How Rajon Rondo became the unlikely leader of the New Orleans Pelicans

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NEW ORLEANS — No matter what city the New Orleans Pelicans are in, the script remains the same: A group text goes out and then player after player responds, showing up to that night’s outing when they could be somewhere else during an off-night in the midst of the unforgiving NBA schedule.

“I guess it’s like hanging out with your boys, really,” Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said. “Camaraderie, just being able to talk about things other than your job or basketball. Finding interests in other people, getting to know them, really, this is going to sound … making them feel like you care. I mean actually really caring — being friends.”

A major reason for one of the most successful seasons in franchise history — the Pelicans’ series against the Golden State Warriors marks just the second time they’ve reached the Western Conference semifinals — is the chemistry that has developed between a group of talented young players and hungry veterans, thanks in large part to the power of those group messages.

“We all feel like we’re here together, like we should be able to have a core and be able to, I guess, hang out, and be with [each other],” Holiday said.

It’s a formula that has worked for past championship teams, as veteran point guard Rajon Rondo knows well.

“It’s kind of like my Boston days,” said Rondo, who dished out a franchise-postseason-record 21 assists in the Pelicans’ Game 3 victory. “It’s hard to say because the personalities are different, but at the end of the day I love the unselfishness of the group. And I think what we’re finding out is that when we play together, we’re a better team. The only thing that matters — the locker room and culture is different when you’re winning, and when you win it’s a great feeling.”

Holiday, who averaged a career-best 19.0 points per game in the regular season and has upped that to 23.9 PPG in the playoffs, knows the vibes around this team are different, not only because it has had significant success, but because the players enjoy being around each other.

“It’s fun,” he said of the team dinners. “It’s usually a free meal.”

Holiday hasn’t had to pay despite signing a $126 million contract last summer because only two people have picked up the tab for the team meals all season: All-Star center Anthony Davis and Rondo.

Every time?

“Yeah,” Holiday said. “Pretty much.”


Davis started organizing some group activities last season, but the 32-year-old Rondo, in his 12th NBA season, brought a unity to the organization that it hadn’t felt before.

“There’s a togetherness,” Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry said. “I think he’s piggybacked off what AD’s started last year of having these guys together and spending as much time as possible, because I think when you spend that time together, obviously there’s a closeness and a responsibility you feel for the guy sitting next to you.”

Rondo’s status as a team leader runs counter to the reputation he’s developed at times over his career, where he’s been perceived as a gifted outcast who can rock the boat in the locker room. The reality is that Rondo has been one of the most respected players on each team he has been on since a messy divorce from the Dallas Mavericks at the end of the 2014-15 season had some wondering if he still had a place in the league.

“I think what the league has taken out of our game, out of the league in general, is just vets around just to be able to give back the knowledge to the young guys, teach them how to be professionals, how to take care of their body, how to come in and work every day,” Rondo said.

It’s that approach that has made Rondo a favorite of his coaches, who enjoy the passion and knowledge he has for the game, and his teammates, who like that he keeps an eye out for them on and off the floor.

“Everything that he does is a winning mentality, a championship mentality and a lot of people haven’t seen that,” Holiday said. “So to be able to see that on a consistent basis is pretty cool.”

Davis, who has taken his game to new heights this season — particularly after fellow All-Star big man DeMarcus Cousins went down with an Achilles injury earlier in the year — has leaned on Rondo for support and guidance.

“I think he’s actually the one who got me thinking, ‘It’s just one game,'” Davis said. “Don’t get too high, get too low after that game’s over. But he’s been a great mentor for me, and it’s been fun playing with him.”

Rondo admits that his ability to connect with people and serve as a leader for a team is something he’s always had inside of him.

“I’ve played with a lot of great players,” he said. “I was a sponge at that particular time. Even now, I’m learning from Jrue, I’m learning from Ian Clark, I learn from everyone as far as just what I can learn, but I’m pretty much the guy that has the most experience and giving as much knowledge as I can, so it’s just part of the growing process.”

Rondo enters Sunday’s Game 4 having played in 103 postseason games, 19th-most among active players. His prowess in the postseason has been well documented: He’s averaging 14.2 points, 9.4 assists and 6.1 rebounds a game in the playoffs over his career, all higher than his averages in the regular season.

“When we start playing in the playoffs, he’s a different guy,” Pelicans forward Nikola Mirotic said. “He [has] a different mentality. He’s a different beast.”

Gentry called the “Playoff Rondo” conversation an “insult” because he believes it discredits what the proud guard has accomplished throughout the entirety of his career, but Rondo’s ability to serve as a sounding board for his teammates on and off the floor is something the veteran coach truly appreciates.

“Everything that he does is a winning mentality, a championship mentality and a lot of people haven’t seen that.”

Pelicans G Jrue Holiday on Rajon Rondo

“I think he loves these type of situations,” Gentry said. “He does a great job with our team as far as settling them down and saying, ‘Hey, we’ll go down and get a basket. Everything will be fine.'”

After the Pelicans struggled for years to find an identity, Rondo and his cerebral approach has showed the group a different way to win.

“Communication, the way he plays, being able to — I guess question people, make you think,” Holiday said. “If it’s the coaching staff, if it’s us, and when I say question meaning he’ll ask a question, maybe with something in mind … and be like, ‘All right, I see that.’ Instead of it being like, ‘My way is the only way.'”

Rondo, who will be a free agent at season’s end, relishes the ability to pay forward lessons to a new group of young players at this stage in his career. He believes it’s his job not only to help the Pelicans win but also to get the young group prepared for the remainder of their lives.

“Not even basketball,” Rondo said. “[Kevin Garnett] gave me a lot of advice [on] how to become a man off the court. Life isn’t all just about basketball. It’s about life experiences, things you go through off the court. Those guys that’s older have the experience. It’s only right for you to give back to the young guys so they don’t make the same mistakes. And that’s what we’re doing over and over again in this league.”

Rondo’s presence hasn’t just been beneficial to the players; the coaches have enjoyed having him around as well.

“He’s the one guy that will text you at 2 in the morning and say, ‘Hey, have you thought about this?'” Gentry said. “Or, ‘Hey, I think we can do this.’ That’s who he is. He’s a good basketball mind to have around.”

Has Gentry ever had any other players text him at 2 a.m.?

“Yeah, but it usually wasn’t good,” Gentry said. “I don’t like to use the word basketball savant, everybody likes to say that, but he really does love the game and he wants to know it. To me, I really think the guy’s going to be a great coach in this league one day if that’s what he wants to do.”


Though they only spent one season together prior to this one, Mirotic considers Rondo one of his favorite teammates of all time.

“Besides Pau Gasol,” Rondo said, referencing another Mirotic favorite. “I don’t speak Spanish, though. I think that’s why he got the advantage on me. I’m working on my Spanish this year.”

When Mirotic, a native of Montenegro, was going through an up-and-down season with the Bulls a year ago, it was Rondo who helped keep his spirits up. So when he found out that New Orleans was one of the teams interested in acquiring him before this season’s trade deadline, one of the first calls he made was to Rondo.

“We had a good talk,” Mirotic said. “I asked him about the team, about the city, and how he thinks I could adjust. He was very excited, so as soon as I came here he was really good to me, helping me.”

Mirotic needed someone like Rondo constantly building him up instead of breaking him down, and they developed that kinship during Rondo’s lone season with the Bulls — a season that featured Rondo coming to the defense of the team’s younger players after they were called out by Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade. Rondo fired back at the All-Star duo in an Instagram post, strengthening his relationship with Mirotic and everybody else in the locker room in the process.

“As a young player if you don’t have a lot of great veterans around you that’s giving you a boost of confidence every night, it’s tough to go through that,” Rondo said. “Especially a player coming from where [Mirotic is] from, he may not have a lot of friends in the NBA already, so it’s big for a guy like Niko. It’s good for any young player.”

The chemistry between the pair is palpable on the floor, and the trust between them has only grown stronger off of it.

“He yells at me sometimes — I tell him that’s perfectly fine with me because I’m always the one yelling, so I love feedback when guys need something from me as a coach out there on the floor,” Rondo said. “He trusts me as a player, he trusts me as a teammate, as a friend, and that’s the biggest thing I think that we share is that bond that we have as far as wanting the best for the next person.”

Both players have moved past the tumult of a season ago in Chicago, but neither has forgotten all the unneeded drama surrounding that team.

“The group last year, we just didn’t jell quick enough,” Rondo said. “Once we finally figured out we were capable of winning, everything went out the window — egos and personal agendas — it was all about the team. I guess we got a couple wins and we started to click through the end of the season.”

For his part, Mirotic is thankful for all the lessons he learned during his time with the Bulls, but he seems more at ease with his new Pelicans group than at any other point in his NBA career.

“I think this is much more as a family,” Mirotic said. “You have a couple superstars here, AD obviously, Jrue, Rajon is one of them. They’re really, really good guys. I’m really surprised how they’re outside of the floor very normal guys.”

The ease with which Mirotic and the Pelicans have been playing recently — including a nine-game winning streak between the end of the regular season and a first-round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers heading into their Western Conference semifinals showdown against the Warriors — has been noticed throughout the league.

“He looks a lot like the Mirotic last year in the playoffs when Rondo was next to him,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “I think that’s no coincidence. I think that’s a really good pairing. The team just looks like it fits. The puzzle fits together beautifully, and I think it suits Alvin’s eye. This is his kind of team, and they’re playing extremely well.”


Darius Miller, who is in his second stint with New Orleans after spending almost three seasons playing professionally in Germany, knows how solid of a group the Pelicans have become this season.

“Everybody gets along,” Miller said. “There’s no really cliques or groups. Everybody hangs out.”

It’s that kind of harmony within the group that has the Pelicans still believing they can turn around this series against the Warriors, which they trail 2-1 entering Game 4 in New Orleans.

“It all becomes very important obviously that you stay connected playing against a team that just won the championship,” Gentry said. “It takes a monumental effort to beat this team anyway, so if you’re not connected, you don’t even have a chance.”

Rondo has been around the game long enough to know that talent almost always wins out, but he is proud of what the group has accomplished and invested in the younger players’ success in the future. Whether he stays in New Orleans or not, he knows he’s left his mark on this team.

“That’s what I was able to do for a lot of young guys I’m around now,” Rondo said. “But that’s what was done for me in the past when I was coming up. I had a lot of great vets that was very positive and kept me going. So it’s only right for me to give it back.”

No matter what happens over the course of Game 4, the Pelicans’ recent playoff run makes this season a success. By learning how to trust each other on and off the floor, Gentry’s group has given a city full of energy something else to cheer about. He knows New Orleans is starting to take more notice of this young group and he hopes it’s the sign of better things in the future.

“That’s just what we do in New Orleans,” Gentry said. “We find a way to celebrate and have fun. If it works out, it’s great, and if it doesn’t work out, we still party.”



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