What Do We See in Rajon Rondo?

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As Rajon Rondo entered a practice facility conference room, a Celtics employee handed him a new green hoodie. The room was chilly. It was late September, the end of media day, and Rondo was dressed in his full home uniform, but his left arm hung in a big black sling. He settled into a rolling chair, under a whiteboard on which was written a bulleted list of the team’s offensive priorities “while R.R. is out.” He put the sweatshirt on over his shoulders and wore it like a hooded cape.

“You look like Muhammad Ali,” his publicist joked.

“I don’t wanna talk about boxing right now.”

Rondo was just three days removed from a surgery to repair his “boxer’s fracture” — a broken metacarpal bone in his left hand. He had sustained the injury when he reportedly slipped in his shower, a week prior. He had spent much of media day talking about it.

“Showers … you gotta take ’em,” he said, as he turned to face me.1 Despite his being expected to miss the next six to eight weeks, his sense of humor was intact. You need one of those if you’re going to survive as one of Boston’s star athletes. And you especially need it if you’re Rondo. If there’s any player who has come to personify the way many of us talk about NBA players as assets, it’s the eight-year Celtics veteran. He lives on the trading block. And his value as a player is one of the most divisive topics in NBA analysis right now.

About an hour earlier, as I drove the Mass Pike west to Waltham, I caught a segment of Felger and Mazz, the drive-time town criers of Boston sports radio. They were taking turns doubting the shower story, mongering a trampoline rumor, disparaging Rondo’s jumper, and remarking on just how low his trade value is right now.

Rondo’s value is difficult to quantify, in part because he doesn’t fit into our established taxonomy of NBA superstars. He amplifies the goodness around him, but he can’t create it. When we question Rondo’s value, we are actually talking about the value of a pass-first point guard in today’s NBA. The league’s most valuable assets are almost all dominant scorers — everything else they provide is gravy. But Rondo inverts that. He provides assists, defense, rebounds, and only occasional scoring prowess. He’s at his best when he is playmaking for his teammates, but his All-Star years all involved a Hall of Fame supporting cast. The hard part is determining his value when paired with less talented colleagues.

Rondo and his hand would recover quicker than expected. He was healed up not only in time to begin his eighth NBA season, but to play the protagonist in one of its most compelling story lines. He again finds himself one of the league’s most talked-about trade chips, as well as one of its biggest free agents next summer. He is a wanted man.

As a person, Rondo is hard to know. As a potential roster asset, he’s impossible to measure. Is he one of the best point guards in the NBA, or is he just an occasional genius with a crooked jumper?

Toronto Raptors v Boston CelticsMike Lawrie/Getty Images

Conventional wisdom says Rondo can’t shoot. But sometimes, players change faster than their reputations do. Such is the case with Rondo. His jump shot has come a long way, even if it still gets a bad rap. There was a time when Rondo didn’t have a midrange game. But just as LeBron James evolved to dominate the left block, Rondo has developed a decent jumper.

According to Rondo, that perception that he can’t shoot follows him wherever he goes. “I’ve heard that like 10,000 times,” he said. “But it doesn’t bother me. I know what I bring to the game. Shooting is obviously not the strongest part of my game, but I believe I can shoot the ball.”

In 2014, no player, save maybe Russell Westbrook, makes us contemplate basketball virtue more than Rondo. Both guys are divisive; both play the game on their own terms, and both madden their detractors and delight their fans on a nightly basis. Rondo is a great basketball player, but his greatness depends a lot on his environment.

From talk radio to the spreadsheet, context remains largely unheeded in basketball analysis. You can look at Rondo’s career and see the passed-up shots for padded assist tallies and roll your eyes. Or you can read it more like a three-act play. In the first act, the misfit rookie struggled to fit in among an uneven roster. In the second, he suddenly became the NBA’s enigmatic savant, the champion, and the four-time All-Star point god. In Act 3, the hero finds himself onstage with understudies — his star has diminished. How and where will this act end?

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The Celtics acquired Rondo’s draft rights from the Suns after Phoenix selected him with the 21st pick of the 2006 NBA draft.

Already on draft night, Rondo had a reputation. Immediately after the pick came in, commentators Dan Patrick and Jay Bilas perfectly captured that.

Patrick: Well, we’ve had our first point guard selected, a sophomore guard from Kentucky, not a great shooter.

Bilas: Super run-and-jump athlete. He’s got long arms. He’s got huge hands. I think one of the best perimeter defenders in this draft. He can stay in front of just about anybody. He can handle it. He can get to the rim and finish there. He’s an outstanding guard-rebounder, but you identified it, Dan, the problem is he can’t shoot it at all. Teams in the Southeastern Conference didn’t even guard him.

Rondo played his first NBA game four months after draft day. He does not romanticize that first league campaign: “It was a season not to remember.”

Rondo joined an uneven Celtics roster that included Paul Pierce, Al Jefferson, and a host of raw youngsters like Gerald Green and Sebastian Telfair. A few days before the season began, Red Auerbach died, and a cloud hung over the team, giving the season a weird and uneven energy. Pierce got hurt, and the team fell off a cliff. At one point, it went on the worst losing streak in Celtics history.

“It was brutal. To lose 18 in a row was crazy. We were on SportsCenter every other day for the wrong reasons,” said Rondo, remembering his rookie season. “I’d think I’d play great one night, then not play at all the next night. It was kind of hard to gauge where I fit in.”

As a rookie, eager to fit in and earn playing time, Rondo became so afraid to screw up, he almost never shot jumpers. “When you take a shot as a rookie, if you don’t make it, that might be your last shot. If you make the shot, you’re good; if you don’t, you’re coming out.”

By the end of the season, this kind of thinking caused Rondo to have the weirdest shot chart of any guard in the league. More than 70 percent of his shots came in the paint — a normal number for someone like Kendrick Perkins, but unprecedented for an NBA point guard. He was strangely inactive around the elbows, an area where the league’s best floor generals typically flourish. This behavior only fueled the idea that he couldn’t shoot.

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It was probably more accurate to say he wouldn’t shoot. At least in that rookie year, Rondo’s lack of jump-shooting production was tied more to skittish behavior than to inability. Regardless, Rondo’s wacky rookie tendencies only helped solidify his draft-day reputation as a pass-first point guard with limited scoring potential. By the summer of 2007, he was just another forgettable youthful outcast on one of the worst teams in the NBA.

Then, one day, the Celtics traded Wally Szczerbiak, and everything changed.

They also traded Delonte West and the draft rights to Jeff Green, and in return received Ray Allen from Seattle. A few days later they sent Al Jefferson, Theo Ratliff’s expiring contract, Gerald Green, Telfair, Ryan Gomes, two first-round picks, and cash considerations to Minnesota in exchange for Kevin Garnett. Almost all the guys Rondo grew to know in that rookie campaign were gone, replaced by superstars determined to win titles.

Suddenly the team was on SportsCenter for all the right reasons. Just four months after that horrible losing streak, the Celtics mystique was abruptly back, and the young point guard was squarely in the middle of it.

Rondo began his second season in a familiar uniform but on an entirely different team. Playing alongside “The Big Three” provided Rondo with little incentive to change those pass-first tendencies. His jobs were to distribute and defend, and he performed both tasks well. He fit in.

It’s funny how much easier it is to fit in when you’re surrounded by greatness.

NBA Finals Game 6: Los Angeles Lakers v Boston CelticsJim Rogash/Getty Images

That 2007-08 Celtics team had the best single-season turnaround in NBA history. Toward the end of that season, Rondo started to exhibit signs of brilliance. By the time the team reached the Finals, there were more indications of his on-court genius. His 16 assists in Game 2 were the most in a Finals game since Magic Johnson dished 20 in 1991.

On June 17, 2008, the Celtics torched the Lakers to win the NBA Finals in six games. At 22, the kid from Louisville who “couldn’t shoot it” was a key piece of the best team in the NBA. But buried beneath the Ubuntu, and the green-and-white confetti, was Rondo’s greatly improved jumper. He hadn’t morphed into Allen, but he converted his shots at above-average rates. Despite his development, the can’t-shoot reputation persisted through the rest of the Ubuntu era. It lingers today among both fans and opponents who insisted on going under screens, sagging off of him, and almost daring him to shoot the ball.

For Rondo, those tactics are a kind of compliment. “It’s a free shot,” he has said. “I think I’ll always have the ‘make him shoot’ reputation, but that’s more because if you don’t do that, it’s really a problem.” Rondo believes that he doesn’t just get those free shots because of his poor shooting reputation, but because of his reputation as an attacker. After all, he’s one of the league’s best playmaking guards in the paint, both as a scorer and as a distributor.

Maybe he gets free shots in the midrange because people underestimate his shooting prowess. Maybe he gets them because defenders are afraid of his interior playmaking — it’s probably both. It really doesn’t matter why some teams sag and others don’t. He knows that his job is to read and react: “It doesn’t make a difference to me whether guys go over or under screens. I just have to take the shot I get, step into it, and take it with confidence.”

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Rondo’s real breakout occurred in the 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers entered the series as the no. 1 seed, but Rondo looked like the best player on the floor for much of the clash. In Game 1, he put up 27 points and 12 assists in a losing cause. In Game 2, his 19 assists helped Boston steal home court. He saved his real masterpiece for Game 4. Down 2-1 in the series, the Celtics were at home and desperate for a win. Rondo turned in a career performance, scoring 29, with 18 rebounds and 13 assists. The Celtics won the game, went on to win the series, and the Big Three officially became the Big Four.

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The 2009-10 Celtics came incredibly close to winning the title. After taking a 3-2 advantage back to Los Angeles, Kendrick Perkins blew out his knee, and the team lost two in a row. The Big Four would never return to the Finals. It was a blow for the franchise, but all the big-time experience seemed to boost Rondo’s confidence. His game hit another gear during the first few months of the 2012-13 season — he had become a truly great point guard, blending his passing, his rim attacks, and a suddenly strong midrange game. Gone was the timid rookie afraid to take elbow jumpers — now he was one of the most reliable elbow shooters in the entire league.

Out of 145 players who took at least 100 shots from the areas around the elbows during the 2012-13 regular season, Rondo ranked third in efficiency, trailing only Steve Nash and Jason Smith. The league shoots 39.6 percent around the elbows, but Rondo converted 50.4 percent of his attempts in that area. It looked like Rondo had finally slayed the he-can’t-shoot beast; Synergy Sports, the independent video tracking service, went as far as assigning him a “very good” rating for shots off the dribble, and an “excellent” rating for long 2-point jumpers.

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In a cruel twist, Rondo tore his ACL in late January. It was clear the graying Big Three were not really a threat without their floor general. On May 3, the Knicks eliminated the Celtics from the first round of the playoffs. Two months later, Boston traded Garnett and Pierce to Brooklyn. It was the end of an era, and once Rondo’s knee healed, he would again find himself on a youthful and rebuilding Boston roster.

When Rondo was finally able to play again in January 2014, he wasn’t the same. He didn’t trust his surgically rebuilt knee, and this made him passive on the floor. “I wasn’t confident in going to the hole a lot because of my knee. I couldn’t get past guys like I was used to,” Rondo said. “My first step wasn’t as quick when I came back with that big brace I had, so I shot the 3 a lot.”

Before his knee injury in the 2012-13 season, just 11 percent of Rondo’s field goal attempts came from 3-point range. During his knee-braced 2013-14 season, that number jumped to 25 percent. This damaged his overall effectiveness. Rondo has never been a long-distance caller, so last season’s outward migration highlighted the weakest part of his shooting portfolio. Furthermore, it kept him from making plays for his teammates.

Coming into this season, the clunky brace is gone, and Rondo thinks his knee feels much stronger. “I think I’ll take more selective 3s, I’m gonna try to attack the rim more,” he said. This is his first full season without Pierce and Garnett since his rookie year. “My role has changed here in Boston. I don’t play with the Big Three anymore, so I’ll be creating my shot a whole lot more. I’ll be taking that midrange shot a lot more.”

Through the first two weeks, his 3-point infatuation appears to be over, and he’s put up big numbers that seem to suggest his aggressiveness is back in place. Last night, he registered 20 points, nine rebounds, and 12 assists in a loss to the Thunder.

It remains to be seen just how far Rondo can “carry” the Celtics. Although he’s a great playmaker, a strong rebounder, and an improved scorer, he’s still a pass-first point guard. And, to be blunt, he doesn’t have much to pass to. Boston might make the playoffs. It might not. If it doesn’t, is that Rajon Rondo’s fault?

Filed Under: NBA, Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce

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Kirk Goldsberry is a professor and Grantland staff writer.

Archive @ kirkgoldsberry