How do you defend Rajon Rondo? The question, of course, assumes that you can guard Rondo, which I still suppose is possible but also looks increasingly difficult by the day.
Many teams choose to sag off Rondo, for various obvious reasons. Henry Abbott cited the reasons in a probing post on TrueHoop, where he tackled the question himself. I list his reasons below, but change the wording.
- Rondo is fast. Mighty fast. If you defend him closely, you risk seeing “Rondo — 9″ blowing by you all day long.
- Rondo’s jump shot is broke. Mighty broke. If you can encourage him to shoot jumpers, then by all means you need to do just that.
- The Lakers used the tactic successfully in the Finals. Rondo averaged only 13.6 points and 7.6 assists against LA, after running wild against the rest of the NBA.
- If you don’t defend Rondo on the perimeter, you presumably have one all-time help defender to utilize.
The reasons for giving Rondo space (worlds of space) are compelling, one must admit. They make sense. But it’s always easy to run an offense when you have nothing to disrupt you. I think about quarterbacks, and while maybe that’s not the best comparison, Rondo has begun to remind of a quarterback with his pass-first and pass-almost-always play. If you don’t put pressure on a quarterback, he can sit in the pocket and pick your defense apart all day. It doesn’t matter whether you have Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie as cornerbacks. If the quarterback has time and freedom, he’ll ultimately find an open player. Just like Rondo does when you allow him space and time.
Abbott linked to Beckley Mason of HoopSpeak, who offered a couple more reasons not to sag off Rondo:
Playing off him also takes the option of trapping Rondo out of the equation. Rondo is undoubtedly one of the most difficult players to trap in the league with his exceptional pace and ability to find angles — but he is only 6-0, and by mixing in a hard, athletic trap or stunt it’s possible to at least disrupt the primary pick and roll action. In addition to trapping on ball screens, with the right personnel denying him a catch and forcing the Celtics to run the offense through other players could also disrupt their offense.
Mason has the right idea, but I think he missed a couple points. 1) It’s difficult to trap Rondo off the pick-and-roll in the first place. But even if you do, Rondo just skips the ball to Kevin Garnett and the C’s play 4-on-3 with the ball in a very good decision-maker’s hands. Trapping Rondo isn’t the way to go. And 2) denying him a catch? It’s pretty much impossible. He’s far too fast and crafty.
None of which means you should sag off him. I think of when I played college basketball. I was never the quickest guard (actually, I was normally the slowest), so I had to rely on guile when I defended opponents. Whenever I played ultra-quick players, I made sure to guard them as closely as I could. Why? Because then I could at least try to dictate where they were going. If I stood five feet away, I was at their mercy. They could go whichever way they pleased, or pick up a full head of steam and come at me – at which point I was toast. Burned toast.
When I guarded a quick player and I was in his mug, though, I could choose which way he had to go. If I got on a player’s hip and angled my body to a player’s left, he was forced to go left. By pressuring him, I did two things: 1) I made life more difficult on him. It’s tougher to run an offense with a hand in your face. And 2) I made life easier on me. If I knew I could force a player one way or the other, it significantly lessened my reaction time. I was no longer sitting back and waiting, but I was being the aggressor. I was dictating play. I was able to funnel the guard to my help, and maybe just as importantly I was able to take away some options of where he might go.
Abbott interviewed David Thorpe, who noted that the Lakers’ size (not necessarily their sagging tactic) was the biggest reason in Rondo’s return to earth that series. Thorpe then said the following:
“I’d get in his face,” says Thorpe. “You can go with size, or you can go with speed. But either, way, I’d try to hunt like lions do. One lioness goes out there and chases the prey right into the trap, where the other lions are waiting. I wouldn’t need my one defender to keep him on the perimeter, that’s impossible, but you can at least push him to places on the floor where things might be tougher for him.
“For instance, almost every team knows almost every other team’s play calls. So you know which direction he wants to go as he crosses midcourt. I’d look at the data and see, of the different way he approaches the hoop, which areas of the floor, or approaches to the rim, give him the most trouble. Then I’d steer him there, with my best help defenders and shot-blockers ready to meet him.
“Then I’d mix it up. Keep him from getting comfortable. Out of timeouts, you might try someone else on him. If he brings the ball up the left side of the floor, maybe have the defense ready to force him to a different spot. Keep him from getting comfortable. It might not work, but sagging off him all night, that’s clearly not working. At least you give yourself a shot. Maybe you can force a few more turnovers, and inspire a few more tough shots. That can turn a game.” …
“The biggest myth in basketball,” says Thorpe, “is that backing off someone makes it harder for them to drive. You give them so many more angles to attack, and you let them get up to full speed before even encountering a defender.”
Thorpe’s reasons for getting in Rondo’s face shadow my own. You get in his face so you can dictate play, so you can force him into areas he doesn’t want to go, so you can push him one place and send help. You take away his comfort level and keep him from sitting back and calmly picking apart your defense. If you sit back with five feet of cushion, it allows Rondo to go whichever way he pleases. There’s no resistance. That’s why teams need to stop sagging off Rondo, STAT.
Before I go, I’m going to leave you with two points:
1) I can’t believe that I — of all people — just tried to give advice about defense. That’s like JaMarcus Russell giving advice on how to live up to potential.
And 2) I’m trying to answer the question, “How do you defend Rondo?” like there is an answer. The way he’s playing to start the season, there might not be. But teams might as well give themselves the best chance.