Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Rajon Rondo’s return tips off peek into Kings’ future

Kings guard Rajon Rondo (9) directs his teammates against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento.
Kings guard Rajon Rondo (9) directs his teammates against the Utah Jazz on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Rajon Rondo’s influence on the 2015-16 Kings is not even debatable, which makes his recent anti-gay slur all the more reprehensible.

But the games play on. Rondo, who received a one-game suspension for his recent outburst against referee Bill Kennedy, returns to a team that is inching forward, cautiously envisioning a playoff chase, and beginning a stretch that could dictate the composition of the roster for the near and not-so-distant future.

The Feb. 18 trade deadline is two months away. But what’s two months? And what’s new? With the rumor mill churning away like a baker prepping for the holidays, even DeMarcus Cousins’ name is being mentioned despite the facts (a) the Kings have no interest in moving him, and (b) his true value remains one of the great debates in today’s NBA.

Several executives swear allegiance to a lack of interest in the one-time All-Star, citing past issues with his behavior, physical conditioning and increasing number of injuries. Others are thought to be intrigued and would aggressively pursue the sixth-year veteran if he were to become available. Boston? Miami?

The NBA is a famously fluid business. As the Kings’ season has progressed, so has the dynamic. Since a painfully awkward offseason, coach George Karl and Cousins are co-existing, general manager Vlade Divac is increasingly determined to develop his center, the team is 9-8 after an injury-hampered 1-9 start, and setting aside his outburst in Mexico City, Rondo is performing at the highest level since he underwent reconstructive knee surgery in February 2013.

Statistically, he leads the league in assists (11.0), has produced four triple doubles and is converting a respectable 45 percent of his field-goal attempts. The more advanced analytics are less flattering: The 10th-year pro ranks 14th among point guards in ESPN’s “real plus minus” metric and 16th in John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating, and he is down in several defensive categories.

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But the hard numbers fail to adequately reflect Rondo’s impact. Signed to a one-year, $9.5 million deal as a free agent last summer, he has embraced a return to free-flowing style and is nudging the Kings away from their decade-long obsession with one-on-one play, virtually demanding his teammates pick up the pace.

This tidal shift only happens – only begins to happen – because Rondo has both the stature and the stomach to challenge the moody but immensely gifted Cousins. It is not uncommon for the 6-foot point guard to summon and engage his 6-foot-11, 270-pound center in animated conversations during timeouts or dead-ball situations. Their bond is apparent and is equally evident in a locker room, where they have adjoining stalls.

“That’s one of the toughest dudes I know, and I appreciate that about him,” Cousins said. “I’ve learned a lot from him. We can talk about it all day. He’s a great leader. We have a lot of similarities, our personalities, with our perceptions. The biggest thing is we both want to win games.”

As a floor leader, Rondo, 29, represents a sort of Sacramento revival. The Kings haven’t had a playmaker of this caliber since Jason Williams. You can almost see him thinking the game as he anticipates his teammates’ movements, directing with a subtle nod, a change of expression, a forceful gesture with one of his long, chiseled arms. The former Celtics star intuitively feels the game, grasps the balance of when to pass and when to surprise defenders with pull-up threes, deceptive ball fakes and an assortment of layups, scoop shots and booming dunks.

“Rajon has always been a hell of a player,” TNT analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley said before last week’s Kings-Knicks telecast. “He’s always been able to push the ball when he was healthy, and he’s a pass-first point guard. If they run, he’ll get them the ball. That’s the main thing they have lacked the last few years. And he has a lot at stake.”

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Until or unless this translates into victories, of course, this is just another expensive experiment. And regardless of whether the Kings are improving or imploding at midseason, whether Divac decides to break up the gang at the trade deadline, the offseason just became infinitely more complicated. There is no desire to trade Cousins. Right now. There is no interest in moving Rondo. Right now. But the stakes keep rising. What is a pure point guard worth these days? And with age 30 approaching, over how many years?

The Kings are searching for a successful formula, and in the meantime, hoping for some clarity.

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