In the past, Rajon Rondo has been called divisive; but by the end of the 2014-15 season, the consensus on the fallen point guard was clear.
Following a disastrous tenure with the Dallas Mavericks, marred by difficulties of fit and clashes of personality, Rajon Rondo Island was surely near deserted. Mysterious, enigmatic point guards who possess a broken jump shot are oddballs in a Morey-ball world.
So, naturally, along came the Kings with a one-year, $9.5m deal.
Seemingly rejuvenated by a freewheeling system in Sacramento under George Karl, Rondo’s counting stats have returned to all-concurring, gaudy levels. Rondo leads the league in assists, has more triple-doubles than anyone else, and only Russell Westbrook snatches more rebounds from the point guard position.
Dig a bit deeper though, and you’ll find some less complimentary data. Despite his impressive box-score stats, the Kings have been better on both ends of the court with Rondo on the bench by just under five points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Over his last three seasons, a statistically negative on-court impact has been a consistent trend for Rondo.
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And so the divisiveness returns. In some circles, Rondo’s game forms part of the unfortunate, ever frustrating false dichotomy between the so-called ‘analytics’ movement and the old-school scouts who, you know, ‘actually watch the games.’
Contradictions abound when thinking about Rondo. During a Kings game you’ll find yourself giggling at his outlandish passing gifts on one play, only to be gagging moments later as he scratches the record, stopping the music on an otherwise harmonious offensive possession.
Rondo’s recent suspension and the uncomfortable character and personality concerns that surround him can be difficult to separate from his on-court performance, particularly when those issues so clearly overlap. He’s a statistical fiend who is simultaneously lauded for his unselfishness. An undeniably obstinate, yet intelligent player who makes willfully unintelligible plays:
So, how do we talk about Rondo’s value on the court, without blindly yelling across the Internet?
Jumping to a firm conclusion about Rondo’s overall value purely on the basis of his negative net rating is too simplistic, and ignores certain admonitions that should be attached. Sacramento has suffered a variety of injuries and disruptions, limiting their depth and the use of their strongest lineups. As a result, Rondo has carried a significant minutes burden, playing with inferior teammates. Sacramento’s most used lineup, one that includes Rondo, has played just 105 minutes, recording a healthy net rating.
Rondo’s fit with Sacramento’s centerpiece, DeMarcus Cousins, is largely counter-intuitive. Cousins is lumbering in transition and needs space to operate from the low post, where Rondo’s lack of range cramps things. Rondo wants to play in the open court and dictate pace—on his terms. He does not always appreciate direction when calling plays in the half-court.
Rondo’s basketball acumen serves a compensatory function to overcome this ostensibly clunky disconnect. The Kings have simplified their offense so as to involve Cousins and Rondo in plenty of middle-pick-and-roll action. Watch all 61 of Rondo’s assists to Cousins and you’ll notice this immediately. Other noteworthy things include the generosity of stat-keepers, Cousins flashing range as a trailing shooter (meshing nicely with the go-go pace) and Rondo’s propensity to pass up lay-ups for potential assists to mid-range jump shooters.
Cousins does well to screen Rondo’s man at whatever depth he sinks to. Chase Rondo over the top of the pick, force more committed help from the big and Cousins is free to rumble down the lane. Contrastingly, when defenders duck under the screen and make Rondo’s decision between pass and shoot a little less obvious, the gummy Kings spacing leaves them with a bunch of pick-and-pop jumpers.
On the whole, the Kings have done reasonably well to avoid launching too many mid-range attempts. Perhaps more importantly, Cousins appears pleased with Rondo’s addition, and given the volcanic nature of the personalities at play, positive threats of kidnapping are welcomed.
Rondo’s addition has made Cousins’ life easier in some respects beyond the pick-and-roll too. One such area that others have acknowledged is Rondo’s dexterity as a passer against the fronted post. Given Cousins’ dominance, occasionally teams work hard to front him and restrict Sacramento’s ability to dump the ball down to the low block. When Cousins shares the floor with a non-shooting big, fronting makes a great deal of sense. But Rondo is a gifted touch passer and has made a killing lobbing the ball over the front into the space between Cousins and the looming backside help:
Sporadically, Rondo will drive at the fronted post too, with apparently spectacular results:
Overall, the Rondo-Cousins pairing has a very respectable positive net rating. Nevertheless, the issues of fit associated with constructing a team that includes a dominant low-post scorer and an occasionally sticky point guard with historically limited shooting range are obvious.
Rondo’s shooting range has shown signs of expanding, taking as many threes per game since his shortened 2013-14 season with Boston, and making them at a career high rate. At the very least, his increased willingness to shoot is a useful step for a player whose jump shot looked completely inoperative less than 12 months ago.
This improvement should draw merely limited exaltation, for teams still ignore Rondo on the perimeter. Rondo’s SportVU shot data through the platform provided by NBAsavant more closely resembles the numbers of a jump-shooting big man, both in terms of average shot distance and average defender distance.
Team’s remain unafraid to abandon Rondo, particularly when he’s without the ball, something that has been particularly damaging to the Kings’ failed attempts to pair Rondo with Darren Collison. When playing together, Rondo and Collison have registered a miserable -16.0 net rating, per NBA.com. Check out Chris Paul blowing up this Collison-Boogie pick-and-roll by leaving Rondo despite his positioning in the strong-side corner, a general defensive taboo:
Put the ball in Rondo’s hands and the most savvy of NBA defenses will still brazenly attempt to make Rondo a jump-shooter:
Long an effective finisher around the rim, when Rondo makes correctly motivated decisions he is a more than capable penetrator. He carries a large ‘creation burden’ for the Kings, currently sporting one of the league’s highest ‘play-making usage’ rates, per Nylon Calculus. Unfortunately, the volume and accuracy of Rondo’s free throw shooting remains a concern and his general scoring efficiency is well below average, further inhibiting his influence as an offensive force.
On the defensive glass, the Kings have rebounded at a better a rate with Rondo off the floor. This could be an indication that despite the individually impressive totals, Rondo is thieving the occasional board from his teammates. By the standards of most point guards, Rondo chases rebounds, particularly on the defensive end, well beyond his immediate area.
A point guard with a penchant for going after offensive rebounds can leave a team vulnerable in defensive transition. The Kings have struggled defensively, and while Rondo has long been regarded as a quality defender, it’s unclear whether his on-court performance still warrants that reputation. He is vocal and communicative, and remains pesky in passing lanes, but his effort waxes and wanes. In this circumstance, peskiness is probably a euphemism for unnecessary gambling.
There is value, however, in a point guard who is a voluminous defensive rebounder. From a very simplistic standpoint, defensive rebounds end possessions and that in and of itself is a defensive skill. Additionally, when Rondo snaffles a board he is free to jet up court and enliven the Kings fast break, enabling them to more readily play at the tempo that George Karl desires. Other players that are candidates to ‘grab and go’ include Draymond Green and Russell Westbrook. Save the time taken to initiate an outlet pass to the point guard and you’re already off and running.
If you’re going to play with Rondo it makes sense to get out more frequently in the open court. It’s a superficial way of overcoming his shortcomings as a shooter by generating some spacing early in the shot clock. The full-court is bigger than the half-court. Push the ball in transition and you inherently put more distance between players as they race up the floor. The Kings have played at a top-five pace and have spent the third highest percentage of time playing in transition, per Synergy’s play-charting data. They’ve been an above average transition offense and below average in the half-court, per Nylon Calculus.
Let the Kings get out and run and Rondo can make dazzling plays in the open court, where you can almost see a matrix of numbers trickling down before his eyes as he surveys the floor, calculating his next move. Slow the game down, put five defenders in front of him, and the picture gets a little hazier. Defenders still disregard Rondo on the perimeter, and his hesitance in some catch-and-shoot scenario means that there is little reason for them to do otherwise.
Watch here as the Kings run the same ‘floppy’ action for Marco Belinelli on consecutive plays:
The second time down, Jose Calderon extends his range of help, deserting Rondo on the three-point line only for Rondo to kick the ball to a guarded Rudy Gay in the corner and stall the flow of the offense.
Rondo’s deference as a shooter is one explanation for his flashy assist totals. Whilst no player has thrown more assists this season, no player has thrown more passes in total. Generate a ratio that weighs hockey assists, free throw assists, and general assists, against total passes and Rondo’s numbers start to come back to the pack. He remains an accurate passer who regularly delivers the ball on time and on target.
Picking tiny gaps within a condensed defense is ladened with risk, and Rondo’s turnover rate is higher than you’d like in a point guard. His game is stubbornly crafted around the acceptance that his man will guard him on the lane-line, and on one hand that can be endearing and charming. On the other hand, Rondo’s modulation of a set defense with his array of funky pass fakes can zap the energy out of the ball as it sticks in his hands.
In a world saturated by social-media and talking-heads, there is a tendency to hear from only the loudest, most extreme voices. This season, Rondo is probably not as good as some say and not as bad as others proclaim. Maybe he is somewhere in the middle. It’s encouraging to see the return of his enormous counting stats, but a far more nuanced approach is required when approaching the difficult task of measuring his overall impact.
Whilst it is true that very few players combine Rondo’s ability as a playmaker and rebounder, in a league where teams are increasingly cavalier about vacating non-shooters, a passive-aggressive point-guard with a hesitant trigger finger is a problematic building block.