — simply because Patterson has a better handle on what the team is running.
But when Cousins plays with Rondo, that isn’t as much of a problem, at least on the offensive end. Rondo knows exactly where Cousins likes the ball from years of experience. The team’s offensive rating when Cousins is on the floor without Rondo is 103.2 points per 100 possessions; that pops up to 107.6 when Cousins plays with Rondo. Admittedly, neither of those numbers is very good, but the Clippers have played some really weird bench units over the past few weeks due their injuries.
Cousins often looks like Moses Malone when he’s not playing with Rondo. The big man is there to clean the the offensive glass, or duck in for quick finishes around the basket. Those are easy ways to chip in without knowing every set. But Rondo is able to organize possessions to get Cousins into good post-up position, and they have the chemistry to connect for lob plays as well.
“He runs a team, he’s one of the best to ever do it,” Cousins says about Rondo. “He knows how to control the team, he knows how to get guys in their spots, he’s a head coach on the floor and he never misses a beat. It’s the same guy I’m used to playing with in Sacramento to New Orleans to LA to now. Same player, same fierce competitor.”
Of Cousins’ 35 field-goal makes as a Clipper, 20 of those are assisted, and six of them come from Rondo, who has shared the court with the center for 77 of his 145 minutes.
Against Denver last Saturday, though the Clippers lost, there was a clear argument for what Cousins brings to this team. He spaced the floor, was physical in the post, and provided a legitimate scoring threat who the Nuggets had to focus on. It’s probably not an accident that Lue kept Rondo attached to Cousins for the final 14 minutes, when the Clippers outscored Denver by five, just to make sure that someone could deliver the ball effectively to the big man.
That experience was apparently enough to convince Lue that Cousins is worthy of the backup center minutes so long as Serge Ibaka as out, as Cousins displaced Patterson in the rotation Tuesday against Toronto.
Rondo and Cousins have been trying to find a place to thrive together for years. The circumstances in Sacramento were beyond their control, and then injuries derailed the plan in New Orleans and with the Lakers. Although Rondo figures to be a primary rotation player for the Clippers, the role for Cousins is much smaller now than it was for those previous teams. That doesn’t diminish the joy he gets from still being able to play and contribute.
The connection between the two still seems to bring out something special, particularly in Cousins. If the Clippers need to dig deep into their bench for a spark during the postseason, this is a duo that has been itching for the opportunity to perform on that stage.