You may have heard that after dishing out 16 assists against the Orlando Magic on Sunday, Rajon Rondo now has the second-longest double-digit assist streak in NBA history at 37 games, tying him with Utah Jazz legend John Stockton. If you haven’t heard, you haven’t been reading ESPN’s recaps of each game, you haven’t been perusing the various Celtics blogs and message boards around the internet, and frankly, I’m quite surprised that you are on this site at all (but welcome!).
A lot of very smart people have expressed disdain for Rondo’s obvious interest in continuing the streak, pointing in part to his risky late-game minutes in a blowout against Detroit as evidence. Why risk Rondo’s health (he had sprained his ankle earlier that week) to chase a record? Given the somewhat subjective nature of assists as a statistic in general and Rondo’s aversion to transition layups before he has reached that magic double digit assist count, the streak does seem to be a more or less useless sideshow, something not worth pursuing.
There’s just one problem: Rondo is having one of the best seasons of his career.
By nearly every statistical count, Rondo has been fantastic. Want assists? Rondo is averaging 13.7 per game and has assisted on 57.4% of teammates’ baskets when he is on the court, both of which are league-leading numbers. Want high field goal percentages? Rondo’s TS% is a robust .552, over .070 higher than his mark last year. He has also improved his 3-point shooting by nearly 8%, going from .238 to .316. His mid-range game is quietly a threat as well. 35% of Rondo’s shots come from 16-23 feet, and he’s hitting 51% of them, making him an underrated threat to pull up from 15 feet on a pick and roll. Want rebounds? Looking to a point guard probably isn’t the best choice, but Rondo leads all point guards with 4.8 rebounds per game. The second closest? Kyle Lowry with 3.5.
Rondo’s assist/turnover ratio has been historically high as well this season. If he manages to continue his current pace and finishes with a assist/turnover ratio of 13+/4-, he will be one of just three point guards to achieve those numbers. The other two? The aforementioned John Stockton (5x (!!!!!)) and Isiah Thomas (once). Lofty company, to be sure.
Rondo’s assist/turnover ratio speaks to his newfound levels of efficiency. One of the biggest statistical knocks against Rondo in previous seasons has been his mediocre Player Efficiency Rating during the regular season. PER is a controversial statistic to be sure, but it is a solid indicator of how successful a player has been. I don’t think any Celtics fan would contest me when I say Rondo was much better during the playoffs than the regular season in ’11-’12. And sure enough, Rondo’s regular season PER was 17.5, as opposed to 22.0 in the playoffs. Rondo has never cracked 20 during the regular season, even in what was probably his best season in ’09-’10 (19.1 PER). This year, he’s at 20.9 through 13 games. That’s higher than Deron Williams, Kyrie Irving and Tony Parker.
So there are the facts and statistics. Rondo is indisputably playing extremely well so far, producing at levels that place him among the top point guards in a league that is dominated by that position. Now we veer away from facts and statistics and speculate wildly.
What if Rondo’s efficiency and his apparent focus are a direct result of the assist streak? It’s not impossible. We know that Rondo needs more than a normal game situation to be fully engaged, especially during the regular season. He’s much more likely to go for 18 points and 20 assists against the Knicks and the Heat than he is against the Bobcats or the Wizards. It’s why he’s more likely to perform in the playoffs than he is during the regular season.
Legend has it that Albert Einstein did poorly in school because his brain was so far ahead of everyone else’s and he was bored. Does that remind you of someone we know? We know that Rondo has an absurdly high basketball IQ. He is certainly aware that a mid-February game against a bad team doesn’t have the same implications that Game 5 against Miami does. We can talk until we turn blue about the importance of playoff seeding (and we would be correct in doing so), but in reality, there ARE games that matter more than others and a smart player like Rondo recognizes that. What if having a record to chase makes Rondo more interested in games that don’t matter as much?
Basketball players get inspired by weird things. It’s why coaches post negative comments from the media or the opponent on locker room walls. It’s why we talk about a player “getting in his own head.” Hell, it’s why I shoot roughly 850% better when a pretty girl is walking around the track at pick-up ball. The reasons behind the motivation don’t really matter as long as the player produces enough to get the job done.
If this is the case, the only worrying question is whether or not Rondo will continue to stay focused if his streak is broken. But that question veers so far into wild speculation that we can’t really address it here. Essentially, if Rondo has actually made strides as a leader, he will continue to stay focused. If the streak is mostly driving his hot start, we are likely to see a drop in his numbers.We can only hope that his production has more to do with the former.
The point of all this is to say that Rondo is playing at the level we hoped he would play before the season began, back when he was talking about leadership and growth. The streak hasn’t turned him into an inferior player. He may have passed on a few easy baskets in favor of assists, but almost never to the detriment of his team. If a mostly harmless, mostly meaningless assist streak is what inspires Rondo to continue this level of play, I’m all for it.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.