The Development of Rajon Rondo
I’m going to take a look at the career of Rajon Rondo thus far, as he is a player who is getting more recognition from the national audience this year and who is going to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Rondo is truly a unique player in the league right now; there is no one else who does everything that he does the way that he does it.
Rondo was badly underrated for the early parts of his career. A big part of this was his lack of size; at 6’1” 186 pounds, he was and is far from an imposing figure. However, he is extremely athletic and powerful. His build and general appearance remind me an awful lot of a man I used to train with who ended up being an Olympic sprinter.
After two years with the Kentucky Wildcats toward the end of the Tubby Smith era (decent team, nothing past the Elite Eight), Rondo was not a well known player coming into the 2006 draft. This less than stellar draft class featured Andrea Bargnani as the first overall pick, who was not really a bust but has not been an all-star caliber player yet. The Celtics (i.e. Danny Ainge) made a great move snatching Rondo at the 21 spot, after such players as Adam Morrison, Patrick O’Bryant, Cedric Simmons, and Quincy Douby were off the board.
Coming mostly off the bench, Rondo put up 6.4 points, 3.8 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game, amazing numbers for a rookie playing only 23 minutes a game. At this point, we all should have seen the triple double machine in development. In a vote that made no sense at all, Rondo only took the very last spot on the all-rookie second team to be one of the 13 players who made it that year. He lost out substantially to Adam Morrison, who was an epic draft bust. The Celtics 24-58 last place in the East season certainly didn’t help.
Eventually, Rondo became the most successful player of the 2006 draft class. Brandon Roy would have given him a run for his money if his body had held up.
The Big Four
The “Big Three” era began in 2007 for the Boston Celtics, but I called it the big four from the start, and that’s what it should be called. Rondo was one of the most improved players in the NBA in his second year (though only 6th in the MIP voting), earning a full time starting spot (started all 77 games he played in) and putting up 10.6 points, 5.1 assists, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game.
In that year, while garnering no media attention, he was already playing the same minutes per game as Kevin Garnett and achieving a similar statistical rating at 82games.com as Ray Allen (3rd and 4th on the team respectively). The biggest improvement for Rondo was his shooting, which is only starting to get recognition now, four years later; the media takes a long time to change its mind. His second year shooting improved from 41.8% to a very impressive (for a guard) 49.2%.
The amazing turnaround year by the Celtics, winning 42 more regular season games and going from last place to NBA champions, was the work of four new aspects of the team — Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, a healthy Paul Pierce, and the extra minutes from Rajon Rondo.
Recognition began to come to Rondo in the following years but at a very delayed rate. Before I get into that, let’s look at some of his accomplishments in his first few years.
Assists Leader (per game): 6th in 2009, 4th in 2010, 2nd in 2011, 1st in 2012
Steals Leader (per game): 5th in 2009, 1st in 2010, 2nd in 2011, 5th in 2012
Shooting Percentage (among PGs): 2nd in 2009, 1st in 2010, 5th in 2011, 12th in 2012
How Rondo managed to miss the All-NBA third team in 2010 while being first in steals and shooting percentage (people already knew about his assists by then) is astonishing in some respects. He lost out to Joe Johnson and an injury riddled Brandon Roy. In that year (2009-2010), Rondo already played the most minutes of any Celtics player and ranked statistically ahead of Paul Pierce on 82games.com. In his fourth year, he was arguably (and it would be a good argument) the best player on the Celtics, who would go on to reach game 7 of the finals, where they held a lead into the fourth quarter but came up short.
2010: Was Rondo Ready?
In 2010, was the 24 year old Rondo ready to help lead an aging team through the playoffs? The short answer: yes. He came up bigger in the playoffs than he had in the regular season (during which he was already the third best point guard behind Steve Nash and Deron Williams). Here are his per game numbers from the 2010 playoffs, during which he started all 24 games.
Rather than focus on the near double-double (ballpark triple-double) numbers, which are obvious, I find the most interesting statistic the minutes per game. It’s rare for a player to average over 40 minutes per game over a long stretch; Lebron averaged 41.8 minutes over those same playoffs while being the one man show in Cleveland. Those minutes signify what Rondo already was in his fourth year; a leader. He ran the offense, was crucial on defense, and was one of their best players on the boards; they knew they needed him out there the whole game.
2012: Finally Recognition?
Rondo, now in his sixth year, may finally be getting the respect he deserves to a degree. He made his third all-star team as a reserve (though only as an injury replacement) and was the only Celtic to make the All-NBA team, barely garnering the votes for third team. He is currently viewed as the fourth best point guard in the league, behind Chris Paul, Tony Parker, and Russell Westbrook (also Derrick Rose if he were healthy). In my mind, Rondo should be in the discussion for best point guard in the league, with the comparison between him and Chris Paul being difficult due to their completely different styles of play. Chris Paul may be the more valuable player, but if he is it’s by a hair.
The potential for Rondo to become better (especially on offense) is still very much there; in fact, I expect him to continue to improve. For the present, he’s already accruing a playoff resume that is hard to ignore. Here are a few samples:
20th all-time in playoff assists (ahead of Oscar). I expect him to be 17th before these playoffs are over.
31st all-time in playoff steals (ahead of Dan Majerle). I expect him to be 25th before these playoffs are over.
4th all-time in playoff triple doubles (ahead of Oscar and Wilt). He has a real chance to be 2nd all-time before these playoffs are over.
The Future: Rings? MVP?
Some people will still scoff at the idea, but Rondo is likely to develop into a real MVP candidate in future years. This year he finished eighth in the voting (reasonable overall) but received only fourth and fifth place votes from individual voters (nothing top three). Usually when a healthy 26 year old is an MVP candidate, he doesn’t disappear. Going forward, Rondo is going to become the unquestioned leader of the Celtics (Pierce is already 34 years old), even though at this moment his three amigos are still more well known names.
What does Rondo need to happen around him to make more rings or an MVP a reality? The answer for both is essentially the same. He needs Danny Ainge to make some moves and put championship talent around him again (like he did in 2007). The Celtics have almost always been contenders, and Boston will not be happy if they aren’t. Rondo is a great passer and can orchestrate a great offense if he has talent around him. Moreover, being on a first place (or close to it) team is almost a pre-requisite for getting the MVP, especially as a point guard. Often the MVP goes to the maestro of the best team (and/or the best offense) around. Some relatively recent examples include:
1987: Magic Johnson
1989: Magic Johnson
1990: Magic Johnson
2001: Allen Iverson
2005: Steve Nash
2006: Steve Nash
2011: Derrick Rose
It’s interesting and worth noting that only one of these seven MVPs (1987 Magic) came along with a championship ring. However, all seven teams were viewed as top title contenders (even the 2001 76ers at 56-26) at the end of their respective regular seasons.
Nothing is guaranteed in the NBA (just ask Derrick Rose’s ACL or any part of Brandon Roy’s body). However, I wouldn’t be shocked or even surprised to someday find Rajon Rondo retiring with an MVP in his pocket and three to four rings on his fingers.
I don’t yet categorize my Rajon Rondo posts under the “all-time greats” section. But I may someday have to.
Something to Remember
Adam Morrison was picked 18 spots ahead of Rajon Rondo. Think about that for a second.