Don’t Hate The Player

by Todd Spehr

I like Rajon Rondo. I can’t help it. His odd skill set—his wild ball fakes when he gets in the paint, how he rebounds like it’s 1962, the randomly skewed stat lines—appeals to someone like me. The appeal, however, doesn’t exactly permeate to everyone.

Gary Payton, I would surmise, hasn’t exactly boarded the Rondo train. Doing the NBATV thing right now, Payton must surely be the source for some off-air yapping because when Rondo’s name came up last month, Ahmad Rashad immediately went fishing for a Rondo assessment from G.P., and well, he got it: “I respect the man’s game, I’m just saying he got put into a situation.” Payton then references coat-tail guys like M.L. Carr and John Salley. Good stuff.

(In a related note, who are we to argue? If anyone knows what it’s like to be “put in a situation” it’s G.P. He was in one in 2004 (L.A.) and also 2006 (Miami), eventually earning that elusive ring in South Florida.)

Truth be told, Rondo is more than just a guy playing alongside K.G.-Pierce-Allen. Importantly, Rondo’s a guy they trust. K.G. said on multiple occasions that “it starts with our point guard.” Yes, the defending champs who possess three guys heading straight to Springfield rely on a Gun charges22-year old with a, shall I say, less than reliable jump shot who prefers the paint to the perimeter.

You could make the case that Rondo’s development was harder because of his surroundings. There are plenty of young guys who come in with bad teams, get the necessary minutes and develop at a nice pace. For those who think Rondo’s opportunity—playing with the caliber that he is—is easy, imagine if Sebastian Telfair remained in Boston.

Playing with three All-Stars, no matter how much they sacrifice, would never be easy for a young point guard. It can’t be. Yes, it would beat the heck out of playing with misfits, but you have to win their trust, keep everyone happy, make sure everyone is getting touches, score when they’re sagging off you, and do whatever is possible to make sure they don’t get mad at you. Rondo’s options were to wilt or thrive. He chose to thrive. He’s a much-improved player.

Just how much better his team makes him, though, is a hard to determine. Remember Matt Maloney? White guy, shot threes, looked like an accountant? Anyway, he broke in Baloneywith the Rockets in ’97, played with Olajuwon-Drexler-Barkley and was a serviceable point in his first two years. But when the old dudes inevitably broke down, so did Maloney’s career. Gone, just like that. Can we be certain that isn’t Rondo?

Thankfully, I think we can.

There are some things you just can’t ignore. It was Rondo who broke open Game 6 of last year’s Finals, seemingly in many places at once, setting a tone that lasted the full 48. Last week, Rondo busted Indiana—by now you’ve surely heard—with 16, 13, and 17, but the most impressive part wasn’t that only Magic Johnson had pulled a similar triple-dip in the last 25 years, but that Rondo had achieved it roughly 113 seconds into the second half. Basketball-Reference has Rondo listed fourth in defensive rating for this season. And I just got done reading the first of what will likely be many “Rondo an All-Star?” columns. What just happened?

I’m certainly not ready to approve this All-Star talk just yet—first Calderon, then Devin Harris, now this?—but there’s no denying Rondo has arrived as a very good pro. You can live with his inconsistency, his home-versus-road disparity (see: Playoffs, 2008), and the fact he’s still raw all because of who he plays with. He gets a free pass. Call it the Robert Horry Theorem: You can play without having accountability because of your great teammates.

So now we watch. Rondo needs to step in and replace James Posey as Boston’s fourth You-can-count-on-me-for-every-playoff-game player, he needs to continue to have outings like the Pacers game where we wonder “Can he really be an All-Star in the next two years?” and he needs to keep making everyone happy. And most importantly, if he is the starting point guard on a repeat championship run, Gary Payton might be “put in a situation” where he takes note of Rondo’s game. Imagine that.