Pinning labels like overrated and underrated on an NBA player is an entirely subjective process based on both personal and mass expectations: "How well did I think Player X would perform this season" combined with "How well did everyone else (friends, bloggers, voices on television) think Player X would perform this season."
Most of these expectations are latched onto a player's back every summer, evolving on their own as November turns to February turns to June. The assumption by many about Rajon Rondo heading into the 2012-13 season was that he'd become an MVP candidate and go-to scorer for one of the best teams in basketball.
It's still early in the year, but so far those assumptions have fallen flat.
Rondo is a three-time All-Star (soon to be four) who's flashed an ability to take over entire games on both sides of the court while quietly rolling along as the best passer in the league.
But nearly a third of the way into the season, the Celtics are struggling while Rondo's game appears stuck in neutral. Blanketing him with a word like “overrated” wouldn’t decode a connection between Boston’s strain and Rondo’s effort, but the word might have its merit somewhere.
Superstars are elevated above every other player in the league for two reasons: 1) They make those around them better, 2) They adapt their individual games for the betterment of the team.
At this point in his career, Rondo is incapable of consistently giving his team what it needs, when it needs it.
We’ve seen the direct offensive carnage Rondo is capable of unleashing on a court, and while it’s entirely possible he’s waiting around for the postseason before he chooses to look harder for his own shot, the Celtics need him to score now. He's averaging just 0.3 more field-goal attempts per game now than last season.
Stagnant Team Offense
As the point guard, Rondo’s main offensive responsibility is to organize everything so that somehow, someway, points are put on the board each time his team has the ball. What separates the good from the great, and the great from Chris Paul, is that the the offenses they run not only score often, but do so efficiently.
Boston's offense has been below average these last few seasons, and right now they're ranked 16th in the league in points per possession. There are far too many reasons that allow any one thing/player to be deemed liable for his team's offensive woes, but as the full-time driver of Boston’s offense over the last five years, Rondo should now be capable of conducting a smoother ride.
Here's a possession from a game against the Spurs earlier this season. With the ball primarily in Rondo's hands, no set is called and no action commences.
With all that talent on the court, it's a frustrating possession to watch, ending with Rondo not making his move towards the basket until he has to. In every game there are many, many plays that end this way, and at this point there's really no excuse for it.
As one of the fastest players in the league, Rondo can beat his man off the dribble anytime he wants. So why doesn't he? It's a question that so far has yet to find a logical answer. And right now it stands as his greatest shortcoming.
The jumper isn’t a weakness anymore, and it’s incorrect to call it anything but a good shot for the Celtics when he’s wide open. But the range isn't quite deep enough to stretch the floor (you can forget about three-pointers). These are things we already know, and thus don’t apply to our assumptions about Rondo’s game. Nobody expects him to step on the court and shoot 40 percent from behind the arc; at this point in his career it simply isn’t a realistic goal.
But what can be corrected is the aggressiveness, most notably in ways that habitually grant trips to the free-throw line. While just about half of Rondo’s points arrive in the paint, only 12.9 percent of them come from the free-throw line. He's currently averaging fewer free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt than Jason Kidd, Luke Ridnour, Brandon Knight and about two dozen other point guards.
Here's Rondo initiating his own offense against the Bulls earlier this season. He reads the defense, uses his speed to blow into the lane and draws a foul. This is the type of sequence the Celtics need from Rondo more often. Instead of waiting for the offense to break down, they need their best player to attack before the defense sets itself up.
And again, against the Sixers. Rondo quickly surveys the floor in transition, notices Jason Richardson is covering him and slices into the lane for a reverse layup.
Assessing His Defense
Rondo's defense has been dissected nearly as often as his confusing offensive tendencies.
With regards to how he does on the ball, this area of Rondo’s game fell into the dreaded “overrated for so long it’s now underrated” chasm a few months ago.
Defending the point guard position is currently thankless, but in reality quite important. A point guard guarding the ball can disrupt tempo and timing for an opposing team's entire offense, throwing off their scheme and the sets they prefer to run (think of it as decapitating a monster).
The days of shutting a guard like Kyrie Irving, Tony Parker or Russell Westbrook down in terms of their scoring numbers are long over, but making them work to get other guys going is still an attainable goal.
In pick-and-roll defense, Rondo does a great job slithering above screens to funnel his man into a trap. His combination of quick feet and long, active arms makes it difficult for ball-handlers to throw back to a popping big man, seriously limiting their options.
Away from the ball he’s an extremely smart player when it comes to shooting gaps and closing possible passing lanes. And when he’s engaged, Rondo can still string possessions together that make him look like one of the best on-ball harassers in the league. But what continues to frustrate is his reluctance to use that ability and tenaciousness on every play.
This can probably be attributed to the incredible energy Rondo exerts on offense, but too often he relies on wild swipes and lunges at the ball after his man gets a step on him off the dribble. Sometimes these are calculated gambles that pay off, but mostly they look unnecessarily lazy. He rarely picks up a foul in these situations, but it’d be nice to see him slide his feet all the way to the basket more than twice a game.
Because of Jason Terry’s poor defensive play, Rondo has spent more time on traditional shooting guards (O.J. Mayo, Dwyane Wade, James Harden) than the Celtics would like whenever they're matched up with a less threatening point guard. This should change with the return of Avery Bradley, allowing Rondo to once again make the type of plays he's known for.
Rondo's signature defensive play is to “let” his man beat him off the dribble, then swing one of his gangly arms at the ball to poke it free. These are horrible fundamentals, but Rondo more than makes it work.
Is Rondo "overrated"?
Rondo came into the season as an MVP candidate, and he's yet to play like one.
But to label him as an overrated player would be dramatization.
A lot of what Rondo does on the court is taken for granted (the vastly improved mid-range jumper, the regular open court brilliance, the overall uniqueness and joy he brings to those who watch him play), and even though the Celtics are struggling to find themselves on both ends of the court, they're still much better with him than without (as in scoring roughly four more points per 100 possessions).
Nobody else on the team can set himself up for an open shot at any time, in any situation. This often puts pressure on Rondo's shoulders (as you can see in the clip below), but to blame him more than any other player, even with those raised expectations, wouldn't be right.
Despite a troubled relationship with free throws and a perplexing on/off switch when it comes to being aggressive offensively (and checking out on the defensive end once or twice a game), Rondo remains one of the most talented franchise building blocks in the NBA. Any team in the league would still love to have him. And they know what they're getting.
All statistics used in this article are from NBA.com/stats, Hoopdata.com and Synergy Sports.