6 Improvements Rajon Rondo Must Make to Be the Best Point Guard in the NBA
There’s a lot to love if Rajon Rondo is running your team. The electrifying passes. The yo-yo-like ball handling. The ability to guard players as big as LeBron James and as small as Earl Boykins. An improving jump shot. That blazing speed.
If he’s not the most fun point guard—or even player—in the league to watch, then I don’t know who is.
However, despite another transcendent postseason performance, he’s not there yet.
Boston Celtics fans may disagree, but most NBA general managers—if they were administered truth serum—would say that Rondo is somewhere between the third- to fifth-best point guard in the league, depending on what they think of Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook. Virtually every GM would prefer Chris Paul and, if fully healthy, Derrick Rose.
Despite what several people seem to believe from a not-close reading of my work, I rank them Paul, Rose and then Rondo.
If Rondo is to change his perception outside of Boston, he’ll have to work on these six elements of his game. If he’s able to shore those up, there will be no debate:
Everyone will agree that Rajon Rondo is the best point guard in the NBA.
6. On-Court Composure
Who remembers this moment from the playoffs? You may have forgotten about it or maybe you don’t think it’s that big a deal. The Celtics won Game 2 against the Atlanta Hawks, even with Rondo forbidden from entering the building. Perhaps you like seeing that kind of fire from someone like Rondo who for all his competitiveness, doesn’t often wear his emotions on his sleeve.
Don’t be mistaken that Rondo’s absence didn’t cost his team a playoff win exonerate him and excuse his behavior. This time it worked out OK, but Rondo has let his zealousness get the better of him again and again and again and again. Yes, everyone gets into scrapes here and there, and God knows that several times his actions have been justified, at least on some level.
But he needs to do a better job controlling his temper or he won’t be around when his team needs him the most.
For inspiration, he can look to teammate Paul Pierce, who was able to move past this low point of his career and become a respected veteran—not to mention an NBA champion—something that didn’t seem likely at the time.
Everyone agrees that when you’re averaging almost 12 assists per game, you can get away with throwing it out of bounds every now and again. But for Rondo to become the elite of the elites, he’s has to take better care of the ball.
Not only was Rondo tied for fifth-most turnovers in the league with 3.6 per game, but he’s developed his own troubling statistic: His turnovers have increased every year of his career.
Some of that is a product of increased minutes. But not recently. For instance, during the 2009-10 season Rondo played 36.36 minutes per game (according to Yahoo! Sports), 3.5 minutes more than the season before, and his turnovers rose from 2.6 to 3 per game. Not such a big deal.
The next year his minutes increased by less than 40 seconds but he turned the ball over 3.4 times per game.This past season his minutes decreased ever so slightly, and yet his turnovers still went up to 3.6.
Compare that with Chris Paul, whose minutes have been remarkably consistent over his career. Paul has never averaged more than three turnovers a game, and the season he hit that number was also his career high in minutes (38:30). Since then, his turnovers have decreased every season—to 2.5, then to 2.2 and last season he averaged a career-low 2.1 turnovers per game.
Paul is the player most NBA analysts and experts agree is the best pure point guard in the game. If Rondo wants his name solidly in that conversation, he has to keep dishing out assists while doing a better job of holding onto the rock.
4. Playing for Steals
Rondo is an incredible defender, likely the best at his position. His quickness allows him to stay with the fastest guards in the league and his long arms allow him to take much bigger players for stretches (via Deadspin).
His one weakness is his tendency to intentionally let his man get by him and use those arms to knock the ball out and start the fast break. When this works, and it often does, it usually turns into points for the Celtics.
But it doesn’t always work. At those times, the player Rondo is defending usually finds himself with a wide-open lane to the basket. A defensive ace like Rondo allows this far too often.
It’s not that he shouldn’t go for the steal. Every year Rondo is among the league leaders in steals and the Celtics don’t want that to stop. But he needs to pick his spots and calculate when he can afford to take chances.
Is KG close enough to rotate if Rondo’s man gets free? Is he on the court with Avery Bradley, who will clamp down on the other guard and minimize the damage from a missed steal? Is his man too quick to the basket or too skilled a ball handler for Rondo to take the risk?
These are questions Rondo needs to consider before playing his version of hero ball.
3. Free-Throw Shooting
This is an obvious flaw in Rondo’s game so we’re not going to belabor the point. Suffice it to show Rondo’s free-throw percentages for every year since he entered the league: 64.7, 61.1, 64.2, 62.1, 56.8 and 59.7 percent.
Need I say more? No, but that’s not how I’m built, so here’s just a little note:
If Rondo was a better free-throw shooter, not only would that open up his drives to the basket, but guys like Dwyane Wade might be a little more hesitant to take a cheap shot like the one he pulled off in the closing minutes of OT in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
With Ray Allen’s exit and all the retooling Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge has done over the summer, it’s obvious he’s given the car keys to Rondo. With that comes a not-insignificant amount of responsibility.
No, he doesn’t have a big “C” on his uniform like Pierce, but that doesn’t mean he’s not, or shouldn’t be, the leader of this team.
There’s no doubt he’s smart enough; his basketball IQ is second to none. Despite that, sometimes Rondo shows a surprising immature side with regard to his interactions with his teammates.
Ainge revealed to WEEI in 2009 that the team fined Rondo sitting in the parking lot and arriving late to a playoff game against the Magic. Yes, that was then and this is now, but there was Rondo shattering a video screen by throwing a bottle at it during a film session in which he felt head coach Doc Rivers was unfairly criticizing him in 2011, according to a Boston Herald report. There was Rondo getting into it with a cameraman after a postseason loss to the Hawks.
And everyone knows about the reports of friction (via Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports) between Rondo and Allen.
Is this nitpicking? Absolutely, but then we’re talking about a top-five point guard becoming the best. To do that he needs to be there for his teammates, take criticism from his coach, calmly stand up and answer unpleasant questions from a petulant member of the media and be sensitive to the egos of aging stars, even if he happens to be right about their declining skills.
In short, he needs to lead.
1. Jump Shot
As we said in the intro, Rondo’s outside shot has improved, but it’s still not anywhere near where it needs to be.
Rondo’s career shooting percentage is 48.1, a pretty good number. But the last three years it’s dropped from a career high of 50.8 percent, to 47.5 percent two seasons ago and 44.8 percent this past season, the lowest since he was a rookie.
The reason is because Rivers has implored Rondo to take the outside jumpers when his defender dares him to, which is quite often. In the past Rondo had elected to pass the ball instead, too unsure of his shot, and it’s to his credit that he’s shown much more confidence in letting it fly.
This past season he shot from 10 feet or more away from the basket 230 times in just 53 games. The year before he attempted 298 but in 68 games, and three seasons ago he took 327 shots in 81 games (stats from Hoopdata.com). He's been listening to his coach.
Think of Rivers’ strategy as a long-term plan: He needs Rondo’s shot to improve and the only way that will happen is if the Kentucky product is comfortable taking them in game situations.
Unfortunately for him, it hasn’t quite worked out as he had hoped. While Rondo has shown an increased willingness to shoot from the perimeter, it hasn’t been dropping at an increased rate. Rondo’s shooting percentages of shots taken from 10 feet or more from the basket from his second year in the league until this past season: 42, 38, 33, 37 and 35.
This needs to change. Rondo doesn’t have to morph into Mark Price, but he needs to develop a consistent jumper to keep defenses honest and give his teammates space. If Rondo could do what Jason Kidd—who came into the league with a reputation as an all-pass, no-shot point guard, too—did and learn to shoot serviceably if not impeccably, he’d have even more room to do what he’s best at, namely taking it to the basket and dishing gorgeous dimes.
More than even the other suggested improvements, if his outside shot could make a significant jump, once and for all, the argument of the best point guards in the league would be put to rest.
Rajon Rondo would buzz past the other pretenders so fast their heads would spin.