The DeMarcus Cousins saga grabbed the headlines and provided the drama.
But Rajon Rondo’s decision to bolt the New Orleans Pelicans just hours earlier could be an equally impactful move. When Rondo signed a one-year, $9 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, it left a void not only at point guard but also in the Pelicans’ locker room.
New Orleans inked Elfrid Payton to a one-year contract in the opening hours of free agency, cushioning the blow to the team’s guard rotation, but there are still an array of questions facing the team’s backcourt without Rondo on the roster.
Who is charged with assuming Rondo’s distributor role? Who picks up Rondo’s leadership responsibilities?
Who accelerates the Pelicans’ pace?
These are all valid concerns facing general manager Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry as they put together the final pieces of their roster and develop a plan to build upon last year’s finish in the Western Conference semifinals.
It’s not as if the backcourt is barren. When asked about who would assume the point guard duties in a press conference, Demps provided an extensive list of candidates.
“We have Elfrid and obviously Jrue (Holiday) can play the 1 and 2,” Demps said. “His versatility has been big for us as the season went on last year. We can play Ian (Clark) there at times. We are also excited about Frank Jackson. Unfortunately, he was injured in summer league.
“But we do feel like we have a good mix of guards. And the key for us is to have guys who play hard, defend and play for each other. We felt like that was a big part of our success last year is that the guys were playing for each other.”
It’s why Rondo’s leadership might be more missed than his on-court production.
Holiday played nearly 40 percent of his minutes at point guard last season, and New Orleans often kept Rondo on the bench in the game’s most crucial moments. In the Pelicans’ 50 “clutch” scenarios (games within five points in the final five minutes), Rondo actually logged fewer appearances than reserves Clark and Darius Miller as New Orleans tallied a 30-20 record.
In fact, when Rondo was off the court last season, the Pelicans were 3.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent. It stands in stark contrast to when Holiday and Anthony Davis went to the bench, sinking the Pelicans by 7.9 and 5.1 points per 100 possessions, respectively.
But what Rondo did off the floor is difficult to quantify with isolated statistics. Davis, Holiday, Gentry and just about every other Pelicans player spent the last two months of the season gushing over Rondo’s innate ability to understand nuances of the game and translate them to teammates.
He served as a pillar of professionalism in film study and gathered the entire roster on road trips to dine together.
“We have a great belief in each other and we actually like each other, and I think Rondo has a lot do with that because he always keeps us together,” Holiday said in March. “I think it makes a big difference to us in big moments because we trust each other. He deserves a lot of credit.”
Now that responsibility will fall on Davis and Holiday. Both Gentry and Demps pointed to their superstars for filling in the void Rondo left off the court, claiming it’s time the veterans handle the duties that come with being the best players on the team.
And they’ve added Payton to fill in any gaps on the floor. While the Gretna native scuffled on a pair of bad teams last season, Orlando and Phoenix, Demps said he’s been a believer in Payton’s game since he was in high school at John Ehret.
Gentry believes the Pelicans’ up-tempo system will free Payton to attack the rim in transition and distribute to shooters, helping unlock the potential that made the UL-Lafayette product the No. 10 pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
He’ll be charged with cranking up the Pelicans' tempo to replicate the league-leading pace they posted a year ago. It’s all part of his goal to lock down the starter spot and cover for the areas Rondo left behind.
“That’s the mindset I’m coming in with,” Payton said. “I want to compete for the job. I don’t expect nothing to be handed to me, but I want be competing. Obviously, that’s coach’s decision, but whatever it is, I’ll live with it and contribute to the team.
“But my mindset is to be the starter.”