A Bumpy Stretch

'Difficult' Rajon Rondo emerges in Dallas, but how serious is it for Mavs?

'Difficult' Rajon Rondo emerges in Dallas, but how serious is it?

Rajon Rondo
Rajon Rondo drew a one-game suspension for his shouting match with Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle. Could this hamper the Mavs' hopes of signing Rondo long-term? Dallas Mavericks/Facebook

Rajon Rondo has plenty of good qualities on the court. But one quality that has followed him during parts of his career is the “difficult” label. Ask Boston Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck.

In September of last year, Grousbeck reinforced the label when he spoke to WBZ-TV in Boston about whether the Celtics wanted Rondo for the long-term as he was entering a contract year. Grousbeck said, “He's super stubborn.” Grousbeck said that although he liked Rondo and thought he was a good kid, he wasn’t sure how coachable Rondo was. He also said that Rondo’s former coach, Doc Rivers, would say that Rondo is in the bottom half of players that are coachable.

Being difficult or less than coachable isn’t necessarily a career killer. If you’ve followed Kobe Bryant’s career, you know it hasn’t exactly been sunshine and lollipops, but he’s brought five NBA titles to Los Angeles. If you’re a team owner and you want to win, you put up with it.

 Rondo’s numbers look good on the surface. But watch his last few games, and you see a player that seems out of sync with himself and, to some degree, his teammates.

Head coaches, however, can be less forgiving.

Rondo became difficult, stubborn and uncoachable during the third quarter of Tuesday’s game against Toronto. Or at least that’s how it looked. Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle called a timeout after it appeared Rondo failed to execute the play he wanted.

I saw Carlisle during that timeout, and he wasn’t happy at all. The pair got into a shouting match. F-bombs were reportedly dropped. An assistant coach had to stand in front of Rondo to break it up. And Rondo sat out the rest of the game as the Mavs rallied to beat the Raptors.

The pair weren’t done as they reportedly raised their voices again in the locker room after the game. That led the Mavs’ suspending Rondo for Wednesday’s game with Atlanta for that old sports standard, “conduct detrimental to the team.”

On Wednesday in Atlanta, Carlisle said the incident was in the past and went to great pains to say that Rondo is a huge part of what the Mavs want to do this season. Rondo, meanwhile, on Tuesday night took his cues from Seattle running back Marshawn Lynch and said only, “Discuss with Rick.”

What was this all about? Play calling. Who would have thought the Mavs would be more dysfunctional in this department than the Cowboys? Carlisle calls the plays on offense for Dallas. One would surmise that Rondo was used to having more freedom during his days in Boston.

These things don’t happen overnight. This has probably been building for a few weeks. Rondo missed two weeks with an orbital bone fracture, and that probably hasn’t helped. Rondo’s numbers — 9.0 points, 6.2 assists and 2.9 turnovers since joining Dallas — look good on the surface. But watch his last few games, and you see a player that seems out of sync with himself and, to some degree, his teammates.

In the short term, this may not be a bad thing, as long as Rondo isn’t going to stew about the suspension and adjusts his attitude. Carlisle’s history suggests that he’s a flexible coach, except when it comes to a few areas. Defense is one of them. Discipline is another. Carlisle won’t bend there. Doing what the coach wants falls into the discipline bucket.

If Rondo does the job Carlisle wants from him, this will be nothing more than a speed bump. I don’t think there’s much risk of this devolving. Rondo knows the playoffs are ahead and wants to be on the floor. Frankly, the Mavs need him on the floor to make a deep run.

In the long term, owner Mark Cuban wants to keep Rondo, and that’s where the fit with coach and player really becomes a factor. Players and coaches disagree from time to time. But if there are fundamental differences between coach and player, then which one do you keep? Or, more important, would the player want to come back if the coach is still around?

We’ve seen this play out plenty of times. Cuban said this incident would have no influence on his decision in seeking to keep Rondo long-term. But perhaps it will influence Rondo’s decision to stay in Dallas long-term. This relationship is like trying out a suit. Both parties are trying to decide if they should buy it or put it back on the rack.

For Carlisle’s part, he told Mavericks radio play-by-play man Chuck Cooperstein on Wednesday night that he felt Rondo was “extremely close” to a breakthrough, in terms of his integration with this team.

Cuban better hope Carlisle is right. That “breakthrough” might determine if Rondo is the Mavs’ point guard for years to come.