|Posted by paul on April 2, 2012 at 12:20 PM|
Like so many media/near media types, former Celtics great Cedric Maxwell chose his words carefully when he spoke about Rondo's performance against Miami yesterday. Maxwell compared Rondo's Miami game favorably to the way Maxwell's teammate, Larry Bird, played every night; it was a statement that could be taken either as a nice compliment to Bird, or as a sweetly put insult to Rondo. Other media/near media types have emphasized that yesterday's Celtics win was a 'team' win (as if a win by any Rondo-led team would ever not be a team win?!). Others pounded the meme that Rondo is a 'prime time' player, a 'divo' as Rondo himself recently put it, as if that were a bad thing. Still others suggested that Rondo only truly excels against Miami (as if he hasn't torched every contending team at one time or another). The underlying thought seemed to be the same underlying thought we've seen over and over again; that Rondo just can't be that great a player. It must be a bit of a trick, mustn't it?
Meanwhile, even though many fans on twitter sang Rondo's praises yesterday, as he fully deserved, many others harped on the negative themes we've heard over and over and over and over again - that Rondo can't shoot, that he would be nothing without his fabulous teammates, that he's weird, etc.. As so often before, I've been reminded of Doug Flutie's brave, but harrassed pro football career. Whenever Flutie accomplished anything on the football field, it was hyped by some, but it was often denigrated by both fans and media, often openly, but sometimes with praise that suggested flukiness and weirdness. The idea that Flutie was a great player could never be allowed into the conversation, it seemed. He was at best a weird anomaly, his successes attributed to the great players around him. He didn't fit the mold, and so he could not be accepted or acknowledged. An entire generation of football fans lost the chance to see some great football, some inspiring football, from Doug Flutie, because they would not give up their entrenched group-think. To them, a great football player is a massive behemoth who hits hard and hits often. A small but clever dynamo who inspires his team and refuses to give up just doesn't fit the poster. Maybe Flutie annoyed many fans because when they watched him out on the field they wondered what they might have been able to accomplish as athletes, had they tried a little harder. The sports world was polarized over Flutie, but even as his career progressed, perhaps the more he prevailed against all odds, most 'knowledgable' fans belittled him.
Rondo is luckier than Flutie was. Flutie had to escape to Canada, to the Canadian Football League, to prove his greatness. By the time he came back to the NFL, back to American football, he was 38, and only had two pro-bowl quality seasons in him, before he slipped out of football, after mentoring Drew Brees and Phillp Rivers towards excellence. Rondo, by contrast, has the (admittedly ambivalent) backing of GM Danny Ainge, the conflicted backing of Doc Rivers (along with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce), and the unswerving support of one Kevin Garnett. Garnett had unstinting words after the Miami game yesterday, declaring that Rondo had played like Mr. Everything:
“I know there are other point guards out there, but this kid is something special. I hope this city and fans gravitate to who he is. The same thing that makes you great is sometimes what makes people hate you.”
As he so often does, Garnett put his finger right on the issue: why are Celtics fans, and basketball fans in general, not thrilled to see the greatness shining through Rondo, our Crazy Diamond? Isn't this greatness what we watch basketball in order to see? Or will we find ways to cast a shadow over it, because it looks different from what we expect, or because it comes in a different package? Flutie was called a midget. Rondo is called an alien. Flutie was called a cancer. Rondo is called a headcase. Flutie's brilliance was refered to as fairy dust. Rondo's brilliance is dismissed as flash. If Flutie's team won but he didn't throw for a lot of yards, the credit went to his teammates. If Flutie threw for a lot of yards, he was accused of not staying within the offense. If Rondo doesn't score a lot but the team wins, his teammates get the credit. If he scores a lot, he is accused of not staying within the offense.
If Garnett can see and appreciate greatness that comes in an unusual form, why can't we? No one knows better than Garnett that size doesn't guarantee big play, and that there is a lot more to the game than scoring.
Some of the confusion IS caused by size. Maxwell makes the point that Bird threatened to triple double in nearly every game he played, blatantly dominating every game. According to Maxwell, some players have the mind and determination that allows them to do that; he was suggesting that Rondo doesn't. I think this misses out on at least three key points.
The first is the most obvious: Rondo is a point guard, not a point forward. This means that he carries much more structured responsibility than Bird ever did for running the team, and that it is therefore more difficult for him to achieve consistently well-rounded statistics. Rondo's approach to running the team accentuates this difference between Rondo and Bird, because Rondo picks and chooses what aspects of his game to emphasize. Of course, there are many similarities between Bird and Rondo. In fact, I think Rondo will eventually show himself to be on Bird's level of greatness, and improved consistency will be a factor in that. But for him to continually achieve triple double level statistical averages will be a greater achievement for Rondo than it was for Bird. Small forward is a more versatile and flexible position.
Secondly, there is the physical difference between smaller players and larger players. Small players have to be high energy players in order to accomplish what larger players can do by just being there and being large. This is perfectly obvious, isn't it? Just playing his position requires Rondo to expend far more energy than a Larry Bird. He plays a much larger area and is responsible for more. On top of that, making plays requires maximal running, leaping, pivoting, turning, fancy dribbling, contorted finishes, etc., for a smaller player. A guy like Rondo always has to do more to get more than a larger man has to do. Does this mean that a smaller player can't be as good? Of course not. It means that he can't dominate statistically nearly as easily. He has to replace size with energy, and that just can't happen every night. He has to pick his spots more. Compare Derrick Rose to Shaq. Both players were/are all time great finishers in the paint, but the extreme physical efforts that Derrick Rose requires to finish as effectively as Shaq have already put a physical strain on Rose's body.
Or think about Larry Bird attacking the basket vs. Rajon Rondo attacking the basket. Which of the two has to expend more energy and creativity every single time?
Of course, as Rondo learns to shoot better, he will be able to accomplish more with less energy. But this brings us to point number three. Larry Bird was a guy who grew up living and breathing basketball, in the basketball crazy state of Indiana. He also played college ball for four years. When he came to the NBA, he was one of the most highly polished players that ever came to the league. Even so he continued to develop, because great players do that. But Rondo is a different story. Rondo is more like Dennis Rodman, who came to the game late. Rondo initially preferred both football and baseball to basketball! As we can see, Rondo developed a high level of skills and a deep understanding of the game of basketball very quickly, once he finally committed to it. In fact, his background in other sports gave Rondo unique perspectives that have helped him (while also making his style of play look odd to rutted group-thinkers). But there are many refinements that take years to develop. Look at Paul Pierce. Look at Carmelo Anthony. Look at how those two guys, with their clunky bodies, have a sense for the game of basketball that is almost angelic, it is so fine. Look at how finely they manipulate tempo and body language, as they confuse defender after defender on the way to the basket. Look at the sugar-sweet touch that they release their shots with, as they fade away from a defender after a stab-step, or a shimmy, or some other fakeout that creates a wrong-way lean. All that stuff is so deeply engrained in such players; their bones are permeated with years of knowledge earned on the hard-top, the hard-wood, under baking sun, drenched with the ambiance of old sweat.
Rondo is a latecomer to such subtleties. He's learning them on the job, which almost no one ever does, it's that hard. But he's doing it. Year after year, he comes back to us with enhanced skills, and as the year goes on, he grows those skills in every direction. Just last night he stunned Miami with sweeping, running skyhooks! Yeah, a six foot one guard threw down skyhooks over Miami's bigs!! Have you ever seen that before? By age 30, Bird's magnficent career was basically over. At 30, Rajon Rondo will be peaking. He still has so much to learn, and he never seems to stop.
There is a dimension to basketball that goes beyond what can be readily measured in inches, in years, in statistics such as scores, rebounds and even assists. KG gets this. Russell got it. But many don't get it. I'm not sure Cedric Maxwell does. I'm pretty sure most media and near media commentators don't. Only one commentator last night seemed to sniff it out at all. Hardwood Paroxysm:
Player efficiency is a fabulous metric, it truly is. It captures so much more about a player’s value to his team than points per game or any other basic statistic ever could, yet I feel we are doing it a great disservice in the way we utilize it in our discourse and rhetoric. ... it retains the inherent logical issue that comes with trying to grossly over simplify our basketball analysis. Basketball is such a beautiful, intricate game. There is much nuance and context that we lose when we rely on one tool, idea or measure no matter how sophisticated it may be. PER is a great stat, but it is not a determiner of a players fate as good or great, mediocre or bad, overrated or underrated.
Perhaps the player that is most often the victim of this death by PER analysis is Rajon Rondo. While there are often other reasons provided by those in the “anti-Rondo” camp, too often the refrain is something like “Rajon Rondo can’t be a top 10 point guard since he’s 21st at his position in PER” or “How can Rondo be the best player on his team when he has the 3rd best PER?” All this ignores the fact that both Pierce and Garnett would struggle to produce at such efficient levels without Rondo’s steady hand at the old creaky wheel. PER can’t capture how and why it’s results came about it, there’s a context to Rondo’s PER that deserves explanation. Now, this is not to say that those who question Rondo’s value are wrong; I’ve long said he is among the most difficult players to evaluate in the league. One can point to his terrific supporting cast and coach as upholding a player that is much worse than his perception, and while his court vision is close to unmatched, his inconsistency as a scorer and inability to make free throws have a negative affect on his team’s success. However, the fact that Rondo has clear, glaring, obvious flaws does not necessarily make him less than a great point guard ...
Gee, it's nice to see someone acknowledge that the actual sport of basketball is 'beautiful and intricate' and that there is 'much nuance and context'. Russell put it simply: 99% of the game isn't scoring. Heck, much of it doesn't even take place on the basketball court. How much of what happens in the game is affected by what happens in the lockerroom, on the basketball court, in a conversation at a coffeeshop on the road? It was JoJo White taking a long walk with Charlie Scott the night before the final game of the 1976 championship series, telling the Celtics then shooting guard that the team needed a big game from him. It was Rondo's teammates telling Rondo before yesterday's game that they wanted him to show Miami what a truly great point guard looks like. There is a game behind the game, between bounces of the basketball and swishes of the net.
When I think of Rondo, I often think back to one of my all-time favorite players, Isaiah Thomas. It's fashionable these days to forget about Isaiah Thomas. Our sensibility for greatness has been colored by Michael Jordan, the best player since Wilt Chamberlain at hammering opponents into submission with out-of-this-world statistical greatness. Thomas, we may hear, may have been the fourth or even fifth best player on his team, depending on how great one thinks Dennis Rodman was. The affect of a player that makes everyone else around him better, that inspires and uplifts his whole team, making them believe that anything is possible, all this just can't be measured, and so it becomes invisible to many fans and commentators, just as Isaiah Thomas, possibly the third best player in the eighties, a man who led his team to two championships, has become invisible.
My favorite play of all time involved Isaiah Thomas. In a big game between Detroit and LA in the late eighties, Thomas was all alone on a breakaway, coming into the paint at top speed, with James Worthy and Magic Johnson standing side-by-side between him and the basket. Clearly Isaiah should have pulled up, to avoid a collision with the two all-time great Lakers, both much bigger than he, to avoid incurring near-certain loss of possession; but, somehow, Isaiah split between Worthy and Magic, even though they seemed to have locked down the lane, and scored with a Rondo-like scoop shot. You had to see the play in slow motion to see how Isaiah did it. You couldn't see it with the naked eye. As he brought the ball up for his drive to the basket, Isaiah cupped his hand under the ball, and darted his eyes to the side, for a tiny fraction of a second. Lesser players than Worthy and Magic would not have seen what Thomas did, but they both froze and looked to their right for the wingman that Thomas' infinitesimal pass fake told them must be there. By the time another fraction of a second had passed, and both defenders recovered, Isaiah was through them, between them, and to the basket.
THAT was basketball at the highest level. To me, a play like that is a true measure of greatness, championships aside, because basketball, more than perhaps any other sport, is a game played in the imagination. When you have a player who can see possibilities that other players can't see, and when he can make his teammates see this too, you have a player who can be the heart and soul of his team. It's Bob Cousy reinventing the passing game. It's Bill Russell blocking shots to his teammates. It's Dave Cowens diving on a basketball all the way across the court. It's Larry Bird catching his own rebound and throwing it in from mid-air with a perfect stroke. It's Kevin Garnett teaching long-time reject Greg Steimsma how to set a screen and turning the kid into a player. It's Rajon Rondo slashing into the paint, drawing the defense to him, and then throwing a perfect round-the-back, pirouetting-in-mid-air, Cirque de Soleil pass to Ray Allen that looks as necessary as it looks fantastic. It's seeing possibilities that others don't see ... yet.
To me, that pass to Ray Allen was the moment where Rajon Rondo finally figured out how to lead this team. Denigrate what he and this team have accomplished over the past several weeks all you want. I call it a team that has struggled through the NBA wilderness, but has found itself. I think KG put it best yesterday when he said that this is now a team with its destiny in its own hands. A very tough week lies ahead. Maybe we will win. Maybe we will lose. Maybe we will do both. But our destiny is in our hands. And in Rajon Rondo's hands. And that's good. Very good.