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How Point Guards Can Avoid Becoming the Next Rajon Rondo

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 31, 2015

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At various points in his NBA career, Rajon Rondo has been an upstart, a malcontent, an innovator, a playoff hero, a champion and an outcast.

We can now add "cautionary tale" to that list, which, considering how recently Rondo was viewed as an elite, star-quality player, is shocking.

Shocking but undeniable, as we now live in a world where the bidding war for a free-agent Rondo wasn't a war at all; the Sacramento Kings grabbed him on a one-year deal with hardly a whiff of reported serious interest from any other teams. An NBA increasingly obsessed with spacing the floor fell out of love with Rondo in a hurry.

Rondo has never been a good shooter, and in his more recent years with the Celtics, he didn't actually improve the offense with his passing, according to NBA.com.

Boston Celtics With Rondo On and Off the Floor
YearORtg w/ Rondo ONORtg w/ Rondo OFF
2012-1399.2102.2
2013-1499.599.8
2014-15101.7101.7
NBA.com

Worst of all, his preferred style of play (which his reputation allowed him to continue long after the stats showed it was suboptimal) involved total ball dominance. Those clinging to the illusion that Rondo was still a valuable player in the modern NBA lost all hope when he flamed out with the Dallas Mavericks this past spring.

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Typically, Dallas is where players go to revive their offensive careers. Rondo's flatlined there, as he dragged a once-potent unit down by 4.7 points per 100 possessions.

It was bad. So bad that the Mavs and Rondo agreed to part ways in the middle of a playoff series. So bad that the rest of Dallas' players agreed not to give Rondo a share of the team's playoff bonus.

Now, there's a crop of point guards growing into significant roles who, five years ago, would have been flattered by a comparison to Rondo. Elfrid Payton, Ricky Rubio and Michael Carter-Williams are all exceptionally talented players who share a troubling trait with Rondo: They can't shoot.

There's some nuance here, and these three suffer from different afflictions: Payton's mechanics are a disaster, Rubio can't finish from close range and Carter-Williams is profoundly nonthreatening from three-point land.

Though their shooting troubles are distinct, the bottom line is roughly the same: Defenses don't have to play them honestly, which makes it much more difficult for their teams to be effective on offense.

Like a younger version of Rondo, all three of those players have viable NBA skills. Payton's court sense is second to none, Rubio's passing is infectious and Carter-Williams has the length and attack-mode demeanor to become a two-way force.

Also like Rondo, these players don't have off-ball games that provide offensive value. They don't scare defenses if they don't have the rock, as ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh observed:

In a league that puts a premium on spacing, Rondo's reputation precedes him. Defenses are more sophisticated and smarter than ever. Last season, they packed the paint and basically ignored him when he got off the ball. Essentially, it became four-against-five, even though he racked up assists at a high rate. Rondo still tallies an impressive number of dimes, but it still hasn't made his offenses better with him at the helm.

Passing, by itself, isn't enough to overcome smart defenses anymore.

Not every point guard can be Stephen Curry, but it's now necessary to pose some kind of threat from the perimeter.

To be fair to Payton, Rubio and MCW, their offensive issues haven't yet risen to the level of Rondo's. Their free-throw woes, for example, haven't yet become so pronounced as to dissuade them from even attempting to finish contested shots inside. Rondo's unwillingness to attack is tied to the unfathomably low 39.7 percent he shot from the foul line last year.

Rubio, a career 80.1 percent free-throw shooter, is the best of the bunch. Last year, he attempted 71 foul shots in 22 games, nearly equaling Rondo's total in a third of the contests. And even Payton's ruined mechanics didn't dissuade him from getting to the line over 200 times.

Nobody wants to be Rondo anymore. That much is clear.

But how do younger players with similar issues avoid his fate?

The best answer is obvious: Become a better shooter. One way to pull that off is to basically fake it until you make it—a tactic employed last year by rookie point guard and much maligned non-shooter Marcus Smart.

Smart was a poor perimeter shooter in college, a weakness that came up in virtually every criticism of his game heading into the 2014 draft. Here are some examples pulled together by Evans Clinchy of CelticsBlog:

ESPN.com's Amin Elhassan: "He's an awful perimeter shooter, from two- or three-point range, but that doesn't deter him from pulling up for them."

Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress: "His shooting mechanics leave a lot to be desired, as he dips the ball violently and fades forward and sometimes sideways on his release. That wouldn't be that big of an issue if Smart didn't take as many jumpers as he does."

ESPN.com's Chad Ford: "Smart isn't a prototypical point guard. He doesn't always see the floor as well as he should, can get too caught up on finding his own shot and has a jumper that borderlines on being broken."

Smart kept right on chucking as a rookie, though, working with marginally better mechanics and undeterred confidence to knock down 33.5 percent of his 272 three-point attempts. He had some hot stretches, too, like the month of January, when he hit 42.4 percent of his long-range attempts.

Smart was still a below average three-point shooter last season—but just barely. More importantly, he shot enough long balls to demand defensive attention.

Maybe Smart's approach won't work for Rubio or Payton, two players who are compulsive distributors. It's difficult to imagine them gunning at high volume, but it should be an option for Carter-Williams, who may be more of a wing scorer in the future anyway.

Carter-Williams' coach is uniquely equipped to guide him through such a change.

"I think [Jason Kidd] sees a little bit of himself in Michael," Milwaukee Bucks guard Jared Dudley told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.com during the 2015 playoffs. "I think that probably attracted [Kidd] to him and someone who maybe is not a great shooter but can be."

Kidd is an example of how some point guards can still be great without ever developing an outside shot. By almost any measure, Kidd—who was a 10-time All-Star, ranks second in career assists and won a championship—was one of the best to ever play.

He achieved a lot of that before turning himself into a credible outside shooter 10 years into his career.

"If I wanted to continue to keep playing, I had to make shots from behind that line," Kidd told NBA.com's John Schuhmann in 2011.

Kidd retired in 2013 with the fifth-most made threes in NBA history.

Real improvement is possible, and any point guard walking down the dangerous Rondo path should keep that in mind. In fact, Rondo, who's still only 29, should keep that in mind, too.

Unfortunately, some players simply never transform.

In the case of someone like Tony Parker, another standout skill (like supreme quickness, aided by an offensive system designed to spring him loose for drives) makes up for it. Instead of taking a ton of threes to threaten defenses, Parker perfected a floater and became a solid mid-range shooter.

It's fascinating to note that Parker tried the Smart approach early in his career, averaging 197 three-point attempts per season in his first four years. The results didn't follow, and Parker hasn't taken more than 89 long-range shots in a season since 2004-05.

Ramon Sessions, a career 31.2 percent shooter from three, has survived (barely) by relying on his skills as a penetrator. He's played for seven teams in eight years and has carved out a niche as a backup—albeit one without much staying power.

Mark Duncan/Associated Press

He's an example of a non-shooting point guard who came to terms with his limitations, focused on his strengths and accepted the diminished role his skills dictated.

An eight-year (and counting) career is nothing to sneeze at, but Sessions was the 56th overall pick in the 2007 draft. Payton, Rubio and MCW were all lottery selections, and slipping into journeyman roles because of their inability to shoot would be much bigger disappointments than when Sessions did it.

It's actually a positive for players like Payton, Rubio and MCW that the NBA is more ruthless about exploiting non-shooters than it was during Rondo's formative years. Just a few seasons ago, Rondo could get away with not improving his perimeter game because defenses hadn't yet become so intent on punishing non-shooters.

For example, if one of Rondo's Celtics teams were in the playoffs last year, we would have seen tactics like the Golden State Warriors employed against Memphis Grizzlies non-shooter Tony Allen. Golden State completely ignored Allen on the perimeter and focused five defenders on Memphis' four other players, essentially taking Allen off the floor.

In games that matter, Payton, Rubio and Carter-Williams should expect similar treatment. To avoid it, they must improve. It was an option for Rondo—one he chose not to pursue because there wasn't as much urgency and, perhaps, because of his legendary stubbornness.

There are shot doctors and mechanics gurus for problems like these, and teams are turning to them with increasing frequency.

It's not too late.

With a little work, none of the league's young, shot-challenged point guards will become the next Rondo.

All stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.

Follow Grant Hughes on Twitter @gt_hughes.

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