The question is as frustrating as the player himself: Is Rajon Rondo a Hall of Fame-caliber player?
Rondo has played in the NBA for seven years. He’s a four-time All-Star, a one-time champion, a one-time runner-up and a triple-double threat every night. With his gaudy stats and playoff resume, assuming he comes back from injury anywhere close to the same player, he should be a Hall of Fame lock.
The problem with that statement is that Rondo’s career stats aren’t nearly as gaudy as one would think, especially for a player supposedly so obsessed with his own stats:
Fine, but he’s only played in the league for seven years, and one of those years was cut short by the ACL tear.
So let’s double his stats, assuming he’s able to stay at or near his current level, with declining numbers at the end, for the next seven years.
That’s 10,502 points, 7,886 assists, 4,312 rebounds and 1,826 steals. The only noteworthy number there is the assists total, which would put him 10th all time if Andre Miller retired tomorrow. Still though, nothing too impressive.
What about his per-game stats?
Every single stat is lower than one would expect. He’s never averaged more than 13.7 points per game. That’s low, especially considering we live in the "Age of the Point Guard" and Tony Parker, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry are all averaging above or near 20 points per game.
But okay, Rondo isn’t a scorer. It’s his assist numbers that are impressive.
Actually, not that impressive in a historical context. Here are some other great and not-so-great point guards and their career highs in assists per game for a season:
So Rondo is up there, but he certainly isn’t doing anything unprecedented. Even Mark Jackson and Andre Miller—never dominant and certainly not Hall of Fame-bound—were able to average around 11 assists per game for whole seasons.
Passing, though, is one of the most important aspects of the game of basketball. If Rondo continues demonstrating his mastery of it by averaging double figures in assists, that would make him one of the greats.
But are assists enough to get one into the Hall of Fame?
Mark Jackson is a good test case. Only John Stockton and Jason Kidd have more career assists than Jackson, who assisted on 10,334 buckets in his career. He, Kidd, Stockton, Steve Nash and Magic Johnson are the only members of the 10,000-assist club. He has more assists than Nash, Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Isiah Thomas, Gary Payton and Bob Cousy.
Yet he’s not in the Hall of Fame and he’s probably never going to be, because as important as passing is, the truly great players bring more to the game.
Fortunately, Rondo is a great rebound—oh. He’s averaged more than five rebounds per game only twice? What’s wrong with you, Rondo?
The fact is, Rondo’s per-game stats are not really Hall of Fame-caliber, nor are his career totals. This makes it tough, at this point in his career, to call him anything more than just a very good player.
But Rondo is not just a very good player. He is a great player. And here’s why.
That’s the whole statistical case for Rondo’s greatness right there. Rondo absolutely stuffs the stat sheet in the playoffs, and he does it in a way that helps his team win games (the Celtics won 54 playoff games and a title in five years with Rondo as the point guard). The great ones turn it on in the playoffs, and Rondo certainly does that.
If you’re building a title contender, do you want a point guard who puts up 12-5-10s in the regular season and then morphs into a triple-double machine in the playoffs? Yes. You do. Rondo has 10 career playoff triple-doubles by the way—tied with Larry Bird.
But how about the non-statistical case for Rondo’s greatness?
I’ll start with the “I’ll miss them when they’re gone” test that I just made up. Great players can just be really good at a lot of things, but the truly elite ones bring something new to the game. They play the game in a creative way that has never been done before and can never really be duplicated. They have their own signature style. And when they leave the game, we miss what they added to it.
(In my lifetime, no one got a better score on the “I’ll miss them when they’re gone” test than Brandon Roy. And yes, I saw MJ play.)
Of course, this is totally subjective, and this is far from an exhaustive list.
But out of the elite players currently in the NBA, I will not miss watching Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard or James Harden play. I will miss watching Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, LeBron James and Rajon Rondo.
Rondo brings his own indefinable stamp to a game. No one handles a ball quite like Rondo, no one sees the court quite like Rondo, no one passes like him, no one finishes like him and no one picks the perfect moment to hit an open jumper after missing 10 straight quite like him.
Rondo can take over a game at any time, and once he takes it over, there’s no doubt who’s in control—even if he doesn’t score. He can throw up an 11-7-10 with two steals and totally dominate a game.
I’ll miss him when he’s gone.
Then there’s the “great moments” test. All great players need to have great moments, and enough great moments can elevate a good player to the level of a great one. And great moments usually come in the playoffs.
Reggie Miller put up good-but-not-great stats for his whole career besides his free-throw and three-point shooting. Yet he’s remembered as great because of the Spike Lee game, the eight points in 8.9 seconds game and the game-winner against the Bulls when he shoves Michael Jordan, sinks the shot and does that weird dance in the middle of the court.
For his part, Jordan probably had the most great moments of anybody, topped off by his Game 6 dagger against the Utah Jazz in ’98. LeBron James now has the game-winning three against Detroit, Game 6 against the Celtics in ’12, the triple-double in Game 5 against the Thunder, the Headband Game in Game 6 against the Spurs and the series-clinching shot in Game 7 that made it 92-88 with seconds left.
Let’s take a look at some of Rondo’s great moments.
I’ll be missing some, but I’ll start with his entire series against the Bulls in 2009 (seriously, check out the box scores or watch the games), his 19-12-10 triple-double in Game 2 against the Lakers in the ’10 Finals to even the series, his triple-double and clutch threes in Game 7 against the 76ers in the ’12 playoffs and his 44-8-10 with three steals to keep the Celtics in Game 2 against the ’12 Heat (he scored all 12 of the Celtics’ points in overtime).
Then there’s Game 3 against the Miami Heat in the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals. Rajon Rondo dislocated his left elbow, returned to the game and, playing with one arm, led the Celtics to victory.
It’s the Rondo moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life. With his left arm dangling uselessly at his side, Rondo played out the third and fourth quarters—igniting the Boston crowd and his teammates. In the fourth quarter, he stole the ball and took it all the way to the basket for a dunk—with one arm. The next possession, he drove to the hoop and scored over LeBron.
Rondo dribbled, passed, scored, defended and directed the offense with one arm while in excruciating pain.
That should have been Rondo’s Flu Game. Instead, everyone remembers him getting benched at the end of Game 4, and Boston’s eventual loss to the Heat in five games.
It doesn’t matter. Rondo’s Game 3 was one of the grittiest, most inspiring performances I’ve ever seen. As far as I’m concerned, he sealed his greatness right then. Everything after that is just gravy.
Yes, he has “attitude issues.” Rondo supposedly drove away Ray Allen and nearly came to blows with Doc Rivers, the ultimate players’ coach. The word is that Rondo cares more about stats than winning and only tries hard on national television. Right, Bill Simmons?
So what? You’re not going to convince me that Rondo is the first great player to have attitude issues.
Rondo belongs in the Hall of Fame. A couple more great seasons, a couple very good ones, a couple “veteran leadership” seasons to pad his counting stats and he should get there.
But if he never played another game, I’d vote for him right now.