Monday, July 18, 2011

Dissecting Boston’s Mystery Man: Rajon Rondo

Maybe it’s because I’m a Celtics fan, but there isn’t a more fascinating figure in basketball than Rajon Rondo. I could make the case for all of sports, but unfortunately, Brian Wilson exists.

Allow me to make my argument in four parts:

1. No one gives an interview like Rajon Rondo, NO ONE. Plenty of other athletes mumble through their answers (Moses Malone), have an endearing love of sarcasm, or are so dry that they can’t get through an interview without being interrupted, but no one manages to combine all three qualities quite as exquisitely as Rondo. Ample proof here, thanks to CelticsHub.

2. One of the more inconsistently phenomenal players in professional basketball; Rondo will follow up a 12-23-10 masterpiece against the Spurs with a 9-7-4, 6 turnover stinker against the lowly Raptors. While the 2009-2010 Boston Celtics proved to be masters of “flipping the switch”, Rondo has shown that he is a savant.

3. There’s a lot of attributes that factor into an athlete’s success in the NBA, one of which, of course, being physical ability. With his inhumanly large hands Rondo (seriously, those hands fit proportionately on Yao Ming’s body, and he’s 7-foot-6. Rondo is 6-foot-1.) can cradle a basketball like I can grip a whiffle ball. Those oven mitts combined with his superb floor vision results in the occasional pass or layup that needs to be seen multiple times to believe. He’s the Blake Griffin of point guards.

Recall this pass from the 2009 playoffs that shook LeBron’s confidence so violently he decided to leave Cleveland and begin a new basketball life hundreds of miles away (at least that’s what my sources tell me).

4. Remember in High School (and even college) when you would wear that mask of indifference on your face through class like a prize, pretending you didn’t care. It’s like a little game: who can pretend to care the least about education (and just for your information, I was a standout)? Rondo wears it with a pride and never seems to want to take it off. I don’t doubt the man’s work ethic nor do I think Rondo lacks passion for the game (for Christ’s sake, he played with one arm against Miami just a couple of months ago), but his facial expressions—or lack thereof—can be unnerving.

And the way Rondo seems to flit through the dog days of the regular season without really, really going all-out can be a little maddening to Celtics fans hoping Boston finishes hot enough to lock up the number one seed. But alas, Rondo loses interest and tries firing 40-foot bounce passes through traffic to Troy Murphy. Kind of like how Bird used to shoot left-handed because he was bored.

But here’s the thing: we have no idea how high Rondo’s ceiling is. Is this it? Have his assist numbers been inflated because he plays with three future hall of famers? What happens when Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett retire, and the Celtics are all Rondo’s? Does he follow the path of Jason Kidd and finally obtain that elusive jump shot that is the difference between a very, very good point guard and just a good one?

Is Rondo’s jump shot actually improving?

Rondo, ever the inconsistent one, has had up and down shooting percentages from year to year since he came into the league. He shot 41 percent from 10 to 15 feet during his rookie season, improved to 45 percent his sophomore campaign, plummeted to 35 percent year three, then improved to a whopping 47 percent year four and finally sank to his lowest total ever when he shot 31 percent this past season. It’s hard to glean anything particularly insightful when the data is so varied from year to year.

But looking at Rondo’s 2010-2011 campaign compared to his previous four, it may have been an outlier. Rondo managed only 4.3 attempts at the rim and 1.1 from three to nine feet even though from years one through four his shot attempts at those locations steadily increased. Overall, Rondo’s offensive output was his lowest since the 2007-2008 season.

What does this all mean? Rondo has yet to develop a consistent jump shot. A genius conclusion, I know, but Rondo’s offensive production seems to go in waves and pertains as much too nights when his shot is falling to whether the “big three” is feeling it. He’ll always be a pass-first point guard, but a more consistent offensive game is what we’re all waiting for. Whether it takes an actual living, breathing jump shot, a greater piece of the offensive pie, or something else entirely remains to be seen.

Has Rondo’s offensive growth been stunted by the “Big Three”?

For four years Rondo has had Ray Allen spotting up behind the three-point line, Paul Pierce as a go-to offensive weapon, and Kevin Garnett setting up in the post or lurking 18-20 feet from the basket ready to fire away with his deadly mid-range jumper. That’s quite a safety net for a budding point guard. His passing has always been exquisite, his court vision superb, and he’s even grown into a leader after struggling to earn the respect of Boston’s veteran superstars. But he’s never attempted more than 12 shots per game in a single season and he’s only put up double-digit shot attempts once—in 2009-2010. He attempted a mere 5.8 shots per game his rookie season.

This was inevitable once General Manager Danny Ainge traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, making Rajon Rondo the fourth offensive option by default. He’s performed the role admirably—managing ego’s, running the offense, and feeding the hot hand. What else could you expect from a young player teaming up with such ingrained NBA figures?

Consider the situations of other all-star point guards when they entered the league. Derrick Rose attempted 15 shots per game during his rookie campaign; Chris Paul averaged 12; Deron Williams just over 10. None of them were flanked by players even close to the caliber of Rajon Rondo’s teammates. All three were taken considerably higher in the first round, but regardless, they were forced to assume a much greater scoring responsibility than Rajon Rondo has ever had to. One would assume that his offensive responsibilities will only increase once the “Big Three” retire (which figures to be very soon, as all three are at least 33 years of age). I’d like to think Ainge will reload and surround Rondo with adequate talent, but whichever way you look at it, Rondo’s share of the pie is about to get a whole lot bigger.

You could make an argument that Williams, Paul, and Rose were all blessed with superior talent than Rondo—that their jumpers are intrinsically purer, their forays to the basket cleaner, and their scoring instincts more defined. But I don’t buy it; hidden somewhere under that hard exterior is the ability to dominate, the ability to change from a floor manager content to control the court like a chess grandmaster to an offensive force able to score at will. We’ve all seen the way Chris Paul bides his time, subtly manages the game, gets his teammates going, and then explodes in the fourth quarter to ice the contest. His performance against the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the 2011 playoffs was simply masterful, and was a reminder of what point guard play at the absolute highest level looks—and feels like.

Rajon Rondo is capable of that—we’ve all seen it. But it’s rare and you have to savor every stunning performance. He doesn’t put it all together nearly enough, and I wonder whether his low position on the offensive totem pole has contributed to his inconsistent scoring. The presence of three sterling athletes—and men—has certainly contributed to Rondo’s growth as a player and assuaged the hot-headedness that once made him “un-coachable”, but his offensive growth has suffered as a result. Give me a choice between four title-less, Kevin Garnett-less years or the four deep playoff runs, drama-filled seasons Boston fans have enjoyed, I’ll take option two without a second thought. It’s a bit of a paradox: without the winning atmosphere cultivated by Boston’s culture change in the 07’-08’ season Rondo may have gone down in Boston lore as a stubborn, belligerent jack-ass unwilling to learn or admit he’s even got anything to learn. After all, that’s why Rondo wasn’t taken in the top ten of the NBA draft, where his talent dictated. Instead, he learned his lesson, made two All-Star games (and counting), and forced his way into the best-point-guard-in-the-league discussion. But without the “Big Three” Rondo may have developed a better offensive game by virtue of more reps.

By all accounts Rondo needed the presence of a couple veteran stars, but still, you have to wonder…

Is Boston’s system holding Rondo back?

At Kentucky, where Rondo played for two years before entering the NBA draft, Coach Tubby Smith utilized a deliberate “flex-offense” at odds with Rondo’s greatest physical attribute: speed.

According to Smith in this column, “He'd want his teammates to run with him. I would tell him, 'Rajon you've got to slow down because you're just so far in front sometimes. It's like a relay. You've got to receive the baton in the exchange zone or we're disqualified.' ”

The Celtics also play a slow, half-court offense that may not be utilizing Rajon Rondo’s skill set to the fullest. According to Hoopdata’s pace statistic which measures the average number of possessions used in a game, the Celtics rank 23rd, meaning they use 92.3 possessions per game. That’s REALLY slow, right down there with the offensive dregs of the league like the Milwaukee Bucks, Detroit Pistons, and Charlotte Bobcats. That’s not to say Boston’s offense is poor, just that it is slow (plenty of solid offenses play at a slower pace).

Doc Rivers pleading with his team to run, run, run is a common sight on the TNT “Coaches’ Cam”, but with 33 year-old Kevin Garnett, 33 year-old Paul Pierce (who has never been particularly fast), soon to be 36 year-old Ray Allen, the decaying corpse of Shaquille O’Neal, and a host of aging players it’s like praying that your glass of water will turn into wine. Beyond trying to get younger, why do you think Ainge traded for Jeff Green; a player who on paper is a perfect complement to Rondo with his speed, athleticism, and finishing ability. Much to the chagrin of Celtic’s fans, it didn’t work out. At all. But at least you can see what Ainge was trying to accomplish.

History has shown that a fast paced offense doesn’t necessarily make a great offense (see: 2011 Minnesota Timberwolves). But what would happen if Rondo was surrounded by quicker and more athletic players? What if Boston could concentrate on pushing the basketball for easy buckets rather than trying to preserve old legs? The Celtics are certainly efficient in transition, but their opportunities are few and far between. With Rondo’s immense court vision and mastery of the fast break what if he was surrounded by athletes that liked to run, run, and run. Could we be looking at a new breed of offense?

This would require an entirely different Celtics team comprised of youth and athleticism and a focus on abundance of opportunities rather than a reliance on efficiency. Boston shot over 50 percent often last year, but they continued to struggle offensively because they managed a low number of shot attempts per game and placed a heavy reliance on elite marksmanship. To put that in English, there was no Plan B if the jumpers weren't falling. Ainge will have an opportunity to change all that once Garnett, Allen, and Pierce retire in the coming years.

The system wasn’t terrible, but as Boston’s best three players aged and Rajon Rondo emerged it became illogical to run a system geared toward Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett.

Where does Rajon Rondo go from here?

Here’s one thing I know for sure: it won’t be where we expect it to. Not the way Rondo’s career path has twisted and turned from a troubled two years at Kentucky where he struggled to fit into Coach Tubby Smith’s slow and deliberate style of basketball to a rookie NBA year in which Rondo managed to play only 23 minutes per game. For a long time it seemed like he couldn’t get along with any of his coaches, all because he wanted to do things his way or not at all. As Celtics Coach Doc Rivers put it, “He was answering the question before the question was asked, and it wasn’t the right answer sometimes.”

Several things could happen over the remaining five years of Doc Rivers’ new contract: Ainge could acquire some serious young talent to place around Rondo and position Boston to contend for the next decade (I hope so), Ainge could continue the “win now” mentality and sign veteran pieces like he’s been doing for the past four years (hopefully unlikely), or Ainge could be feeling a little risqué and trade Rondo for a different elite piece (please God, no). Every NBA fan on Earth should hope it's option number one so the real Rondo can emerge and blossom.

Whatever happens, Rondo will always be my favorite athlete to don a Celtic’s uniform. From his hilarious interviews, to his little quarks (like how he used to wear his headband upside down until the league said it wasn’t allowed), to the way he fly’s around the court, demands to guard the opponent’s best player (during the 2011 playoffs he guarded LeBron James for short spurts to give Paul Pierce a rest. Surprisingly, it worked.), and when he’s at his best—plays a frenetic, frenzied, yet somehow completely controlled game. Doesn’t make sense? With Rondo, it does.

All statistics are from Hoopdata unless otherwise stated.

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