Rajon Rondo is one of the most polarizing players in the NBA, especially when it comes to discussions of his value. Coaches, players and writers in league circles often list him amongst the best players in the league.
Others, however, dispute that notion, pointing out that stats such as John Hollinger's Player Efficiency Rating (PER) don't reflect highly on him, and that despite Rondo's true point guard virtues, the Celtics offense he runs hasn't been very efficient since he's been handed the keys.
The term elite is an amorphous one—it can mean wildly different things to different people. So while it's safe to say that Rondo is a well above-average player and point guard, the question of whether he's truly one of the best in the league is up for debate. To solidify his standing among the game's best, there are a few things he needs to do.
First and foremost, he must not return from his ACL injury until he is 100 percent healthy—both physically and mentally.
One need look no further than Gilbert Arenas for an example of what happens to players who come back to the court too soon after a serious knee injury. Along with the risk of re-injury to the same knee, there is also the risk of your body overcompensating for the original injury in ways that can do even more permanent damage.
Of course, injuries are not only physical. There is a mental hurdle to clear as well. You need to be able to trust that your body will respond the way you want or need it to. If that trust isn't there, nothing else matters. Coming back before being mentally ready can be just as damaging as coming back before being physically ready.
By contrast, the absolute worst thing that happens if you wait to come back is you catch some flak in the more impatient corners of the media, a la Derrick Rose. In the grand scheme of things, waiting and ensuring physical and mental readiness is well-worth the tradeoff.
Once he does get back on the court, the obvious improvement Rondo should make is with his outside shooting. Luckily, he appears to have history on his side.
According to Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal, the 20 NBA players since 2003 aged 26 or younger at the time of their ACL tear have seen a collective 4 percent increase in their mid-range shooting percentage—defined as shots taken between 16 and 23 feet from the basket—rising from 38 percent pre-tear to 42 percent post-tear. Rondo falls into this group, having turned 27 years old shortly after his tear.
Rondo has never been considered an elite shooter, particularly from range, but he did shoot 48 percent on shots between 16 and 23 feet from the basket before getting hurt this season, according to HoopData.
While that percentage is likely unsustainable—he shot 33, 41 and 39 percent from 16 to 23 feet in the three seasons prior to this one—maintaining a low-to-mid-40s percentage would be a welcome development.
With Rondo, though, it's not even always about the ability to make shots but the willingness to take them.
If we define outside shots as those from 16 to 23 feet plus three-pointers, Rondo ranked 25th out of the 28 point guards who appeared in at least 30 games and averaged at least 30 minutes per game in outside shot attempts with only 4.9 per game. The average player in that group attempted about 6.9 outside shots per game, with Stephen Curry leading the way at 12.1 per game.
While some unwilling outside shooters make up for their lack of outside aggression by getting to the rim for layups or fouls, Rondo is notoriously inside-averse as well. A Google search for "Rajon Rondo scared to shoot" returns nearly 3,000,000 results, including this video of him passing up a wide open transition layup.
Among the same group of 28 players, Rondo ranked 22nd in free throws per field-goal attempt (FTA/FGA), even behind such paint-averse luminaries as Brandon Jennings and Luke Ridnour.
For a player with his athleticism, the dearth of fouls Rondo draws is nearly inexcusable. It's not impossible to be a patient and willing passer and still get into the lane and draw fouls—Chris Paul ranked second among the group of 28 in FTA/FGA. Paul also averaged 6.7 outside shots per game, just about the average number in the group.
In this video, Rondo too willingly takes exactly the shot the defense wants him to take—that mid-range jumper. When Rondo comes around the screen, Ben Gordon goes underneath, practically begging Rondo to step into a jumper. And Tayshaun Prince, the man guarding the screener, hangs back, also inviting the jumper.
When Rondo gets around the screen here, though, he has an open driving lane to either side if he wants. Kyle Singler is sliding all the way across the lane to stick with Avery Bradley, and Jason Maxiell is just outside the lane checking Jared Sullinger—and neither of them is exactly the greatest rim protector, anyway.
Gordon is still directly behind the screen, and Prince is shielded off from the baseline. Rondo can attack the middle of the lane or more preferably the baseline and get to the basket. Instead, he steps into a jumper and misses.
Rondo's prodigious passing skills allow him to string pick-and-rolls like this one out to the middle of the court or the sideline while seeking passing lanes, but mixing in more aggression and drives to the rim would add another element to his game that doesn't currently exist. It would also open even more passing lanes and allow him to use his best talent in a whole new way.
A player like Mike Conley would be a good model for Rondo to follow here. Conley isn't the centerpiece of the Memphis offense—that would be Marc Gasol—but his pick-and-roll skills are vital to what the Grizzlies want to accomplish on each possession.
While he's a good shooter, Conley passes the ball out of pick-and-rolls more than almost any other point guard in the league. However, that habit doesn't stop him from probing the lane and finding better angles from which to pass the ball, or getting to the rim for layups, floaters and free throws.
Conley is very small in stature, but he makes up for it in quickness, shiftiness and guile. He knows the angles to attack, and he uses his smaller frame to hide behind the behemoth screeners he has in Gasol and Zach Randolph before jetting into the lane.
Rondo could and should do the same with Kevin Garnett, assuming both are back in Boston next year.
Another common Rondo criticism centers on the overall performance of the Boston offense. In the last five seasons, Boston has ranked sixth, then 13th, then 18th, then 24th and then 20th in offensive efficiency, per NBA.com. That trend is not exactly befitting a top-shelf point guard.
While some of that trend is due to the personnel on hand—prior to Jeff Green's emergence after Rondo's injury this season, the Celtics didn't really have any off-the-dribble creators beyond Rondo and Paul Pierce—some of the blame also has to lie at Rondo's feet.
He often doesn't get the team into its sets fast enough, as evidenced by the fact that the team hadn't taken more than 36 percent of its shot attempts in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock at any point in the last five years before hitting 37 percent this year, according to 82games.com.
When a team struggles to score in the half court as badly as the Celtics do, early offense becomes even more important in generating efficient looks. Pushing the ball in transition not only generates layups and three pointers but also opens up the opportunity to catch the defense before it gets fully set. This leads to more open shots and more efficient offense.
One last thing Rondo can improve upon is his defense. While he has a sterling defensive reputation, the truth is his performance on that end has been in decline for a few years. His steal percentage has gone down a few years in a row:
The Celtics sported a better defensive efficiency with him off the court than on in each of the last three seasons, and he just allowed opposing point guards to post a PER above 15 (league average) for the first time since the 2009-10 season, per 82games.
The last two years, Bradley has taken on the tougher defensive assignment when the two have shared the court and has been the one counted on to apply ball pressure up and down the court. While that is partially due to the need to spare Rondo the tougher assignment to save his energy to run the offense, it's also contributed to his slippage on that side of the court.
That's not to say he's now become a below-average defender, but he's not quite the ball hawk or passing-lane hound he used to be.
This is a nice bit of misdirection from the Spurs, but you didn't often used to see Rondo get as lost as he does here. He loses track of Parker because he simply doesn't expect him to jet off a screen of his own so quickly after setting one for Manu Ginobili cutting down the lane.
This is a relatively routine coverage, and Rondo botches it badly. These types of mistakes still aren't overly common, but he rarely used to make them at all, and they've crept up in number over the last few years.
None of the tactical or physical adjustments Rondo makes will mean anything if he isn't healthy, though. That's the elephant in the room. An ACL tear is a monumentally tough injury to recover from, whether or not you need explosive athleticism to play your game—just ask Ricky Rubio.
If Rondo stays diligent with his rehab and walks back onto the floor with a healthy knee, he's ahead of the game. If he makes some tweaks to the way he's played the last few years, he can be even better.