Welcome back! You might not know what exactly you are returning to, but this is technically the second edition of my new “forgotten season” series, where I take a deep-dive into past seasons from members of the BBNBA who have been lost to our subconscious. My goal is to refresh your brain–through the good and bad moments–by taking a thorough trip down memory lane. Our first post focused on Jodie Meeks and his 2013-14 season with the Los Angeles Lakers. Today, we’re jumping ahead a couple of years to the 2015-16 season, when another former Kentucky guard played one, weird as hell year with the Sacramento Kings.
Rajon Rondo’s NBA legacy will mostly be attributed to his eight-plus seasons with the Boston Celtics, where he helped lead them to a Championship in 2008 while also being named a four-time All-Star between 2009-13. His innate ability to make heads up passes was unparalleled and he quickly became one of the league’s top distributors by the time he was 25 years of age.
But since those early seasons of stardom, Rondo has struggled to find a permanent home. Throughout the last six years, the former Wildcat has played for six different NBA franchises. Some stops were more controversial than others and the overall success has varied, but none were more confusing than his 72 games with the Sacramento Kings.
“Dysfunctional” is probably the best way to describe his first run in the state of California, actually. Just ask Rondo himself.
“There were too many distractions on and off the court. The organization as a whole, I don’t think was together completely,” Rondo told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols back in 2016. “I think as a team you have to want the best for the next man beside you, and that wasn’t the case with the Sacramento Kings.”
The issues didn’t necessarily stem from Rondo, but he was naturally sucked into the problems. The riff between Kings head coach George Karl and a budding superstar named DeMarcus Cousins started the initial drama and the season didn’t take long to collapse from there.
Karl, who has a history of being a controversial figure as an NBA head coach, never saw eye-to-eye with the then 25-year old Boogie, who was coming off his first All-Star appearance. Karl initially joined the organization wid-way through the 2014-15 season and was the third head coach for the Kings that year (Sacramento’s front office decisions over the last decade explain most of what has ailed the franchise). The apparent beef between star player and head coach was never cooked all the way through and it resulted in a season that couldn’t end fast enough.
Rondo witnessed it all happen right in front of him, and how he details the ride immediately helps justify why things soured so quickly.
“Too much tension,” Rondo told Nichols about Karl’s relationship with Cousins. “I’ve never witnessed or experienced a thing like that in my 10-year career.”
Before Karl even arrived in Sacramento, there were worries about how Cousins’ attitude and Karl’s old-school approach would interact. A superstar player is only as good as the system established around him; and the organization was never going to choose Karl over a 25-year old Cousins. These concerns were quickly justified and the issues trickled down to the rest of the roster.
Despite the toxic environment, 33 team wins, and a mangled roster, Rondo still managed to lead the entire NBA in assists during the 2015-16 season at 11.7 per game. More recently, the Kings–under point guard De’Aaron Fox–have thrived off of a fast-paced style of play that pushed the ball at will. But a few years before that, Coach Karl and Rondo helped introduce the concept to Kings fans.
During the 2015-16 season, the Kings led the NBA in pace (number of possessions per 48 minutes) at 100.0 and ranked third in points per game with 106.6. Rondo, who started all 72 games he played in for the Kings, didn’t just make an impact with his heads-up thinking and superior vision. He posted then-career highs in three-point percentage (36.5) and rebounds per game (6.0) while also adding 11.9 points and 2.0 steals to his stat line. He set a Kings’ franchise record for the most consecutive games with at least 10 assists, hitting the mark 14 times in a row. Finally, his six triple-doubles were tied for the most of his career in one single season.
Statistically, this was one of the better stretches of his career.
But his season wouldn’t be mostly forgotten if it was all coconuts and pineapples. The Kings stumbled out of the opening gate to a 1-7 record, allowing over 100 points in all eight games, a theme that would follow them throughout the season. Despite the high-octane offense that saw six players average double-digit scoring numbers, led by Cousins’ 26.9 points per outing, the opposite end of the court is where the chemistry never clicked.
Not only did the Kings allow more points than any other team in the NBA at over 109 per game, but Rondo was one of the primary culprits for the gaudy number. The Kings’ defense was noticeably better with Rondo off the floor, as evidenced by the team’s defensive rating receiving a plus-2.4 boost with him on the bench. He was constantly criticized for disinterested defense, and even his own head coach spoke about the ongoing issue publicly.
“He and I have been kind of battling a little bit trying [to] get him to defend more consistently,” Karl told the Sacramento Bee back in Feb. 2016 about his starting point guard. The player who once was lauded for his defensive expertise, backed by four All-Defensive Team selections during his time with the Celtics, appeared to invest more in creating the offense than defending it. And even then, Rondo’s 3.9 turnovers per game–still tied for his career-high–proved he was more careless on the court than he had ever been.
The season took another turn for the worse when Rondo was ejected from a Dec. 3 matchup against his former Celtics squad. While arguing with referee Billy Kennedy, Rondo lobbed a homophobic slur directly at him, which the point guard was vilified for in the media. Kennedy ultimately came out as gay one week later and Rondo would issue a series of apologies that never quite come off as sincere enough. The league suspended Rondo for one game on Dec. 15, a 10-point win for the Kings over the Houston Rockets.
Outside of one five-game winning streak in the middle of January 2016, the Kings continued to lose games while racking up empty stats. By the time the All-Star break hit in February, Sacramento boasted a 22-31 record, and tension was rising. In fact, Karl still hasn’t let hold of the grudges quite yet. He said just last month in June that the reason his Kings’ teams weren’t successful was due to poor point guard play and the fact that teams can’t find success with a center as the best player–both shots at Rondo and Cousins.
“The thing DeMarcus taught me — I’m not anti-center because I think there’s a need for a big guy in basketball,” Karl told Jason Jones of The Athletic. “But what I found is when your center is the best player on the court, it’s hard to get your team elevated.
“I said it when I was out there (in Sacramento),” Karl added. “The quarterback of the team is the point guard and in the NFL you don’t win without a good quarterback and I think it’s kind of the same way in the NBA. If you don’t have a really good point guard, you’re barking up the wrong tree.”
As the season wound down, so did Rondo’s activity. He sat out the final four games of the regular season and six of the last 10 as the Kings finished with a 33-49 record, good enough for just 10th place in the Western Conference. The team never found a way to work as a cohesive unit, likely attributed to the many different personalities forced to interact. The good that came from this season, though, was the relationship that Rondo-Boogie formed as a result of the dysfunction; it almost feels like they bonded over their mutual disdain for Karl. To this day, Rondo considers Cousins to be his brother.
“He’s [Cousins] one of the guys that’s very selfless,” Rondo continued in the same ESPN article. “He has to find other ways to get it done. He’s going to continue to grow and learn. I was just glad I was able to be in his life and have a little bit of influence and help him a little bit this year.”
Snuck in the middle of a never-ending state of media frenzy, Rondo did showcase that, at 30 years old, his basketball intelligence is still second-to-none. One outing against the Charlotte Hornets that season saw Rondo and his team slightly ahead with time almost out. Kemba Walker–then of Hornets’ fame–would eventually walk to the foul line with the game tied, but his second free throw was unusually delayed. Rondo purposely mucked up the positioning of his teammates along the foul line to ice Walker, which ultimately worked and led to an overtime period that the Kings would win.
A more popular big-brained move from Rondo in the same season was when the Kings were up by three against the Atlanta Hawks and he called out what play the opposing team was going to run before they did it. Rondo sat back in the middle of the paint directing traffic during a pile-up where most of his teammates didn’t even appear to know what was going on. He shoved Cousins into the corner, roamed as a free safety, and forced the Hawks into a turnover that gave Sacramento the win.
Years later, Rondo is back in California and playing with another former Kentucky big man, but under far different circumstances. The Los Angeles Lakers, led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis, will begin the NBA’s restart in Orlando as the top team in the Western Conference and one of the perceived title favorites. Rondo isn’t posting 10-plus assists per game and his value as an impact player on the floor creates back-and-forth arguments, but he has a mind for the game of basketball that only a handful have ever possessed.
His forgotten season with the Kings put that on full display.