Wednesday, January 25, 2012

It's not easy being green

We are witnessing the "era of the point guard" in today's NBA.  This is quite a departure from the 2000's "era of the big man" where (almost) every team to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy was built around Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal.  After Jordan retired, the conventional thinking was to build your team around a dominant 7 footer.  These days, more and more teams are building their franchises around a dominant 6 footer.  The reigning MVP is a point guard.  Chris Paul created more of a trade frenzy than the best (according to most) center in the league.  The former pride of Istanbul's Besiktas Milanga will either lure another franchise player to Brooklyn or force another team into a fire sale to trade for him.  One would be hard pressed to think of a time when there were so many max contract worthy point guards in the NBA.  Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo's job of choosing only 3 for the Olympic team is no easy task.  Is this a good thing?  People hated the slow, low-scoring, feed-the-post-on-every-possession style of the Spurs and Lakers.  Nowadays, everybody would rather see fast breaks, slick crossovers and alley-oop dunks.  The many talented point guards in the league are giving the people what they want.  What's not to like?

Believe it or not, there have been some negative repercussions to this trend.  The market is a funny thing in professional sports and every team has reacted differently to this explosion of  talent.  Some GM's have opted to start an arms race to get a better point guard than the competition.  The last two number one overall picks in the Draft have been spent on point guards.  The Clippers and Nets gave up quite a bit to simply lease a top flight point guard for a season or two.  Other GMs feel as though great point guards grow on trees so trading/releasing theirs is not the end of the world.  This unprecedented surplus of talented point guards has left the Celtics' play caller Rajon Rondo lost in the shuffle.  Danny Ainge used up all of his anytime minutes in the offseason trying to trade Rondo for Chris Paul or Deron Williams.  One could argue that either would be an upgrade from Rondo.  I'm not convinced that it's a significant one.  Rondo is one  hell of an athlete and a very underrated floor general.  In a league saturated with very good point guards, Rondo is a truly great one.

What separates the great point guards from the good?  In my humble opinion, John Stockton is the greatest point guard to ever play in the NBA.  He defined how to play the position and when I think of great point guards, I use him as the model.  Stockton made the Utah Jazz offense click for 20 years and dished out almost 16,000 assists.  He played the passing lanes better than anyone and amassed more than 3,000 steals in his career.  After stealing the ball, few ran the fast break as well as he did.  In the half court he was able to pick apart defenses with his dribble penetration and incredibly accurate passing.  John Stockton had the unique ability to completely dominate a game without ever taking a shot.  He understood the game and knew how to make everybody on his team better.

Rondo has many of these same qualities.   He is also an incredibly accurate passer.  Whether it's throwing lobs to Garnett, bounce passes to a cutting Ray Allen, no-look passes to a streaking Paul Pierce, he is always right on the money.  Rondo is like a Pro Bowl quarterback on the court and watching him throw a bounce pass is a thing of beauty.  The fundamental bounce pass has become a lost art in this SportsCenter age but Rajon Rondo's game is old school like Kangol hats and Reebok Pumps.  He runs the fast break as well as any guard in the league and can make any assist imaginable.  I would argue that he is a better pure passer in the open floor than Paul or Williams.  Rondo at his best is like a turbo charged Bob Cousy.

In the half court, Rondo runs the Celtics' offense to perfection, which is no easy task.  This is in part because he is incredibly explosive and can get into the paint at will.  Once he blows by his defender, he is adept at finding shooters on the perimeter or big men cutting to the basket while still moving at full speed.  Rondo knows where every teammate likes to shoot the ball and is able to find them consistently.  While scoring may be his biggest deficiency, Rondo is very athletic and finishes strong around the basket.  He has added the tear drop floater and running jumper to his offensive repertoire.  There are certainly better scoring point guards than Rondo, but I doubt you will find a replacement that will actually improve the Celtics' offense.  He makes that Boston Celtics' offense "do what it do".

Like Stockton, Rondo is not only a leader but a competitor.  Seeing him dive after loose balls, take charges, snatch rebounds away from centers, or block shots has become commonplace.  The man is as tough as they come and does whatever it takes to get the win.  Rondo is also a superb defender.  Unlike most point guards, he not only plays passing lanes but excels at playing one-on-one defense.  He is exceptionally quick and quite good at keeping defenders in front of him.  Rondo also has long arms and very quick hands which he routinely uses to block shots, deflect passes, and get steals.  Rondo rebounds exceptionally well for a point guard.  Like Jason Kidd, he is good at crashing the defensive boards and starting fast breaks with long outlet passes.  The Celtics all know this and (like the old Utah Jazz) they run the floor at every opportunity.  The breakneck pace set by Rondo and the Celtics was especially disruptive versus the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2010 Playoffs.

It is impossible to tell what the future will hold for Rondo or these Boston Celtics.  One of the reasons Rondo did not get his proper respect used to be because he played with 3 future Hall of Famers.  As this corps gets older and more injury prone, this is not such a convincing argument.  He is a star in his own right and one could argue that him being the primary piece in trade talks is a testament to that fact.  Right now he may be one of the only Celtics with any trade value left but I somehow doubt that that is any consolation to him.  Lamar Odom wasn't exactly thrilled to be traded to Dallas a year after being named 6th Man of the Year.  Hopefully Danny Ainge appreciates what he has in Rajon Rondo.  This is a point guard's league and he is still one of the best in the business.


  1. Hey, Jimmy Hoops, you can flat-out write. A very nicely crafted, well-reasoned, persuasive piece.

    Stockton was a remarkable diagnostician. He also played on a team whose name is, to my mind, the greatest metaphor for basketball as it should be played. A professional basketball team is like a jazz quintet, and even all-star quintets like the first and second Miles need that leader, someone to run the session, set the tempo, stir the drink, bring the modes and scales to the studio, ensure that everyone gets the ball for a few bars. The game is has rules and structure, but from the jump, it's 12 bars of melody and blow, baby. Continuous improvision, startling leaps, extraordinary surprises - "where the hell did he find that note/move/shot?" Stockton the master, a great quintet leader. Rondo, leading the Jazz at the Philharmonic All-Stars--Bird, Diz, Prez, B.--is a worthy successor to Cous (who, like other players of his era, would have a hard time finding a place in today's NBA).

    1. Thanks, Paul. I really appreciate the feedback. What a great metaphor. Stockton was such an artist out there. His game had a rhythm to it. Like Philly Joe or Tony Williams kickin' the band at a ridiculously fast tempo. Stockton saw the game in a way few do and he was always able to create something out of nothing. I saw some NBA Classic video a while back about Cousy and was really taken by how much Rondo's game reminded me of his. Cousy was one hell of a point guard!