Rondo and Nash have been the top two assist leaders in the league for the past two seasons. But their games couldn't be more different.
On one side of the country sits Steve Nash, who, along with Jason Kidd, is one of the two best point guards of his generation. Nash, a medical marvel and still playing at a high level at age 38, arrived in Los Angeles this offseason via sign and trade in an attempt to win that elusive first title with the Lakers.
On the other side of the country sits Rajon Rondo, a 26-year-old rising point guard who is undoubtedly frothing at the mouth as experts everywhere are picking Nash’s team to make the NBA Finals while brushing off his Boston Celtics as past their prime.
Unlike Nash, Rondo won a title early, in just his second year in the NBA, when he was one of the few players remaining after team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge brought Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to Boston.
It seems symbolic that Rondo finally overtook Nash and his two-year hold on the assist title this past season (11.7 assists per game for Rondo, 10.7 for Nash). The two were almost teammates. Phoenix, the team that drafted Nash and the one he’ll most likely be most associated with when his playing days are finally over, drafted Rondo in a deal with the Celtics in 2006.
And now, with one’s career on the cusp and the other well beyond the back nine, they play for two of the league’s signature franchises, teams that don’t like each other very much at all, by the way.
But even though their trajectories appear to be like two ships passing in the night, with Rondo’s on the brink of transcendent greatness after a stellar postseason, and Nash’s on the decline despite his continued brilliance in his 16th NBA season, their respective games have almost nothing in common.
Let us count the ways.
Nash is not a particularly imposing physical specimen.
Nash has never really blown anyone away with his natural talent. Coming out of high school, Nash wasn’t recruited by any major colleges. His wiry 6’3” frame and complete lack of athleticism intimidated no one. Just listen to Nash say it himself in a 2007 interview with NBA.com: “I’m not very explosive. I’m not going to beat too many people in a race, jump over or out-muscle anyone.”
What Nash did, however, was outwork almost everyone else. His diet, conditioning and workouts are legendary. His teammates over the years have told countless stories about the innovative methods that he utilizes to keep himself at the top of his game.
Though smaller than Nash at 6’1”, Rondo’s body is thicker and, in the tradition of Celtic great Kevin McHale, it sometimes seems like his arms could touch the basket from the scorer’s table. Touch it with his massive hands.
But it’s his speed that sets him apart from most of his peers. Tubby Smith, his college coach at Kentucky, once said of Rondo (via Boston.com), “sometimes Rajon thinks he can be in two places at one time because he’s that quick.”
Not to discount Rondo’s work ethic, because he’s surely put himself through the ringer to get where he is today, but he was born with all the physical tools.
Rondo's long arms and speed make him one of, if not the best, defensive point guards in the league.
This isn’t about who does what better, but Rondo has the clear edge here as defense is one of his strengths. His long arms enable him to guard bigger players (see his hearty work against LeBron James), knock the ball away from someone trying to drive and disrupt the passing lane.
His gnat-like tenacity annoys his defensive assignment whenever he decides to really turn it on (watch that video again). The only hole in his game defensively is his tendency to go for the steal. He’s perennially among the league leaders in that category, but too frequently he allows his man to dribble past him in an effort to poke the ball away from behind.
When it works, it often results in a Celtics’ fast break; when it doesn’t, there’s a wide-open lane to the basket.
Dick Davey, Nash’s college coach at Santa Clara and the only one to offer him a scholarship, once told Nash (via SF Gate) that he was the “worst defensive player” he’d ever seen. Like everything he’s ever done, Nash worked hard to improve his defense over the years. But without great lateral movement, there’s only so much he can do to stop a decent player from driving by him.
The last few seasons players like Grant Hill have been forced to cover the opposing point guards to make up for Nash’s limitations. He’s minimized some of the damage by not taking many risks (he’s averaged a minute .7 steals per game over his career), but that’s about the best thing that can be said about him on that end of the floor.
Though he’s willed himself to do just about everything on a basketball court, it’s no secret about the one one major deficiency in his game.
There's only a short list of players in the history of the NBA who could shoot like Nash.
Again, this isn’t a contest, but in this category Nash has Rondo beat by miles.
That’s an understatement, really. After all, few players in the history of the NBA match up with Nash in this area. Consider for a moment just how difficult it is for a guard to shoot 42.8 percent on three-pointers and 49.1 percent overall over a 16-year career.
Three times he’s hit the shooters' trifecta of 50-40-90, that is, shooting 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from beyond the arc and 90 percent from the free throw line. In the 2007-08 season, he connected on 47 percent of his three-pointers and last season he tied his career-high by shooting 53.2 percent from the field. It’s staggering, a virtual Ralph Wiggum-esque unpossible.
As for Rondo, though he’s certainly improved his outside shooting since he came into the league, it’s unfair to compare these two. Rondo’s three-point percentage is almost a mirror image of Nash’s at 24.1 percent.
Players have gambled off of him his entire career to help on defense, with Rondo rarely making them pay for their disrespect. His free throw shooting is abhorrent as well, with a career average of 61.9 percent and a low of 56.8 two seasons ago.
His mid-range game has gotten significantly better, as has his willingness to take the open jumper instead of passing off to his teammates. But Rondo’s game is special despite his shooting, not because of it.
Rondo is always looking for the pass with the most pizzazz.
Finally, something comparable between these two.
There’s no denying it, both are superb passers and have the ability to thread the needle and get the ball to teammates for an easy basket whenever they want. Even their most similar skills look different, though.
Nash’s assists tend to come as a result of his being overplayed because of his shooting ability, whereas Rondo gets his using his speed and driving ability to cut into the teeth of the defense, causing it to collapse and create openings.
There’s something else, something that separates the two here as well. Whereas Nash always seems to make the right pass, the one that comes from his awareness of every player on the court, the pass that would make most old-school high school coaches proud, Rondo’s are fueled by flash.
Be it jukes and headfakes, his outrageous cupping motion or a no-look, over-his-head alley-oop from beyond the arc, Rondo seeks out the “did you just see that?” dime. Which isn’t to say that Nash hasn’t had his share of playground moments, too. God knows he’s had tons. It’s just that Rondo wants to make the highlight reel each and every game.
Nash seems to get along with everybody.
Even though everyone agrees that both players make their teammates better, getting them scoring opportunities where none seem to exist, only Nash has universally good standing among coaches and peers (reportedly aside from Jason Richardson).
In addition to the sometimes goofy Nash making fun of himself in ridiculous YouTube videos, his everyman attitude along with his creativity on the court make people want to play with him. Amar’e Stoudemire revealed (via Dime Magazine) that he lobbied the Suns’ owners to sign Nash away from Dallas before the 2004-05 season.
Six years of playing with Nash didn’t sour him on the guy, either. During the offseason the Knicks’ center made his own recruiting push in a failed effort to get Nash to sign in New York. Before joining the Clippers, Grant Hill, was reportedly considering following his buddy with the Lakers.
It’s a little different for Rondo. Though his teammates appreciate and even revere his unique talents, Rondo’s prickly personality and extreme confidence have rubbed many of them the wrong way. Stars like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce needed to time to get used to taking orders from such a young player and Ray Allen left for Miami at least partially because of his frustration with the point guard.
It’s not isolated to his teammates. Tubby Smith repeatedly struggled to control Rondo at Kentucky, even benching him for six games during his sophomore season, and Celtics Coach Doc Rivers has butted heads with Rondo on more than a couple occasions.
It’s not always a fair criticism. Rondo’s self-confidence is part of what makes him so good, and others don’t necessarily like it when they’re told repeatedly what they’re doing wrong, even if he’s right (as was the case with Allen). Lucky for the Celtics, Rondo’s game speaks for itself.
Even the best need a little luck to win it all. Over his 16-year career, Nash hasn't had all that much.
Everyone knows that life is unfair, but Nash probably knows it more than most. Or at least most NBAers.
Yes, he’s an internationally recognized superstar who’s beloved by millions and made almost $120 million over his career, with an additional $28 million due over the next three years. But the guess here is that he’d give it all back for one ring.
Unfortunately for Nash, every time he’s gotten close, something’s happened to snatch it away.
In 2010. the Suns lost in the Western Conference Finals against the eventual-champion Lakers when a fluke play seconds before the end of regulation of Game 5 landed a rebound in Ron Artest’s hands for a game-winning putback.
In 2007, a flagrant-foul body shot by the Spurs’ Robert Horry on Nash somehow resulted in the suspension of teammates Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, altering the course of the series and costing Nash what was probably his best shot at a title.
In 2006,Nash lost to his old club the Mavericks in the conference finals and had to watch the Mavs win it all in 2011 without him. His long career is littered with such stories.
While Rondo hasn’t always had it easy (betcha he didn’t think he lucked out when the refs somehow missed Dwyane Wade clocking him at the end of Miami’s Game 2 victory in the playoffs), when someone like Nash plays 16 years and wins two MVP awards but can’t win a title and you win one in Year 2, some things are going on beyond your control.
Did Rondo deserve to win? Absolutely. After all, he had 21 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals in the clinching game in 2008 and he’s only gotten better in the ensuing years. But to be teamed up with KG, Allen and Paul Pierce almost from the get-go, he had to have been born under a good sign. Or maybe there was just a leprechaun nearby.
Not that Nash’s quest is over yet. With Dwight Howard aboard, his team is suddenly the favorite for that title this season.
He could very well get lucky still.