Friday, February 11, 2011

The Case Against Rajon Rondo

Last week, on his podcast the BS Report, Bill Simmons was discussing his upcoming NBA trade value column (here is last year's; it's an absolute must-read) with his buddy Joe House.  As they made their way through the list, I was not at all surprised that Rajon Rondo made his top 13.  While I allowed for the fact that he was probably 5-10 spots too high thanks to Simmons's Boston leanings, I accepted such a lofty ranking for Rondo thanks to his standing among Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook as the premier young point guards in the league and his relatively team-friendly contract.  The more I thought about it, though, the more I wondered if Boston would really turn down a Chris Paul-for-Rondo deal (as Simmons ascertains*), or even a John Wall-for-Rondo deal.

First, let's start with Rondo's pluses.  Obviously, he is an outstanding passer, as his league-leading 12.4 assists per game proves.  I've never really seen him miss an easy pass, and he seems to make all of the hard passes look easy, too.  He is active on the defensive end, with a knack for steals and for surprising much larger players with the ability to block shots.  He's also a one-of-a-kind athlete, with a style of play that is entirely his own.  How many other players--ever--can put together a game like Game 4 vs. Cleveland in last season's playoffs? Magic Johnson, yes, but who else?  Or how about his first round series against Chicago the year before (19.4 points per game, 11.9 assists, 9.0 rebounds, 2.3 steals, and only 2.1 turnovers)?  When he gets it going in the playoffs, there are few other displays like it in NBA history.

But let's think about what "getting it going" means for Rondo.  Yes, he puts up points, but they almost always come on drives to the hoop (a notable exception is that Game 4 vs. Cleveland, when he was inexplicably hitting the open jumpers he usually never even shoots, let alone makes).  This season, Rondo is shooting a robust 67.3% at the rim, behind only Steve Nash and Chris Paul among starting point guards (this statistic and the others I'm about to cite all come from the extraordinary Hoopdata).  Even better, he's getting 4.3 attempts per game at the rim, tied with Deron Williams for 8th in the NBA.  As we move out, however, Rondo's offensive deficiencies become apparent.  From 10-15 feet, he's shooting an anemic 23.5%.  From 16-23, he's at an alarming 42.0%, but just about every coach, evaluator, or NBA blogger will tell you those are the least efficient shots on the floor.  His 3-point shooting is barely worth mentioning, as he shoots less than one a game, but what is alarming is his 35.0% shooting on his one attempt per game from 10 feet and in.  How is this possible?  How can a 6-0 tall point guard with his ability to get around defenders not have a go-to floater that he uses more than once a game?  And that begins to get to the crux of my argument against Rondo:  not only does he not shoot well, he just doesn't shoot.  (And I didn't even mention his 56.0% free throw shooting, numbers so bad that they seem to have affected the way he attacks the basket, as he's shooting a career-low 1.9 free throws per game).

Yes, Rondo does get those 4 attempts per game at the rim, but why is he getting those shots?  Is it because a defender must always be in Ray Allen's hip pocket?  Or because Kevin Garnett is one of the better-shooting big men in the league from the dreaded 16-23 foot range (46.0% on 4.7 attempts per game), thus forcing his man to stay with him on the perimeter?  Or perhaps because the entire defense will always shade towards whichever side of the floor Paul Pierce is on?  Or could it be because Rondo's man is laying off him by a good five feet, often times just roaming around to help defend Pierce or Shaq in the post?  Now, I'm not saying Rondo's off-the-charts quickness isn't a huge factor in his ability to get looks at the basket, but I am saying that his quickness isn't the only factor.

As for Rondo's gaudy assist totals, look at those players on the floor with him again.  Of those 46% of shots KG hits from 16-23 feet, a whopping 91.1% are assisted.  At KG's second favorite spot on the floor--at the rim, where he's shooting 75.6% on 3.7 attempts per game--80.5% of his shots are assisted.  Ray Allen is hitting 46.2% of his 4.9 3-point attempts per game; 95.7% of those makes are assisted.  From 16-23 feet--where Allen is shooting 47.0% on his 3.2 attempts per game--71.4% of his shots are set up by an assist.  Even Paul Pierce, who creates most of his own shots from within the 3-point arc, is helped by 90.4% of his 1.4 3-point makes per game (on 3.6 attempts, good for 40.1%).  One way to look at these numbers is to assume Rondo is doing an amazing job of setting up his teammates (which, admittedly, he is); another way is to consider Rondo very fortunate to be playing with three Hall-of-Famers with excellent outside shooting touches, two of whom barely create their own shots anymore, and all playing within one of the best offensive systems in the league for one of the best playcalling-coaches in the league.

I am not saying Rondo is a bad player; I'm just saying he isn't a cornerstone, franchise guy, as Simmons must consider him if he wouldn't give Rondo up for Chris Paul.  To illustrate this, let's consider the Celtics lost their minds and gave Rondo to the Cavs in exchange for only the LeBron James trade exception.  According to John Hollinger's PER projection, the Cavs would gain 4 wins while the Celtics would lose 10.  While I am a huge fan of Hollinger's work and feel PER gets it right most of the time, I strongly disagree with this projection.  Rondo's value comes from his ability to assist shots (an amazing 86.71% of his possessions end with an assist this season; league average is 19.68%, with Jason Kidd being next highest at 77.75%), but who is he assisting in Cleveland?  The Cavs as a team have a 46.63 eFG%, second worst in the league.  Is Anthony Parker going to be able to knock down the same open looks Ray Allen is?  And will Parker even have those same open looks, considering Rondo would be by far the Cavs' best player and would most likely get the LeBron treatment of a 5-on-1 defensive scheme.  Might the Cavs win 20 games instead of the 10 they are likely going to?  Perhaps, but Rondo doesn't make them a championship contender, let alone a playoff contender (while I think Chris Paul actually might be able to do).  The Celtics, meanwhile, would drop off a bit with Nate Robinson at the helm, but to think that they wouldn't still be title contenders is absurd, just as it is to think that Danny Ainge would even hesitate if New Orleans called up and offered Paul for Rondo.     



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