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2020-21 Clippers season in review: Rajon Rondo

The Clippers didn’t get the Playoff Rondo they were expecting.

2021 NBA Playoffs - LA Clippers v Phoenix Suns Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Welcome to our annual Clippers season in review series. Every day until the end of July, we’ll be taking a look back at the players who ended the season with the Clippers (apologies to Malik Fitts and Mfiondu Kabengele). Today, we continue with Rajon Rondo.

Key information:

Name: Rajon Rondo

Age: 35

Years in the NBA: 15

Key stats: In 18 regular season games with the Clippers, Rondo averaged 7.6 points and 5.8 assists in 20.4 minutes per contest while shooting 43.2 percent from 3-point range. In 13 playoff games (the team played 19 total), Rondo’s averages dropped to 4.2 points and 3.8 in 16.9 minutes. He shot 39.3 percent on threes in the postseason but 28.0 percent on twos.

Future contract status: Rondo has one year left on the two-year, $15 million contract he signed with Atlanta last offseason. He is also due for an additional $750k in incentives on top of his $7.5 million because the Clippers are deemed likely to make the playoffs.

Summary:

The Clippers had their eyes on Rajon Rondo during the 2020 offseason — and the feeling was mutual — but the team didn’t have the financial flexibility to sign Rondo after a rousing postseason performance and sign Serge Ibaka. Rondo thus went to Atlanta, and the Clippers ended up with him at the trade deadline anyway. Just as it was with Marcus Morris Sr. in 2020, the two parties still ended up together, and Rondo’s pockets were a little fuller.

The front office had identified one of the team’s weaknesses as lacking a lead playmaker. It was hole the Clippers tried to address by signing Reggie Jackson in the buyout market in 2020, but Jackson wasn’t in good enough shape to fill that role at the time. Thus, the pursuit of Rondo, who had existing relationships with Lawrence Frank and Ty Lue, even if it came at the cost of Lou Williams.

NBA: Playoffs-Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers brought in Rajon Rondo to help them on the postseason’s biggest stages. It didn’t really work out.
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The trade was ostensibly made with an eye for the postseason, as Rondo hadn’t been good in the regular season since he was with Boston. Surprisingly, after a week off to rehab some nagging injuries, Rondo came in hot during the regular season. He made his Clippers debut against the Lakers and injected some pace into the team’s offense while showcasing instant chemistry with Kawhi Leonard. Four days later, Rondo was instrumental in a national TV win over Phoenix, demonstrating his ability to carry bench units and also fit into the team’s closing lineups.

For the first four games of the playoffs, the good vibes kept with rolling with Rondo. It seemed like he was one of the only Clippers immediately ready for the moment in the postseason at the beginning of the Dallas series, but the wheels quickly came off in Game 5. Rondo went from an asset to a liability on the court in the blink of an eye as the Mavericks shrunk the floor against him on offense and took advantage of Rondo’s roaming on defense. Rondo was a DNP-CD for Games 2 and 3 against Utah and then listed as inactive with a knee injury in Game 4. He played the next five contests for the Clippers with Leonard unavailable; alas, he was unable to find his Playoff Rondo mojo and was glued to bench for the final three games of the season.

Strengths:

Rondo is a true point guard in a way that no one else on the Clippers roster is. His first instinct is to set up his teammates and direct the offense. Rondo’s assist percentage of 39.5 during the regular season led the team and was miles ahead of Paul George in second place at 23.9 percent. Even in the playoffs, his 33.6 assist percentage dwarfed George and Leonard at 21.3 and 20.4. He has the ability to deliver passes at angles that most players can’t even see.

Rondo also reads the game better than most players, which makes his voice supremely valuable on the court. He calls out other team’s plays and coverages. On a team that’s fighting for a title, every little advantage helps.

Weaknesses:

Opposing defenses don’t respect Rondo as a scorer — like, at all. Rondo’s 3-pointers are almost a pyrrhic victory at this point. He is so wide open on offense that the rest of the play self-destructs and he has to take the shot. He can’t shoot well enough to make up for the fact that the rest of the Clippers are basically playing 4-on-5.

It would be okay if Rondo managed to exploit all of the open space he was being given, but a week into the playoffs, Rondo somehow lost all his touch around the basket. He shot 26-of-42 at the rim as a Clipper during the regular season, and he gets there fairly frequently, considering his command of the pick-and-roll. However, that cratered to 7-of-18 in the playoffs. It made him hard to play on offense.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Utah Jazz v LA Clippers
Rondo can still get to the hoop, but his finishing isn’t great anymore.
Photo by Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

Rondo’s defense is also problematic. He has the length and smarts to be a strong point-of-attack defender, and when he’s engaged, he’s quite valuable on that end. He had the best defensive rating of any rotation Clipper during the regular season.

Unfortunately, that engagement isn’t permanent. More often than not, Rondo dies on screens and spaces out in help defense, resulting in back cuts to the rim. Or he takes ludicrous gambles that leave shooters open on the perimeter. During the playoffs, the only Clipper who rated worse defensively was DeMarcus Cousins.

Future with the Clippers:

It would be hard to move Rondo, since this postseason run — combined with his regular-season malaise with the Hawks — make it hard to regard him as a positive-value contract. He is signed for another year, and the Clippers will need playmaking depth next season, especially with Leonard due to miss some time. Rondo is still a worthwhile veteran to have around, and Terance Mann and Jay Scrubb in particular spoke at length about how much they have learned from him, so it seems inevitable that Rondo will return.

The only other option to consider is if Rondo decides to hang it up and go into coaching. The Clippers have some empty spots on their bench; it would be a seamless transition. But the likeliest scenario is No. 4 is once again suiting up for the Clippers next year.