Regardless of whether the Celtics would be a better team without Rajon Rondo in the long term, they've played better without him this season. With the deadline approaching, it raises a question as to whether Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge will shop his biggest trade chip in Rondo.
The Celtics should not trade Rondo, but they certainly should take this opportunity to encourage their star point guard to change his game for the better of the team. Over the years, as the Celtics have become Rondo's team, he has failed to take his game to the next level, one that elite point guards in the NBA reach.
In the time the Celtics have logged a record of 8-1 since Rondo's injury, it has become clear Rondo has become the team's facilitator to a fault. His ball-handling and passing skills are on par with those of any point guard in the league, but we have learned those qualities alone don't always translate to wins. Teammates need to feel valuable on both ends of the floor, and with Rondo dominating the ball on offense while, at times, giving a lackluster effort on defense, the Celtics have not played better with him on the floor.
Besides the team's record, there are other statistics that point to an opportunity for growth in Rondo's game. For one, Rondo could find higher-percentage shots for his teammates. As the point guard seemingly has become infatuated with the assist statistic, he has increasingly looked to end just about every possession with a pass that sets up a teammate. Too often, he’ll direct traffic from the top of the key while dribbling or holding the ball, and the shots late in the shot clock aren't the highest percentage shots on the floor. With Rondo in the lineup this season, the Celtics ranked 23rd among all teams in field goal attempts at the rim. They have shown improvement, albeit slight improvement, in getting shots at the rim without their best passer on the floor, climbing one spot in the rankings over the last eight games.
It seems that Rondo often is penetrating only to kick the ball out to an open shooter. In transition, he often takes an angle across the court at the free throw line to set up a drop-off pass to a jump shooter waiting at the elbow.
Going back to the numbers, Rondo ranks second among all NBA players in drives per game, according to statistics derived from NBA teams' videotaping practices by Grantland.com writer Zach Lowe. The top four players in drives per game are Tony Parker (10.8), Rondo (10.1), Russell Westbrook (9.3) and Jrue Holiday (9.2).
Certainly this is a positive statistic for Rondo, showing his aggressive nature and desire to get to the rim. Rondo can improve in finishing his drives with more attempts at the rim. He ranks last among those four players in attempts at the rim per game (4.8), behind Westbrook (6.2), Parker (5.7) and Holiday (slightly higher at 4.8). The eye test tells us any shot for Rondo at the rim is a good shot, as he is a master at using the glass and angles to convert layups. The stats tell the same story. Rondo shoots 62.1 percent on his attempts at the rim, comparable to Parker (69.7), Holiday (68.7) and Westbrook (59.5).
One notable discrepancy between Rondo's attempts-at-the-rim statistics and those of the other three players is how infrequently Rondo's field goals are assisted. Each of the other three players converts a shot at the rim with an assist rate between 26.3 and 27.9 percent. Rondo's shots are assisted 15.9 percent of the time. This discrepancy would point to Rondo's lack of movement to the rim without the ball, and his dominance of the ball in general. When Rondo gets to the rim, it is typically on a dribble-drive rather than a cut.
One other notable statistic is that when Rondo doesn't get all the way to the rim, he is less likely to shoot than the other three players. Parker, who has mastered the floater, shoots the highest rate between 3-9 feet, attempting 2.4 shots per game. Holiday (1.6), Westbrook (1.5) and Rondo (1.3) shoot less frequently, and with good reason. Parker shoots 52.1 percent from that range, while (Holiday 41.1), Westbrook (39.7) and Rondo (41.2) do not shoot a high enough percentage to warrant making it a regular part of their arsenal.
Through these numbers, we see that while Rondo is being as aggressive as any player in the league besides Parker in driving the ball to the basket, he is not finishing at the rim enough, choosing instead to pass to jump shooters. It's a strategy that worked well with a catch-and-shoot player like Ray Allen but was not as successful this season with players like Jason Terry and Jeff Green.
Parker certainly is an interesting comparison to Rondo in that the players entered the NBA with similar skills sets and have experienced similar levels of team success. Parker was drafted by the Spurs at age 19 and was the starting point guard for a championship team in his second season. Rondo entered the NBA at 20 and also was the starting point guard for a championship team in his second season.
Like Rondo, Parker’s shooting was his biggest weakness coming into the league. In his first season, he shot 41.9 percent from the field and 67.5 percent from the line. Opposing guards used to defend Parker by giving him plenty of space beyond 20 feet, daring him to beat them with his jump shot. To this day, Parker still is not a 3-point shooter. He attempts only 1.1 treys per game, actually less than Rondo’s average of 1.3. But Parker has improved his game in nearly every facet. He has become one of the league’s best finishers at the rim despite his size, and his craftiness inside 15 feet gives him additional scoring options. Now in his 12th season, Parker is shooting 53.6 percent from the field, and in a sign that a player’s free throw percentage can improve through hard work, he is shooting a career-best 83.0 percent from the line.
Rondo also came into the league as a poor shooter for a guard. In his first season, he shot 41.8 percent from the field and 64.7 from the line. As he’s matured as a player, he’s found ways to get easier baskets. He shot 48.4 percent from the field this season but has yet to show any improvement at the line, where he shot 64.5 percent. The low percentage at the line might best explain Rondo’s preference to drive and pass rather than take contact at the rim.
One could make the point that Rondo and Parker simply are different players. Parker is more of a scoring point guard who has never averaged more than 7.7 assists per game. Rondo is a pass-first distributor who has never approached the 20.8 points per game Parker is averaging this season. That being said, both guards are directing an offensive attack that is built around a Hall of Fame power forward on the downside of his career (Tim Duncan/Kevin Garnett) and an aging swingman (Manu Ginobili/Paul Pierce). Parker’s style of play has produced better results in terms of wins and losses over his career, including three Spurs championships. Since the start of the 2010-11 season, the Spurs have gone 153-49. Rondo’s Celtics have gone 123-77.
In a recent article in the Sporting News, Parker talked about his maturation from his rookie season, when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich used to battle with him about his shot selection and decision-making, to this season, when Popovich believes Parker is playing like the best point guard in the NBA.
“When you have Coach Pop screaming at you every day, it will make you pass the ball,” Parker said. “He is always big on, you have to find a better shot. Always trying to find the better shot, the better shot all season long, make the extra pass. You know, we have great shooters on the team. We have guys who can penetrate and find open guys, so we like to play like that.”
Parker’s acceptance of coaching and his improvement over the course of his career is one of the better stories in the NBA during this All-Star weekend. It is unclear whether Rondo has the temperament or self-awareness to change his game in a similar way throughout his career. At 26, Rondo has proved to be a player with all of the skills to become one of the league’s best players. He has also proved to be a player who is comfortable putting his best skills on display on the biggest of stages, but perhaps doesn’t spend enough time refining the aspects of his game that need improvement. As Rondo sits back and watches his teammates thrive in his absence, he might be questioning whether his individual achievements -- leading the league in assists, collecting triple-doubles, earning All-Star starter recognition -- are in the best interests of his team. We won’t know that for certain until the start of next season. One thing we do know: Tony Parker, the man with three NBA championship rings, has never worried about leading the league in assists.