Boston, Massachusetts. Sunday, March 4th. Knicks vs. Celtics. Boston vs. New York. Linsanity had touched down in Bean Town. A little more than 4 quarters of basketball later, all anyone could talk about was Rajon Rondo.
And for good reason. Rondo slapped up a legendary 18 point, 17 rebound, 20 assist triple-double while leading the Celtics to a thrilling overtime victory over the New York Knicks. As Sportscenter has reminded us incessently since, only Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson have put up triple-doubles with similar totals of at least 15 in points, rebounds and assists. Lofty company for a player who as early as last week was reportedly being shopped “agressively” around the league by GM Danny Ainge.
So what do we have here, exactly? Rajon Rondo might be the most difficult player to evaluate in the league. Performances like Sunday’s against the Knicks demonstrate his alarming potential. Rondo at his best is a two-way force of nature on the basketball court. His immense basketball IQ makes it look like he’s playing two steps ahead of everyone else on the court, as he pulls the puppet strings to achieve whatever particular end he has in mind. It’s beautiful and breathtaking to watch in a way that only a prime Jason Kidd compares to in my lifetime. Complete control and an almost omnipotent level of basketball awareness. This Rondo? A no-brainer star. A guy you can build around.
There is, however, another Rajon Rondo, one that still rears his ugly head far too often. This Rondo is far less of a sure thing for Boston. He still plays unacceptable games like this stinker against the Toronto Raptors. He’s moody and clashes with the coaches game plan. He coasts and bails opposing teams out with his shaky jump-shot and over-eager play in the passing lanes. That complacency acts as a poison for a Celtics team that completely feeds off of Rondo’s energy, for better or for worse. This Rondo is a liability on the court and a distraction off of it.
How can one player provide such a spectrum of outcomes on the court? It’s hard to say exactly what the reason is for the dissonance between Rondo and the Celtics. The more important question for Danny Ainge and company is what can be done going forward. Rondo has three years left on a reasonable contract extension, but regardless of his paycheck starting next year he’s essentially “the guy” in Boston. Paul Pierce will likely still be around, but Rondo will be the star in his prime, the guy the franchise will have treat like it’s prized asset going forward. As wonderful as Sunday’s performance was, it may only serve to confuse matters in the long run. For all his skills, Rajon Rondo is still a fundamentally flawed player. I think everyone in Boston wants him to remain a Celtic. But he has to make the right changes to his game in order to earn the role he is being groomed for.
The rap on Rondo has always been shooting. He has an awkward, inconsistent form made all the more troublesome by his disproportionately long arms. At this point, it’s safe to assume that there is a mental factor to Rondo’s struggles as shooter as well. Teammates have eluded to practice sessions where Rondo rained threes, only to lay bricks in the actual game that evening. Rondo seems to be a sensitive and observant personality. He knows what this weakness means to his game and to his team, and this only adds to the pressure he is already subject to as a star player. Every bricked jumper fans the flames and redoubles his inevitable shortcomings as a player for critics.
Honestly? I think Rondo suffers from some sort of anxiety issue. Doc Rivers routinely refers to him as the smartest player he has ever coached. His shooting struggles can hardly be dismissed as a lack of aptitude. We even have empirical evidence that suggests he thrives in a more casual environment. I mentioned Rondo having unusually long arms, which also happen to be complemented by huge hands for a man of his size. The suggestion that his unusual anatomy hampers his shooting stroke probably has some merit. Still, elite shooters come in all shapes and sizes. It’s hard to believe Rondo isn’t capable of more. It’s hard to say whether or not he’s capable of overcoming whatever mental issues prevent him from being consistently great. Sunday’s game proved that Rondo is still a formidable NBA point guard whether or not he can improve the shot. A more dynamic, athletic Andre Miller. With that much talent, though, critics will always ask “what if” questions regarding his career.
Poor shooting is a fundamental drain on any offense. In particular, star players that shoot poorly from the floor and the free-throw line become liabilities during closely contested games. Defenses pack the paint and force mediocre shooters to win from distance and from the line. These sorts of situations play into every Rondo weakness; mental pressure, jump-shooting and free-throw shooting. Even as he racked up historic numbers against the Knicks, Rondo struggled all game from outside the paint. Indeed, it was Paul Pierce who bailed the Celtics out with timely shooting to force overtime. Does it diminish the performance? Certainly not. It just emphasizes what Rondo lacks when the game is on the line. For all of his immense talents, there are ways to limit his potential impact by forcing his weaknesses on the court. When you handle the ball as much as Rondo does this presents a problem, one that point guards traditionally don’t suffer from. Ad this singular but critical weakness to his tricky personality and you have a guy that is tantalizing and maddening all at the same time.
Where does it go from here? Depending on who you believe, Boston has been shopping Rondo all season, but Danny Ainge is not the type to dump his star for the wrong deal. Problem is, what’s the right deal? The Celtics’ cupboard is essentially bare starting next year. KG and Ray Allen are almost certainly gone. Paul Pierce and his huge contract will only make sense if he retires in Celtics Green. Speaking of Green, Boston is hoping Jeff Green can recover from a surprise heart surgery to contribute next year. Youngster Avery Bradley, JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore will all be back but have yet to provide more than flashes of a legitimate NBA future. Boston is likely to ad a non-lottery pick to it’s roster in the draft this year, who along with Rondo and the aforementioned returnees will represent the entirety of Boston’s assets starting in 2013. Outside of Rondo, it is a motly crew compared to the Celtics legends past and present. Trading him would have to yield at least one blue-chip building block to make any sense at all. The fact that Rondo is also on a reasonable contract for a player of his caliber gives some flexibility to the situation. Ainge would have to be blown away to flip Rondo, and it’s hard to envision a current team that would give away assets of such wind power in exchange for him.
Still, ultimate catharsis between Rondo and the Celtics also depends on Rondo taking a significant step as a player and a person. It’s pretty clear that the stone-faced persona is really a front for someone who cares, maybe to a fault, about his game and his public perception. The thought of accepting that he is flawed, especially given his considerable talents, may be a significant mental hurdle for Rondo. But in order for him to truly alleviate what ailes him, he has to accept the short-term pain of criticism for the long-term yield of improvement. It’s hard to imagine a situation more comfortable than playing for a coach like Doc Rivers on the team he has spent his whole career on. He’s a fan favorite in a great basketball city. Both Rondo and the Celtics may have to come to terms with the fact that sometimes the grass isn’t always greener.
Rondo’s other responsibility lies on the court. If he can overcome his mental obstacles, there are signs for optimism in this regard. Rajon Rondo has an exceptional contemporary blueprint to work off of in the career of Jason Kidd. They are player cut from a similar mold; both athletic, brilliant passers, excellent defenders, abnormally good rebounders, terrible shooters, complicated personalities. Kidd, though, emerged as the best point guard in the NBA during his time with the New Jersey Nets. Despite playing with a roster similar to the one that Stephon Marbury had led to the NBA cellar, Kidd managed to elevate an entire franchise to two straight NBA finals appearances. All with Jason Collins starting at center. How was he able to overcome his unskill-set, which was very similar to Rondo’s current set of flaws?
I can identify two essential, tangible differences between the games of Rondo and the young J-Kidd. Kidd was lauded last season for his renaissance emergence as a spot-up three point shooter. The truth is, the three point shot has always been a crude but critical part of Kidd’s game. As the third all-time leader in three point makes, Kidd is a career .347 shooter who did not rack up over 1700 makes from distance in 2011 alone. The three was a safety valve for Kidd in Phoenix and Jersey. Kidd understood the importance of keeping defenses honest and spacing the floor. By becoming a respectable three-point shooter, he forced teams to rotate out to him. You couldn’t just leave him open. It opened up the outside game for a player who was really only effective from beyond the line or at the rim.
Perhaps a more critical supplement to Kidd’s game was his gradual improvement as a free-throw shooter. I grew up knowing only that I hated how Kidd blew a stupid kiss before every shot he took with Nets (before getting divorced and charged with domestic abuse). The fact was that it added another efficient option for Kidd the scorer. Getting to the line becomes a feasible and preferable option in the clutch when you can knock down the free-throws with confidence. Rondo, with his incredible quickness and ball-handling skills, is very good at penetrating into the paint. This option gets nullified in situations where defenses would rather put Rondo on the line. Even the Celtics’ championship outfits suffered as a result – defensive-minded center Kendrick Perkins was forced to the bench in late-game situations because he and Rondo could not share to court offensively without being major liabilities. If Rondo raises his game from the line, he can continue to rely on the most effective part of his offensive game even in clutch, late-game situation.
This is the blueprint for Rondo. 3 point shooting and free throw shooting. At least 30% from three and at least 75% from the line. Forget about the mid-range for now. Rondo can become the player the Celtics want to be, the player he wants to be, if he can approach Kidd’s statistics in these two critical shooting categories.
For his career, Rondo is a career 62% free throw shooter and a career 24% three point shooter. For comparisons sake, Kidd’s career marks are 78% from the line and 35% from three. Getting to around 75% and 30% from the line and three, respectively, would prevent defenses from leaving Rondo open or hacking him in search of missed free throws. This sort of production, while not optimal, is sufficient for player like Rondo or Kidd with a plethora of talents. Kidd’s career seems to have been impacted more by his development as a free-throw shooter. His best offensive years in Phoenix and especially with New Jersey came as he honed his average to around 80% from the line. This luxury would always allow the option of a strong drive by Rondo, who has the creativity to draw fouls at a high rate but avoids it because he struggles to make his free throws. To that point, these improvements would presumably embolden Rondo as a scorer and help to alleviate some of his insecurities on offense and especially in the clutch. Theoretically, his improvements on the court, unlocked by improvements off the court, should subsequently facilitate more improvement off court, creating a very not-at-all vicious cycle for our precarious protagonist.
30 and 75. Maybe these expectations are a stretch. I don’t think they are. Rondo will never be Chris Paul, Derrick Rose or Deron Williams as a scorer. By the same token, those gentlemen will never play a game like Rondo did at the Garden on Sunday. Someone who performs like that doesn’t need to be an all-NBA scorer. He just needs to capable of scoring at a respectable NBA rate. It’s uncertain what exactly the future holds for Rondo and the Celtics. Barring an unlikely run at the championship this year, opening day next season will be a very different affair than it was this season. If Rondo wants to achieve his full potential, he’ll need to understand that Boston’s reservations and expectations are not exclusive to Danny Ainge and his front office. His immense talent only cements the justification for criticizing his weaknesses, and that criticism is not a result of a disdain for Rondo. It’s a sober observation, and one made all the more maddening by days like last Sunday afternoon. You shouldn’t be asking these kinds of questions about this kind of talent. Yet, questions will follow Rondo wherever he goes if he doesn’t lock in. That will take considerable, but achievable, commitment on and off the court. He clearly has the capacity to succeed in this venture. It remains unclear whether he’ll ever be comfortable taking the necessary steps.
(Photo via lukemiddleton / Flickr)