Two of the top point guards in the league, but who will ultimately be better?
In many ways, we know exactly who these guys are. Rondo infuses the aging Boston Celtics with world-class athleticism. He is a rangy terror on defense, and he is second to no man as a distributor.
Meanwhile, Rose is the quintessential combo guard, an elite scorer who can still dish the ball at a high level.
That said, comparing legacies is a tricky prospect for these two guys.
First of all, due to their disparate styles of play, judging Rose versus Rondo and vice versa is not exactly apples to apples. There is also the matter of major unknowns that will impact each player's career to come: Rondo's role in a transitioning Celtics franchise, and the short- and long-term health of Rose's knee.
With a question like this, there are more variables than you might think. Let's take a look at each guy's NBA tenure thus far and try to determine who history will remember is the better player.
Face of a Revolution
In his four professional seasons, Derrick Rose has played the point guard position unlike anyone who came before him.
He has displayed a superb combination of speed and ball-handling that just make the game look easy for him. Combined with great hops for a point guard and unmatched finishing ability, Rose is capable of pulling off spectacles such as the absurd dunk shown above.
It would be one thing if Rose were just a diminutive scoring dynamo in the Allan Iverson mold. However, he has averaged just 21.0 points per game in his career; a great mark for any point guard, but nothing special historically if you're talking about a pure scorer.
That said, his passing has little precedent among players who score like he does.
The closest comparison, actually, is a shooting guard: Iverson, who passed more than his ball hog reputation implied. Adjusted to a 36-minute scale to compensate for AI's 41.1 minutes per game, he dished out 5.4 assists per 36 to go along with his 23.3 points.
Rose, on the other hand, has posted 20.5 points and 6.7 assists per 36. Not only has he distributed more, but he has also shot .464 from the field compared to Iverson's .425 mark.
So far, Derrick Rose has put up numbers like Allan Iverson, only with more selflessness and efficiency. That's the kind of play that won him the 2010-11 MVP award, and that might get him some more down the line.
And here's a fun fact. The following is a list of every NBA MVP winner who is not in the Basketball Hall of Fame:
That's every MVP winner since 1999-00. Everyone before that is already enshrined, and everyone listed above is more than likely to join them someday. For Rose, the sample size is still too small to call him a lock, but that's the kind of company he's in.
Returning to Form
There is, unfortunately, the elephant in the room when it comes to discussing Derrick Rose's career, and that's his torn left ACL and MCL.
Ricky Rubio's return from an ACL injury has inspired hope for Rose fans, as has Adrian Peterson's expedited and emphatic NFL comeback from a similarly catastrophic tear.
Nevertheless, all knees heal differently, and neither of those guys were so feared due to their supernatural jumping ability and what they could do in the air. Rose's athleticism necessarily put a lot of stress on his knees, and it's uncertain whether his left knee will be able to shoulder its full load again.
It's also very difficult to determine Rose's chances of returning to full strength; the NBA doesn't have a large sample of ACL injuries like the NFL does.
Peterson's 10-month comeback and incredible season are extraordinary for the brevity and thoroughness of his recovery. On the other hand, we can only say that because we've seen most NFL players take a full year to come back, and even longer to bounce back.
There are glimmers of hope for Rose, though.
Two of the closest comparisons within the small sample size are Kyle Lowry and Baron Davis. Both guys suffered ACL tears as college players, but both regained their agility and went on to successful pro careers.
Again, we won't know if Rose is so lucky until he returns to the court, and it will take years to gauge the total impact of the injury. Even if he can't make it back to his MVP form, though, he's still a savvy enough player to be very productive with 80% of his athleticism.
Until proven otherwise, freely assume Rose will return to an All-Star level, and that he still has a shot to win an NBA title someday.
As the point guard position continues to evolve, Rajon Rondo remains a throwback to its pass-first roots.
Back when Rondo got his ring in 2008, he was an afterthought to the Big Three, relied upon for athletic defense and competent point play. He has broken out as an unbelievable old-school distributor, using his great instincts and crazy wingspan to complete passes no one else could even attempt.
You'd be hard-pressed to find another player with the court vision, ball control skills and sheer audacity to pull off a play like that. That combination of basketball IQ and elite athleticism is the reason he is averaging at least 11.0 assists per game for the third season running; as of December 18, he leads the league with 12.7 assists, and he paced the league with 11.7 last season.
Rondo is the only player averaging double-digit dimes this season, likely because Steve Nash is hurt. He's the only player who has kept up with Rondo's passing in recent years.
While Rondo cannot touch Nash's jump-shooting efficiency (to be fair, no one can), he's as masterful a creator and a dribble-driver as anyone around.
Believe it or not, Rondo is a career .482 shooter despite his faulty jumper.
He's not much of a threat outside of 15 feet even when he's spotting up. It's no matter, though, because he's so effective at getting into the paint that he can get looks for layups and floaters nearly at will.
Then there's the matter of Rondo's defense, which can even make LeBron James look downright silly.
With intuition like that, it's no surprise Rondo has topped 2.0 steals per game three times, including this season, nor is it a surprise that he led the league in steals in 2009-10. His four All-NBA Defensive Team accolades (twice First Team, twice Second) are just further testament to his prowess at that end.
Between his thievery and his charity, Rajon Rondo excels at the both ends, the way you were taught a point guard is supposed to. The flashy athleticism with which he does it cannot be taught, though. It is the difference between him being very good and being great.
Eras Must End
When Ray Allen left for the Miami Heat, it was officially time for Boston to look towards the future.
Looking at this Celtics roster, it's tough to see who will be contributing for the Celtics in a couple years. Paul Pierce will retire by that point, and so will Kevin Garnett. On top of that, Rondo's deal expires in the summer of 2015. No one else under contract matters much at that point in time.
That might not only be the end of the Paul Pierce era in Boston, but of the Rajon Rondo era as well. He has had public friction with Celtics management, and he'd be running with Jeff Green and Courtney Lee if he returned.
Unless Boston surrounds Rondo with some complementary pieces, he could very well bolt.
Whether he's convinced to stay or not, Rondo is surely going to end up on a contender. He's too dynamic a talent to languish on a fringe playoff team, and any team with Rondo and one or two other big-time players has a shot at a championship.
It would take some front office incompetence to screw up a team with a cornerstone like him.
That is, of course, if Rondo's maturity issues are a more significant issue amongst his peers than anyone is letting on. The Celtics did not end up trading Rondo, of course, and there has not been much talk of off-court distractions since.
Ultimately, though, Rondo's future comes down to what kind of team he's on. He'll be able to get his assists and steals anywhere, and maybe his point totals will increase if he's forced to take on a bigger scoring load.
But he was a supporting player when he got his first championship, and that's significant when evaluating his career. He will need to be in the right situation if he wants to a ring he can really take credit for winning.
Considering how the landscape of the NBA changes every few years, it's nearly impossible to say now how Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose will be regarded in 10 years. One could win multiple titles, another could develop nagging injuries that bring down his level of production. Who's to say what will happen to one or the other?
Who will have the better career?
Rose's recent injury gives him the lowest floor but also the highest ceiling. There's a chance he can return to MVP-caliber form, and if not, he should still find a way to be very productive.
Rondo doesn't have such risk associated with him, but he's never been the type of player who can make a run at an MVP award; his scoring deficiencies simply don't allow it.
You could make the argument that he's better-suited for running the point for a champion than Rose is, but predicting titles years in advance is a fools errand.
So in this matchup of two the league's marquee point guards, both of whom very well might be heading to Springfield someday, Rose gets the benefit of the doubt and the nod.
Rondo is a phenomenal player, and the safer pick at the moment, but modern medicine gives reason to hope for Rose. When he comes back, he'll remind everyone why he represents the future of the point guard position.