Even as Rajon Rondo was winning a championship with the Boston Celtics last season, critics contended that Rondo's effectiveness as the Celtics' starting point guard was due in large part to the All-Star trio of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett alongside him. Witness the scathing analysis of former All-Star point guard Gary Payton, who told an NBA TV audience last November that Rondo did not deserve a championship ring because he was merely along for the ride with the Big Three.
More recent results have suggested we should consider the opposite argument: What if the All-Stars around him have in fact kept Rondo from exploring his entire skill set? With Garnett sidelined, Rondo has taken a more prominent role in the offense and responded with the best play of his career. If that was true during the regular season, when Rondo boosted his scoring average from 11.2 points per game alongside Garnett to 13.6 ppg in his absence, it's been doubly the case during the first two games of the playoffs. Rondo has been one of the postseason's early breakout stars, following up a 29-point Game One effort with a dazzling Game Two triple-double: 19 points, 16 assists, 12 rebounds and five steals without a turnover in 40 minutes.
Rondo Raises His Game
PPG APG Usg TS%
W/Garnett 11.2 8.5 .185 .530
W/o Garnett 13.6 7.7 .207 .573
Playoffs 24.0 11.5 .234 .542
During his first year as a starter, Rondo surely did rely at times on his veteran star teammates to cover for his shaky jumper and for decision-making that was tentative at times. Phil Jackson exposed Rondo's incomplete game in the NBA Finals by assigning Kobe Bryant to defend Rondo and allowing him to serve as a defensive rover and double-team the rest of the Celtics. Doc Rivers had little choice but to sit Rondo in favor of backup Eddie House for extended stretches.
Rondo hasn't really improved his jumper this season--in fact, according to 82games.com, his effective field-goal percentage on jump shots actually decreased from 42.2 percent to 37.5 percent--but he has become more adept at covering for it by getting into the paint. 82games.com also reports that 57 percent of Rondo's shot attempts this season have come from the lane, up from 44 percent a year ago. The improved ability to drive also means more chances to draw the defense and dish to open teammates, which is why Rondo improved from 5.1 assists per game to 8.2 (good for sixth in the NBA) with only a slight increase in playing time.
With the ball in Rondo's hands more frequently, Boston has grown increasingly reliant on his playmaking to create good ball movement. With Rondo on the floor, the Celtics got assists on 61 percent of their made baskets during the regular season. When he headed to the bench, that number dropped to 58 percent. This point was hammered home dramatically when a sprained ankle kept Rondo out for two games last month. In a home loss to Orlando on March 8, Boston had just two assists in the first 17 minutes, finishing with ten in tying their lowest-scoring game of the season to date. The Celtics' offense was more effective at Miami on March 11, but the team still had just 15 assists in another loss.
At the defensive end of the floor, it's hard to make the case that Rondo is dependent on his teammates. After Garnett, who won Defensive Player of the Year in 2007-08, Rondo is Boston's most important individual defender, earning three First Team votes for last year's All-Defensive Team. Rondo ranked fifth in the NBA with 3.0 steals per 100 possessions, having led the league in this category while playing primarily off the bench as a rookie. Rondo is also a phenomenal rebounder for his position; only Jason Kidd had a better rebound percentage from the point than Rondo, who collected 9.6 percent of all available misses, did.
The notion that Rondo is dependent on the Celtics' All-Stars is outdated this season, a point he is making dramatically during the postseason. Yes, the respect opposing defenses have to pay to Allen, Pierce and (when healthy) Garnett helped open up the floor, allowing Rondo to get to the basket. At the same time, however, Rondo has created better looks for the rest of his teammates with his own ability to drive-and-kick. The Boston defense would not be quite as potent without Rondo pressuring the ball, creating steals and contributing on the glass.
Rondo's play, especially since Garnett's injury, has made a strong case that he deserves to share top billing with his more accomplished teammates. When Garnett returns to the lineup, potentially later in the playoffs but more likely next season, it's time for a nickname change. The Big Four might not roll off the tongue quite as easily, but it's the most accurate way to describe Boston's current group of stars.
Can't get enough of Kevin Pelton's analysis of the NBA postseason? He'll be taking questions Friday at 1 p.m. ET at Baseballprospectus.com on all of the matchups, looking back at Thursday night's action and ahead to a big weekend of NBA basketball. If you can't make the chat, submit your question ahead of time and check back afterwards for the transcript.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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