With Jason Kidd in Dallas and Chauncey Billups dealt to Denver, the coveted title of the top point guard in the Eastern Conference has come open this season. With apologies to veterans Mike Bibby, Andre Miller and Mo Williams, stathead favorite Jose Calderon and rapidly improving Derrick Rose and Rodney Stuckey, it is three emerging young point guards--New Jersey's Devin Harris, Orlando's Jameer Nelson and Boston's Rajon Rondo--who are vying for the honor and at most two spots on the East All-Star roster behind the likely starting backcourt of Allen Iverson and Dwyane Wade.
In a two-part series, I'll take a look at the three players and come to a consensus on which is the most valuable. Today, I put each point guard under the Every Play Counts microscope to investigate their skills and how they are used by their respective teams. Check back tomorrow as I delve deeper into the stats as part of my conclusion.
I had a chance to watch Rondo in person when the Celtics visited Portland last week, the third of four losses in their last six games. For Harris and Nelson, I viewed their games last Friday against Atlanta and Miami, respectively.
I haven't had much opportunity to watch Harris this season, since the Nets are never on national TV and I'm more likely to catch the later games on League Pass than the early starts. Frankly, I was expecting to see something a little more exotic from Lawrence Frank and the New Jersey coaching staff; I'd heard talk of Harris getting a running start on dribble handoffs en route to the basket. Instead, Harris pretty much isolated at the top of the key and used the traditional high pick-and-roll. Harris did create out of pure isolation plays more frequently than either of the other two point guards, the Nets spacing the floor and letting him work.
Watching Harris, I was struck by a comparison I've never heard before--Brandon Roy. Harris is much quicker to the basket than Roy is, and like the Blazers guard he has mastered using different speeds to his advantage, accelerating instantaneously after lulling his defender into a false sense of security by harmlessly dribbling the ball and waiting for the right moment to attack.
Harris had a great game overall, but was not at his best down the stretch. Using a variety of bigger defenders, including Joe Johnson and at times even Marvin Williams, the Hawks laid off and made Harris a jump-shooter--something easier said than done against the new breed of ultra-quick guards. Harris' jumper remains inconsistent, and he bricked several late in the game. A longer defender who can contest the jumper even while giving ground might be the best matchup defensively against Harris.
I was impressed with Harris' ability as a distributor. On one play, YES Network color analyst Jim Spanarkel pointed out how Harris created an open look for Jarvis Hayes by drawing Hayes' defender and kicking to him at precisely the right moment. Harris also runs the pick-and-pop very effectively with the Nets' sweet-shooting big men, Yi Jianlian and Ryan Anderson.
Defensively, Harris was more good than bad. His on-court impact numbers in Dallas were phenomenal, which was why I picked him as part of my all-defense first team in 2006-07. Even if that was a bit strong, Harris isn't to blame for the Nets' defensive woes. He did a fine job defending on the ball, keeping Mike Bibby from penetrating and making an excellent play when switched on to Johnson late in regulation. Harris forced Johnson to attempt a difficult fadeaway which he missed.
Harris is less effective off the ball. A poor closeout led to him fouling Bibby on a three-point attempt late in OT, which could have loomed large had the Nets not rallied to win. On another closeout, he failed to move his feet well and let Bibby by him. New Jersey is abysmal at defending the three (allowing 41.2 percent shooting, worst in the league), and Harris deserves some of the blame for that.
How has Nelson gone from a relatively average starting point guard to a contender for the All-Star team? It starts beyond the arc. The change in Nelson's game isn't so much about shooting a higher percentage from three-point range. Even though his 44.2 percent accuracy, good for ninth in the league, is a career high, Nelson shot 41.6 percent a year ago and was a 42.4 percent three-point shooter in 2005-06. (In between, he hit 33.5 percent in 2006-07. Such is the fickle nature of small sample sizes.)
Instead, the difference is in how frequently Nelson is launching. Nearly one in three of his shot attempts has been a three, up from a little over 25 percent a year ago. Add in improved accuracy on long-range jumpers (his 54.4 percent shooting on two-point jumpers leads the NBA, according to 82games.com) and Nelson has become lethally efficient. The uptick in Nelson's confidence in his jumper is visible; multiple times against Miami he pulled up from beyond the arc when the Heat failed to respect his shooting ability.
Nelson splits ballhandling duties with point forward Hedo Turkoglu, who averages 4.6 assists per game to Nelson's 5.2 (while playing additional minutes). Turkoglu was almost as likely to initiate the offense on this evening and ran a majority of the pick-and-rolls, with Nelson spotting up on the wing. In the open court, however, it is Nelson who runs the show. His strong court vision was evident in transition, and Nelson was--for better or worse--very aggressive trying to get the ball to teammates in the paint, resulting in good looks but also in turnovers.
Defensively, the 6'0" Nelson is giving up height to most opponents, though he offsets that with a strong base that allows him to be competitive in the post when necessary and play a physical brand of D. In this game, Nelson was largely a non-factor defensively because of his matchup with Mario Chalmers, a secondary offensive option for the Heat who was also suffering through a rough shooting night.
Clearly, I did not catch Rondo (or the Celtics as a whole) on his best night. Rondo committed four turnovers and mixed in the occasional highlight play with a handful of head-scratchers. Even in that effort, it was easy to see how Rondo has become so valuable to Boston.
One (semi-obvious) thing that struck me watching him in person was how good Rondo is at tracking down loose balls. I think this starts with the fact that he has enormous hands to go with long arms. Those hands almost seem to act like magnets when the ball is on the floor, in addition to helping Rondo pull off the fake behind-the-back pass that has become his signature move. Fans and writers talk from time to time about counting loose balls collected, and deflections are often tracked by teams, but I think that Rondo is evidence that this might be somewhat redundant. Rondo's ability to corral the ball is already reflected in his phenomenal steal percentage (third in the league, behind Chris Paul and Kidd) and a rebound percentage that is behind only Kidd's at his position.
Of course, Rondo was already a valuable rebounder and defender last season. Where his game has taken the next step is in terms of being a factor offensively. Rondo has pushed his field-goal percentage from 49.2 percent to 51.7 percent and seen his assists skyrocket from 5.1 to 7.6 per game in essentially the same minutes each night.
To shed light on how Rondo has done it, let's take a deeper look at the shooting by type numbers broken out by 82games.com. Here's how the three point guards compare each of the last two years in terms of outside and inside shooting (by effective field-goal percentage, to capture the additional value of three-point shots) as well as drawing fouls.
Player Year Ins% eFG% Out% eFG% Foul
Harris 0708 34% .610 66% .425 13.8%
0809 36% .541 64% .453 22.0%
Nelson 0708 34% .606 66% .480 8.2%
0809 24% .593 76% .595 5.2%
Rondo 0708 44% .589 56% .422 9.1%
0809 60% .717 40% .252 13.4%
From this chart, it's easy to see how each of the three players have changed their game this season. Harris is getting to the free-throw line much more often, Nelson has been lights-out from long range and Rondo has been unstoppable in the paint.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers spoke to this transformation Sunday after one of Rondo's worst games--1-of-7 shooting in a loss to the Knicks--saying, "Just because someone gives you a jump shot doesn't mean you have to take it. I think that's been his biggest improvement."
Rondo got to the bucket a lot last year, but has been unparalleled in this respect this year. There are plenty of players around the league taking more than 60 percent of their shots in the paint, but they are almost exclusively big men. The only other perimeter player at 60 percent or above is Rondo's teammate, Tony Allen. The next best point guard is Oklahoma City rookie Russell Westbrook, at 49 percent. On top of that, Rondo's 71.7 percent shooting in the lane ranks fourth in the league. The combination has made up for the fact that Rondo is actually shooting the jumper much, much worse than he did a year ago.
Teams have used various different strategies to combat Rondo and take advantage of his poor shooting. In the Finals and again on Christmas Day, the Lakers used Kobe Bryant on Rondo, allowing Bryant to roam the floor and offer double-team help. The Knicks matched 6'11" forward Jared Jeffries against Rondo, along the lines of the defense I suggested earlier against Harris, and the result was a rough night. Rivers' comment was in the context of encouraging his young point guard to continue to drive even with such a matchup.
Though I didn't have the chance to watch the Knicks/Celtics tilt, I think Rivers has a solid point. He noted that playing off a player allows them time to get a running start, and it helps Rondo here that he does as much of his driving off of passes as off the dribble. With Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett as ballhandlers, the Celtics use Rondo on the weak side as much as any true point guard is used there. The result is that Rondo is frequently catching the ball in what would be a catch-and-shoot situation for most players (like Nelson, for one) but is for him a chance to drive against a defense that is rotating and out of position.
Going back to the chart, the other thing that strikes me is how Rondo and Harris put up their production in very different manners despite relatively similar skill sets. Despite taking a much higher percentage of his shots in the paint, Rondo gets to the line much less frequently than Harris does. Naturally, there's a close relationship between percentage of shots in the paint and foul-drawing percentage. If you use this trendline to predict foul-drawing from inside shots, no player in the league outperforms his expectation more than Harris. Meanwhile, Rondo has taken fewer free throws than expected, but has made up for it by finishing better than Harris in the paint.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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