The story below originally ran in SLAM 145, which was on newsstands during the early part of the 2010-11 season. Some of the statistics and information in this piece have since been slightly dated, but the message is the same: That the Boston Celtics are nothing without their All-Star point guard.—Ed.
by Khalid Salaam
The Boston Celtics are the class of the Eastern Conference and—at press time, winning at an .833 percent clip—arguably the best team in the entire League. All of their players are playing at 2010 Playoffs peak levels; a couple are even hovering above that. It’s impressive and certainly feasible that they will get four players into the All-Star Game. Where is this closing window we keep hearing about? It’s supposed to be shutting soon, but right now this team is savaging its opponents. Both Ray Allen and Paul Pierce are having career-best shooting years (PDouble is hitting 50 percent of his shots from the field and Allen 49 percent); Kevin Garnett has overcome his recent injures and is playing with ’07-level athleticism; Glen Davis is in the early running for the Sixth Man of the Year award; and Shaquille O’Neal is proving that there’s more left in his tank after all. So who’s responsible for this upkeep?
The Celtics are on national TV seemingly every week, and their highlights are always prominently shown. Sometimes highlights lie—don’t tell the whole story of how impactful a player is during an entire game. But when you catch what Rajon Rondo is doing, it’s evident that his play is what makes this thing go. This is the best pick-and-roll defending team in the L, the best help-defense in the League and the best one-on-one defensive team, too. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are all tremendous, but Rondo is the most essential player on the team, and arguably the best point guard in the game.
“For this team, I’m the best for this role,” explains Rondo, days before he sprained an ankle that cost him a few games. “Obviously, they don’t need me to score the ball, even though I can make shots. Other point guards take shots because that’s their job. My job is to get guys open looks, make it easy for guys and run this system.”
To understand Rondo’s defensive approach, think of him as an NFL free safety who has specific duties but also the ability to freelance. He hovers near his man but is always moving, making himself available for help when needed. It’s a cerebral style of play that allows Rondo to, at times, dominate entire games.
“I’ve played with some really good PGs,” says Allen. “Terrell Brandon was one of the best guards in the League at the time, Sam Cassell was a great player, an All-Star. The difference is those two guys are scorers. Rondo’s not a scorer. He’s a playmaker. He’s a better athlete than either of those guys. He affects the game more all-around then any guard I’ve ever played with.”
It’s unique, a style of PG play that didn’t exist before. Rondo is the Ol’ Dirty Bastard of the NBA—there is no father to his style. It’s not smooth, and you won’t hear words like “effortless” describing Rondo. It’s not really flashy, nor is it pedestrian. It’s something else. Surgical almost. He plays with speed and balance, a cunning style that works in both fast break and half-court situations. He’s a throwback without having an old-school game. At press time, his 13.8 assists per game leads the League, and he’s already had five games this season where he posted 17 or more assists. Meanwhile, his per-game scoring average is a relatively modest 11.2, albeit on 53 percent shooting from the field and accompanied by 4.5 rpg and 2.4 spg. Free throws are a different story.
Remember, we’re in the era of de facto combo guards. All of the top PGs—Rose, Westbrook, Paul, Williams—are deft scorers capable of 30-plus on a good night. After Rondo, Steve Nash is the only player averaging at least 10 assists, and he’s over three assists back from Rondo’s pace. The John Stockton pom-pom shorts era, where four or five guys routinely averaged double-digit assists, seems as much a relic as two-parent homes.
“Things have changed a lot. When I came into the League, it was all about the pass-first point guard, and that’s why I had so many problems with Rick Pitino, because I was a scorer,” says Nuggets point man Chauncey Billups. “These days, guys who don’t score are rare. Everybody is a scoring guard now, and they affect the game by getting buckets. You look around and those are the best guys out there. Except for Rondo, he’s the exception to the rule. He does so many things that you can’t just play him one way, he’s just a special player.”
None of this is to say he came out of nowhere. Rondo did his thing at Eastern HS in Louisville for three years, then went on to prep power Oak Hill Academy and the University of Kentucky. Playing at a high-visibility program like UK gave him confidence, but it was playing well for the US in the 2005 FIBA U-21 World Championship that gave him the boost he needed to apply for the NBA Draft. After a nondescript rookie season in ’06-07, Rondo went primetime the next season when the Big Three was assembled.
You know the rest of the story—a pup on a team of alpha dogs who comes through and helps them win a ring. Improves every year, enough to make the All-Star Game last year and grab a couple of triple-doubles in the Playoffs. Now he’s easily one of the all-around best players in the League. “It’s a complete change from ’08,” Rondo says. “I’m a more serious student of the game, and my overall player development is improved. I have to give credit to a lot of guys who helped me mature.”