Occasionally, a piece of writing makes me cringe. Sometimes, these cringe-worthy pieces are written by my least favorite writers, which makes it easier to bash the work and still feel good about myself when I fall asleep at night. Other times, the pieces that cause me such anguish are produced by some of my favorite hoops writers, which makes bashing the work far less enjoyable. This is one of the latter times, a time when I disagree with the viewpoint of one of my favorite writers, and now must vehemently oppose his opinions.
Zach Harper, a great writer of TrueHoop Network fame and many other writing venues, wrote on Hardwood Paroxysm:
People (Derrick Rose fans) want to discount Rajon Rondo’s production because he’s playing with Hall of Famers and personally, I think that’s a crock of excrement.
Want to know why Rajon Rondo is putting up impressive assist numbers over the last two seasons? Because teams are giving him an NFL field to work with on the NBA court.
Harper makes an analogy between Rondo and Kurt Warner. Warner, whose professional football career (which came shortly after his grocery-bagging career) started in the Arena Football League, was used to the claustrophobic Arena Football League fields. They’re about half the size of NFL fields, making space seem incredibly rare. With so little space, precision became more important than ever. When Warner signed with an NFL team, wrote Harper, “he now had so much room from side-to-side to operate. A wider field meant incredible freedom in how he approached the passing game. You could wait a little longer on crossing routes. Swing passes out of the backfield were now much more fruitful. The defense wasn’t making him so claustrophobic.”
Mostly, the comparison makes sense. Many defenses play off Rajon Rondo, and that tactic surely makes it easier for him to see the court. Without a hand in his face, Rondo can take his time while scouring the defense for a weakness. I would argue a better comparison would have been an NFL quarterback facing a defense that offers no pass rush — Rondo still plays on the same sized court as everyone else, even if he has more time to plan his next move. But I understand the comparison, and Harper’s points are duly noted. Teams might prove more successful if they applied more ball pressure on the Celtics’ point guard.
But Harper hardly even acknowledges the outrageous nature of Rondo’s statistical season, nor does he do any justice to Rondo’s “How does he continue to do this every night?” grasp of the point guard position. In fact, Harper ends his piece with a quote that takes credit from Rondo and places it squarely on the shoulders of opposing defenses:
The only thing cluttering up Rajon Rondo’s mind right now are his increasingly astounding assists numbers. And it’s all due to the fact he doesn’t have a house cluttered with defensive pressure in front of him.
I repeat: “It’s all due to the fact he doesn’t have a house cluttered with defensive pressure in front of him.”
A point of view which politely declines to mention “It’s also due to the fact that Rondo’s playing an almost-flawless floor game.” Let’s not forget, Mr. Harper, Rajon Rondo possesses uncanny vision and an extremely valuable ability to find teammates both open and in stride. At times, it seems like Rondo can actually choose who he wants to find an open shot. He’ll penetrate in a certain direction and — bam — Kevin Garnett magically appears open. Rondo will dribble one way in transition and — voila — Ray Allen’s defender helps off him just enough for Allen to release an open jumper. Rondo is making the game easy for his teammates, rather than the other way around.
Harper’s view also fails to mention that teams have actually been sagging off Rondo since the day he entered the NBA. But not until this year did Rondo’s assist totals start ingesting steroids. Why is that? It’s simple — because he’s better now. His game has developed to the point where he can pick apart any defense thrown his way. There have been teams this year who have applied pressure on Rondo rather than playing off him. (I can’t think of a specific team off the top of my head, but there have been some, I promise.) Yet Rondo has registered at least seven assists in every game this season. He’s simply a step above his competition this season, whether or not that competition allows him space to breathe.
Actually, the defenses which historically cause Rondo the most trouble have been the ones that sag off him. Think of the Magic or Lakers in a playoff series. Both teams play many feet off Rondo, and use his defender as a free safety of sorts. Just look at the sag-adocious way the Lakers defend Rondo. It’s almost ridiculous.
Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally, those two teams limit Rondo more than any other. Earlier this season, NBA Playbook’s Sebastian Pruiti wondered whether the Dallas Mavericks found the best answer to defending Rondo. The Mavericks, like the Lakers and Magic, sagged off Rondo. Rondo still had 15 assists that night, but the Mavs successfully forced him into shooting jump shots, which any defense would love to accomplish. 15 assists, and it might have been the best answer to defending Rondo. That’s how good he’s been this season.
Do I agree that some teams should apply more ball pressure on Rondo? Yes, and teams should also throw the kitchen sink at him, if that had any chance of working. Rondo’s not producing the third-highest assists average in NBA history because all 29 opposing coaches use a poor strategy to defend him. He’s averaging all those assists because he’s playing the point guard position with a surgeon’s precision.