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We’ll Never See Another Rajon Rondo

It wasn’t that long ago that nonshooters could be superstars

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Not that long ago, Rajon Rondo was something else. Something hard to describe. Rondo was a player whose effectiveness was based on unpredictability. This is counterintuitive; how can a player who can’t shoot be unpredictable? Without the ability to create space, Rajon thrived by throwing his effort into an almost dictatorial control of pace. The emblematic Peak Rondo sequence invariably began with a defensive rebound or a steal (the better to force his tempo on an opponent), then a pass on an angle that didn’t appear to be there until he found it.

Unraveling the effects that a player has on his teammates and opponents regardless of their quality is the holy grail of analytics. A dude who runs with a lineup of All-Stars will look better than he would if he were balling with scrubs. Where does the player end and the team begin? At his best — from his emergence in the 2008 Finals to his 2013 ACL tear — Rondo was difficult to rate because his game seemed to live in that unclassifiable zone where player and team come together. If you took away Ray Allen’s spacing, would Rondo still be effective? If Doc Rivers had started stressing offensive rebounds, what would have happened to Rajon’s defensive impact? One of the concerns surrounding the Celtics’ trade of Kendrick Perkins was its impact on Rondo since the two were close friends. When a player is mostly intangibles, everything is a discussion point. As a player who had no jumper, didn’t get to the line, and shot poorly when he got there, he should have been easy to neutralize. Instead, he was impossible to figure out.

That was before he was unambiguously bad. Before the Playoff Rondo brand was revealed as a carefully crafted Ponzi scheme. Before he discovered how to make passing a selfish act. Before the disastrous spin in Dallas; the stat-hunting stint in Sacramento, most notable for the shameful night he used an anti-gay slur in reference to referee Billy Kennedy; and the current slow-motion spiral around the toilet bowl in Chicago. Before he found himself slugging it out with his teammates on social media and coming off the bench. Let’s remember Rondo before all that.

Strange things happen in lockout-shortened seasons. And in strange times, strange players shine. The 2012 Celtics were an aging squad with an uncertain future, dragging themselves forward on bloody elbows and professional pride. The Big Three could still deliver robust Ubuntu-ball, but only in spurts, and signs of wear showed through the furious swagger. Ray Allen was 36, his silkiness hampered by the jangle of bone spurs in his right ankle. Kevin Garnett was 35 — and an old 35. His odometer had been ticking off miles since age 19. Paul Pierce, 34, limped through the playoffs with a sprained knee (a real one this time). Then there was Rondo, a dynamic, erratic weirdo of a player who couldn’t throw a basketball into an ocean if he were standing on the shore, yet, somehow, at 6-foot-1, pulled down rebounds like a power forward. He was a cult figure for basketball fiends and Celtics fans. Yet GM Danny Ainge had tried to trade him for Chris Paul earlier in the season. It speaks to the mysterious nature of Rondo’s game that, even as he was emerging as the team’s best player, Ainge wasn’t sure he was the guy.

That Celtics team could still hang its headbands, jerseys, shorts, and sneakers on the same stultifying defense that drove the team to 66 wins and the title four years earlier. Only now their offense was trash. The team didn’t get to the line and, though a good shooting squad by percentage, didn’t produce 3-pointers — two important sources of efficient scoring. They seemed to specialize in wild, backbreaking turnovers. Consequently, they had the worst offensive rating (98.9; 24th worst in the league) of any playoff team. The power structure of the East had shifted. The Bulls and Pacers, two smashmouth squads, were on the rise. The Miami Heat stood head, shoulders, and torsos above the entire conference. The Celtics won 39 of their lockout-abbreviated 66 games and gamboled into the postseason as the 4-seed.

The Celtics’ playoff form did little to dispel the notion that they were anything but fish food for the East’s elite. The Josh Smith–Joe Johnson Hawks (shouts to Larry Drew) pushed the C’s to six games. The young legs of the eighth-seeded pre-Process Sixers dragged the Celtics to a surprising seventh game before succumbing. Surely the dynamism of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh would have little problem rolling these ancient Celtics.

So it seemed. The Heat won Game 1 by 14 in part by backing off Rondo, daring him to let fly his wobbly jumper or pass. Meanwhile, Miami paid careful attention to Boston’s potent perimeter threats. Pierce, hounded across the landscape like Richard Kimble, shot a dismal 28 percent. Allen finished an uncharacteristic 1-for-7. Garnett came through with 23 points and 10 burly rebounds, but it wasn’t enough. Rondo had a near triple-double — 16 points, nine rebounds, and seven assists — but he had taken 20 shots for only the 14th time in his career, including the regular season and playoffs.

Then came Game 2, and something strange started to happen. Rain fell over Rondo’s acrid jumper. He splashed pull-ups, converted midrange attempts, and made his free throws. He harried Heat players into mistakes, lurking in blind spots to rip steals, three in all. He wrong-footed the defense by modulating between attack-mode drives and Nashian excursions that wove in and out of screens. Rondo, a profoundly imperfect player, dominated a game that involved no fewer than six future Hall of Famers. He notched 44 points, eight rebounds, 10 assists, and three steals. Yes, the Celtics lost in overtime, but they tasted blood. It would take the Heat seven games to vanquish Boston, with Rondo averaging 20 points, seven rebounds, and 11 assists for the series. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called Rondo “a basketball maestro” and observed that “his greatness is his unpredictability.”

We will continue to see players with Rondo’s player profile — Elfrid Payton and Kris Dunn come to mind — but we’ll never see them rise as high. Three-point shooting is simply too important. A perimeter player who can’t space the floor is a liability. Driving lanes wither and die; pick-and-rolls become easier to smother. The only worse time to be a guard without a jumper is next year.

When you look at today’s great point guards you notice two things: There are a lot of them (with more on the way) and many can shoot the ball until flames burst from their fingertips. And if they’re not great shooters, they have other ways to create efficient offense. James Harden is shooting a relatively average 35 percent from deep this season, but he generates 11 foul shots a game and shoots 85 percent from the stripe. Russell Westbrook’s shooting touch falls off outside of midrange, but his nuclear jets and eagerness to create contact make him among the most destructive players in the league. Giannis Antetokounmpo can’t really shoot at all, but who cares when you can get to the rim from half court in three steps?

Meanwhile, this summer’s top point guard prospects are all graduates of Steph Curry University. Markelle Fultz is shooting 42 percent from 3; Lonzo Ball is at 43 percent; Dennis Smith Jr. is at 38 percent. And those who can’t sling daggers from long range can at least handle their business at the line. Rondo is a career 29 percent 3-point shooter whose free throw touch is a bit better than a coin flip. And yet, somehow, with no discernible offense beyond making layups, Rondo was a contributor on a title team, the hub of a squad that put the fear of death in the league’s elite, and the author of some of the most unusual stat lines in NBA history:

  • The first Celtic to lead the league in steals (considering Boston’s history and its many great players)
  • Tied Isiah Thomas for the most assists in a triple-double when he recorded 10 points, 10 rebounds, and a jaw-dropping 24 assists in a win over the Knicks in 2010
  • More 20-plus-assist triple-doubles than any other player in the past 30 years
  • Tied John Stockton’s record with 37 straight games recording at least 10 assists in 2012 (this stretch also saw some of the most egregious, destructive stat-padding the league has ever seen)

But that’s over now.

On Sunday, Tom Thibodeau’s new team, the Minnesota Timberwolves, choked out his old one, the Chicago Bulls, 117–89. It was Chicago’s second-worst loss at the Target Center since a 53-point annihilation in 2001. Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, Nikola Mirotic, and Paul Zipser were out. Rondo came off the bench behind Jerian Grant and scored 10 points, slung six assists, turned the ball over five times, and finished with a minus-20.

He’s been relegated to backup status more or less since the end of December, he doesn’t defend, he’s as cantankerous as ever, and he still can’t shoot. The league has passed him by. Asked in January why he had been benched, Rondo said: “A member of the staff told me I needed to be saved from myself. … I’ve never heard that before in my life. I guess he was trying to do the best thing for me.” Two weeks later, after a loss to the Hawks, Rondo fired off an Instagram comparing the leadership qualities of the old Celtics Big Three with that of Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade.

The post was a retort to comments made separately by Butler and Wade, after the loss, that put blame on teammates for not playing hard enough. “The young guys work. They show up,” Rondo wrote. “They don’t deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.”

Strangely, this episode in the Bulls’ very public implosion is Rondo coming full circle. In 2009, he was coming into his own under the demanding tutelage of KG, Pierce, and Allen. “He has a tough job,” Rivers, himself a former point guard, said at the time. “He has three guys that probably all want the ball every possession. And he has to be the ‘no’ guy: ‘No, not this time.’”

Rondo was considered the quiet one then, a much-needed source of restraint on a team laden with big personalities. This was before the well-publicized clashes with Rick Carlisle and the coach’s refusal to relinquish the reins of the Dallas offense. While KG seethed, Pierce talked trash and preened, and Allen obsessed over his shooting routine, Rondo, stone-faced, just played.

The NBA has never been more aesthetically pleasing. But the downside of the 3-point boom is a certain homogeneity. Today, players are interesting because of their size — big men who can shoot 3s or run point; 6-foot-8 do-everything defensive stoppers. Not having a jumper has always been a problem; it’s just that now, there’s no solution except to develop a shot.

“Never get too emotional about the game,” Rondo said in January 2009. “Don’t let the opposing team see if things are going good, how excited I am; and then when I’m low they can either talk me out of my game or get me upset or frustrated. I try to always keep an even keel when I’m out there playing.”

It wasn’t that long ago.