There’s something about basketball fans that makes us forever discuss each player’s place in the game. We feel a need to determine where each player should be ranked relative to his peers, and for certain players we feel the need to decide where they should be ranked relative to the game’s all-time greats.
It’s not enough just to sit back and appreciate greatness. We have to dissect who is greater, who deserves more credit. ”The best” is fluid. He can change from season to season, or he can change overnight. His place at the top is always threatened by the game’s latest and greatest players.
We can’t just appreciate having both Dwyane Wade and Lebron James on the same team. We have to argue about who’s going to be the alpha dog, who takes the last shot as the clock winds down. We pit them against each other, as if they were opponents rather than teammates. We pit them against Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant, too, in conversations about the NBA’s best player.
But that’s not the only conversation we have about Bryant. We can’t just marvel at his overwhelmingly complete skill set or insatiable desire to win. We have to compare him to Michael Jordan, as if anyone in the NBA today — even Bryant – could possibly compare to the G.O.A.T.
We can’t just say that Deron Williams pieced together a remarkable year last year. We have to call him the game’s greatest point guard. And then, this year, with Chris Paul fully healthy and a batch of young point guards excelling, we moved Williams down a notch (or two, or three). Williams is still doing the same things in Utah, still overpowering every point guard in his sight and making no 6’3″, 210-lb. man should be able to complete. But he’s not the greatest anymore. He has been surpassed in our eyes and is now mostly overlooked, until the day when he pieces together another torrid stretch of play and again becomes part of our discussion.
We can’t watch Durant dominate the FIBA World Championship without anointing him the game’s greatest player, without GMs proclaiming him the almost-unrivaled preseason favorite for MVP. We vaulted Durant over more accomplished players in our rankings, even though the Oklahoma City star has never won a single playoff series. We tortured Lebron for disappearing in Game Five, yet let Durant get away with 35.0% shooting in the one and only playoff series he has ever played. Durant was the flavor of the day, a symbol of good in the battle vs. evil, and he was damn talented too. And so we praised him, and so he leapt up our player rankings.
Ahh, the player rankings. I guess I should explain those. We make top five (or top ten) lists for every position, and we update them every day. Our memories are more short-term than Wilt Chamberlain’s girlfriends. That’s why Chris Paul was forgotten last year when an injury got the best of him. It’s also why Paul is already (again and almost) universally considered the league’s best lead guard, after only six healthy games. He’s the soup du jour because of the Hornets’ quick start, Paul’s always-stellar play, and the fact that we love surprises. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised by Paul’s MVP-type start — he has ALWAYS been thoroughly dominant, always played his position with an utter control that even blind men can see (I wonder if Stevie do). Yet we are surprised; we had forgotten how great he was, just because injuries forced him out of our sight for a few months.
It just goes to show how fickle our sports minds can be. We often believe that whoever has impressed us the latest must have impressed us greater than anyone else. Whoever did it last, did it best.
More than anything else, that’s why I haven’t yet ranked Rajon Rondo among the league’s top point guards. The names John Stockton and Magic Johnson have already been invoked by statisticians to compare Rondo’s start, and I don’t want to overreact to those names or Rondo’s absurd stats. As a sports fan, it is in my blood to compare, to rank, and to assess greatness. For once, I don’t want to do any of that. I just want to enjoy it.
Sometimes, I even find myself taking Rondo for granted. The way he dribbles into the paint specifically to attract an opponent’s attention, just so he can make his teammate’s shot THAT much easier. The way he probes the defense at all times but almost never commits to a play until he is completely sure. The way he somehow manages to dominate a game from the point guard position without ever seeming like he’s holding the ball for too long, and sometimes without taking more than four or five shots. The way he subtly looks off a defender so he can find Kevin Garnett underneath the basket, or dribble-screens an opponent to provide space for a Ray Allen transition three.
And Rondo has become a leader too. When Jason Terry hit the game-tying three for the Dallas Mavericks, it was Rondo who first barked at Ray Allen not to help. Maybe it’s not good to yell at a teammate. But Rondo has earned the right to speak his mind, even to the Big Three. Against Chicago, in overtime, the Celtics called a timeout. Rondo could be seen fiercely relaying instructions to the troops. Doc Rivers was writing on his clipboard, but Rondo was doing all the coaching. Last year Rondo was in the midst of earning his veteran teammates’ full trust. This year, he is simply leading them.
I of course have noticed Rondo’s leap into the game’s top however many point guards, and I believe he’s one of the best of the best. I just don’t want to rank him. Am I worried about the old no-hitter superstition? Do I think that if I try to rank Rondo among the point guards I will unknowingly cause the universe to shift and Rondo to become a lesser player? No. I don’t think so, at least. I just don’t care whether he’s better than Chris Paul. I don’t care whether he’s more talented than Deron Williams. I don’t care whether Derrick Rose is a better scorer, or whether Steve Nash is more valuable.
With Rajon Rondo on the Celtics, the way he is playing right now, I get the chance to observe something special every night. He’s not perfect, don’t get me wrong. He turns the ball over too often, he over-gambles defensively, and his jumper is best described as — wait, what jumper? There are flaws in Rondo’s game, maybe more flaws than any other elite point guard. But those flaws — don’t you get it? — are just part of his package of greatness. To overcome those shortcomings, Rondo has had to master the intricacies of the game. He has been forced to adapt; to learn how to make his flaws a non-factor or at least a lesser factor; to excel in areas of the game in which many point guards can’t.
So I won’t say where I would rank Rondo among the league’s point guards. What I will say is this:
I have thoroughly enjoyed watching Rondo’s transcendent climb up the ranks, and that’s enough for me.