Two years ago after an epic playoff series, fellow point guards Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose entered into a rivalry. Ever since that seven game battle in the first round of the playoffs, the two have been compared to each other. The two were a poor man’s version of Chris Paul-Deron Williams and a homeless man’s version of Kobe Bryant-LeBron James.
It’s funny how quickly things can change.
This season, Derrick Rose has emerged as the premier point guard in the league and is the frontrunner to win the Most Valuable Player Award with three weeks left in the regular season. While Rose has made the jump towards the NBA’s elite, Rajon Rondo has gone from Rose’s head-to-head rival to his inferior. Rose spent the entire summer improving his outside shot, even becoming a respectable three-point shooter after two horrible seasons from beyond the arc to start his career, while Rondo’s game has remained the same.
With the likes of Rose, Russell Westbrook and many other young point guards continuing to expand their games, you have to wonder if Rondo’s place in this class of elite lead guards in the game is justified. As his peers grow, Rondo is looking more and more like a mediocre point guard in the NBA that gets a lot of credit for his assist numbers despite playing in the one of the league’s best designed offense and with three sure-fire Hall-of-Famers (four if you want to count Shaq).
Rondo started off the season on an epic assist binge but his numbers have been in a downward spiral ever since that initial stretch of games came to an end. As of now, Rondo isn’t even the assist leader in the NBA anymore as Steve Nash has surpassed him (Nash currently holds a 11.4 to 11.3 advantage). The Celtics’ offense has looked less intimidating ever since the Kendrick Perkins trade and if you were going to single out anyone, Rondo is the culprit.
Perkins was not a focal point of the Celtics’ offense by any stretch but he was a burly screen setter that helped free open Boston’s shooters like Ray Allen and Paul Pierce. When it’s Nenad Krstic setting the screens, it’s a bit easier for defenses to fight over screens to either discourage the pass or at least get a good contest on the shot. What a lot of people fail to realize about Rondo’s assists is that, though plentiful, more often than not they are created by the big man setting a screen for Allen or Pierce.
On the year, 32.8% of Ray Allen’s offense has come when he is running off screens, which is far and away the play the Celtics run the most for him. In this situations, Kevin Garnett is the player that truly deserves the assist as it was his screen that freed up space for Allen to get open and get a shot off. On these type of plays, which the Celtics run frequently, Rondo does nothing more but stand at the top of the three-point line waiting for Allen to come off of Garnett’s screen before delivering a simple pass to Allen. Obviously, by definition, Rondo earns an assist on these plays, but he does little to actually create the look for Allen when the C’s run this set.
Baskets in transition are another thing that pads Rondo’s assist totals and make him look a little more impactful than he actually is. It is extremely common to see Rondo running the break all by his lonesome only to pass up on the free lay-up to pad his assist totals with a pass to trailing teammate. Then there are the plays in semi-transition when Rondo finds a trailing teammate, normally Paul Pierce, or when Allen is running along the wing and Rondo throws it back to him for a wide open look. Again, in these situations, Rondo does little to create a look, rather, his teammates are just running to a wide open spot on the floor. His court vision is excellent at times to find these players but again, he’s not doing anything extraordinary.
Rondo is not the kind of guard that can breakdown a defense and put his teammates in the best positions possible for them to score. Rather, he runs a very well designed offense and has the help of three hall-of-fame teammates. He deserves credit for running the offense well but Doc Rivers deserves just as much credit for creating the plays. But if those plays break down, Rondo doesn’t have the ability to rescue possessions which either forces the Big Three to go out of the offense late in the shot clock or leaves Rondo in a position in which he has to shoot the ball, which is a complete failure for Boston every time it happens.
Pierce and Allen are in the midst of the best seasons of their careers. Both players are shooting 49% from the field and Ray Allen is knocking down a ridiculous 45% from three on the season. Garnett may not be at top physical condition anymore but he’s still lethal with the mid-range jumper (46% from 16-23 feet on the season). It’s often pointed out by Rondo critics that he wouldn’t be able to put up the numbers that he has over the past couple of seasons without Allen, Pierce and Garnett and they are right. Rondo is playing with three of the most efficient scorers in the league on a nightly basis and the offense that Doc Rivers runs allows them the opportunities to score.
Rondo would not be able to rack up the same amount of assists if he was the starting point guard for the Minnesota Timberwovles, but I’m sure Luke Ridnour could average 11 assists per game with Allen, Pierce and Garnett around him in Doc’s offense.
Take a look at this graphic detailing the correlation between Rondo’s assist totals and bad games for members of the Big Three.
As you can see, Rondo’s assist totals drop when at least one member of the big three has a below average game from the field. 22 of Rondo’s 23 single-digit assist games are listed above – the one game I excluded was the Celtics’ 31-point drubbing of the Bucks – and in all but two of them, at least one member of the big three shot below their season average from the floor. In the two games that no Big Three member shot below their season average, Kevin Garnett did not play. In 15 of the 22 games, the Big Three as a whole shot below their season average of 47%.
The point is simple: When Pierce, Allen and/or Garnett are having bad games, Rondo’s assist totals will suffer as a result. This may seem like a rather elementary principle but it shows that Rondo has a hard time creating looks for his teammates by himself. The Celtics run their offense the same way every game, a quality that leads to their usually great execution late in games and in the post-season, but when Allen or Pierce or Garnett’s shot is off, Rondo doesn’t do much to change their fortunes. And that points to an even bigger problem with Rondo, if his teammates aren’t hitting their shots, he’s not helping at all on the offensive end of the floor.
Rondo has made no improvements on his offensive game this season. He’s shooting 38% on jumpshots this season, which ranks him in the bottom 35% of the NBA. He’s shooting just 27% between three and nine feet, 35% between 10-15 feet and 38% between 16-23 feet. All of those marks are below the league average. Rondo also struggles to finish at the rim against the better defenses in the league. He’ll put together some pretty finishes against the Pacers or Kings but when it comes to finishing over someone like Andrew Bynum or Dwight Howard, Rondo has a lot of problems.
Rondo’s tendency to make fancy passes is the reason he is so popular around the NBA. When you see a dazzling behind the back pass on a highlight reel, you tend to forget that the other 10 assists he compiled that game came on fundamental chest passes to players that got open because of a screen or in transition. Though those dazzling passes may look pretty on ESPN’s Top 10, Rondo can also fill up ESPN’s Not Top 10 with all of the boneheaded plays he make while trying to be too fancy passes. Rondo has the worst turnover percentage in the NBA for players with at least 160 transition possessions and if you were to take a look at his 47 mishaps in transition, they are almost all on plays in which Rondo tries something fancy rather than opting for the simple, smarter play.
If you want to give credit to Rondo for running the C’s offense well, that’s fine, but his production level does not compare to that of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook or Steve Nash. All of those guys are not only fantastic scorers, something Rondo will likely never be, but they all have the ability not only to run an offense but also to freelance off broken plays and to create looks for teammates on plays that aren’t created by the head coach. Rondo may play the role of floor general pretty well, but his contributions to his team are not nearly as important or irreplaceable as the contributions of Rose, Paul, Williams, Westbrook or Nash and at this point he doesn’t deserve to be mentioned amongst them in the discussion of top point guards in the Association.