The Rajon Rondo Dilemma
Posted by Sal Marino on Tuesday, February 05, 2013
Is Rajon Rondo the Celtics best player?
After reading the ESPN article that addresses the same question, I decided to finally speak up on my stance since I've been pretty vocal about it for the past few years.
I'll make this as short and concise as possible. No. The Celtics, from the formation of the Big 3 in 2007, have been a defense first team, playing historic defense that year and being very near the top in defensive metrics every year. It's almost solely for one reason: Kevin Garnett.
Lots of role players have come and gone, the genius defensive coordinator (Tom Thibodeau) has gone on to coach in Chicago, and one thing always stayed constant: When Kevin Garnett is on the floor, the Celtics are amazing defensively, and when he is on the bench, they are in shambles and become one of the worst defensively, both by the eyeball test and every advanced metric. It doesn't matter what front court mate is out there or whether or not defensive wing players like Avery Bradley, James Posey, Tony Allen are on the floor. The defensive backbone is Kevin Garnett. Rondo has very little, if any, impact on this. At times, his gambling and lackadaisical individual defense is actually a detriment in such a structured system. Even at an advanced age, with diminishing athleticism, the Celtics are 7th on defense this season and look to be rising.
I know what most are thinking at this point, "That's just one side of the ball, what about on offense?"
The Celtics were never an offensive juggernaut, never to the level of the defense. Early on, Rondo was the initial handler a lot, but the 07-08 title team was much built on Pierce's isolation ability and pick and pops with Garnett, both of which were made much easier with Ray Allen waiting from the wing to bomb from long range. Rondo's only real responsibility was his ability to spark some one man fast break or hit the trailers for 3's in transition. In the playoffs, Garnett's post up ability was put much more on display.
Since then, each year has seen more play making responsibility put into Rondo's hands. The offense began to drop consistently with this change, the aging of the big 3 had a lot to do with that, but the fundamental approach to the game plan has been the biggest culprit in the decline. The Celtics have fallen from 6th in 08-09 to 15th the next season, to 18th in 10-11, to 27th in 11-12, where Rondo was proclaimed the "best player" and leader of the Celtics. This year, the Celtics were again in the bottom 4 (27th) when Rondo suffered his injury.
Rajon Rondo is a very unique player, sort of in the Jason Kidd mold. He's an excellent (if not a bit conservative) passer, a great rebounder at his size, and is lightning quick in the open court. His huge weaknesses and hot and cold aggression is what kills the Celtics offensive flow when he's asked to constantly create good baskets for his team. Rajon Rondo is absolutely one of the worst shooting perimeter players in the NBA.
Most of the league has adopted the Laker's finals strategy of packing the lane and daring Rondo to shoot long jumpers, negating his passing ability and his ability to get to the rim. This has also stymied the ability to "roll" on pick and roll plays, when guys go over the top of screens, and are not threatened by Rondo to take a jumper. Guys like Kevin Garnett are always forced to pop outside to create space, which makes for Rondo dishing off and forcing someone into low percentage, deep jumpers. These are good for his assist numbers but not good for offensive efficiency.
Even more concerning is how the Celtics essentially are going 4 on 5 when Rajon doesn't have the basketball in his hands. He's such a non factor that it allow defenders to double off and get the ball away from guys that are a threat to create inside like Pierce and Garnett. He's even a liability at the foul line, which should never be an issue for a guard.
The Celtics do not have the luxury of a plethora of great scorers like the Miami Heat or Oklahoma city Thunder, but they have way more than enough weapons for a great point guard to create high quality offense. This should not be a bottom 4 offensive team two years running.
Now, ask yourself. If a player isn't improving your offense or defense, can he be your best player? I say no. The Celtics are elite on defense because of KG. They are utterly terrible on offense.
So, are the Celtics better off without Rajon Rondo?
The Celtics were on a 6 game losing streak up until Rondo got hurt and have won their last 4 since. Coincidence? Maybe the sample size is too small to really draw from, but it does seem telling.
This isn't all Rajon Rondo's fault either. When he's out, Doc Rivers is left with no choice but to put the ball in Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett's hands more, both being excellent at creating their own shot, and also both are very deft passers. This takes away a lot of the predictability of the "Rondo" offense, which seemed to involve too much probing and last second passing into long range jumpers.
The amount of spacing created by inserting a better shooter into Rondo's spot has also made the offense flow much better. Paul Pierce can pick and roll with plenty of space to work, and KG is allowed to work from the high and low post with shooters waiting for his dishes.
With all that said, Rajon Rondo does show signs in the playoffs of being a very impactful player. Most of the time, you can see Rondo passing up trying to get the ball inside, playing too carefully with the ball, and in the process, losing out on easy layups and dunks in favor of less efficient shots, all for the sake of not turning it over.
Though at times, particularly in the playoffs, Rajon Rondo shoots just well enough to make teams respect his jumper when he has the ball in his hands and when spotting up. He also amps up his aggression and intensity, leading to big scoring outbursts and much easier shots for his teammates.
When this Rajon Rondo shows himself, the Celtics are capable of beating anyone; he's the dynamic offensive player they need to couple with their dominant defense. His athleticism and passing shine when he's aggressive and focused.
Does this Rondo show up enough to warrant handing your franchise over to? I don't think so; the Celtics bottoming out offensively is enough evidence to show me that Rondo isn't the type of offensive player you can build around if you have championship aspirations, and he lacks the shooting and off ball ability to be a threat in an offense based around other guys handling the ball the majority of the time.
What should the Celtics do?
The Celtics aren't in an enviable position with Rondo going down. He's a popular player, and the casual fan tends to remember the "good" Rondo more than they remember the one that disappears for huge stretches of the game and hurts his offense. Trading him could cause a big backlash from the public, and might be hard with him being injured. I think with his history of a bad temper and with how difficult he is to build around, I'd look to trade him for some good assets while he is still on a reasonable contract. The Celtics won't win a title with the offense as currently constructed around Rondo.
He's a talented player but very hard to build around and hide his deficiencies if you want him to be your centerpiece. It's a puzzle that I would let other teams try to figure out.