The Rajon Rondo Conundrum

Rondo is still elite
Rondo is still elite (USA Today Sports)

When analysing who the best point guard in the NBA has been over the past five years; Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Tony Parker, Steve Nash and most recently Russell Westbrook, have all had their advocates. Especially the latter, who continues to make an unprecedented run for the MVP award. However, after Paul’s masterful performance against Westbrook just a few days ago, it is CP3 who continues to assume the unofficial title of the best point guard in the league. Paul’s averages in 2014/2015 are marginally up, where he dishes out 10 assists per game and is converting on the three ball 38% of the time (1.6-4.1 attempts per game). Earlier this season, before Westbrook embarked on his rich vein of form, John Wall was making a legitimate claim to be in the conversation. In essence, there has never been a shortage of elite guards, and this season proves to be no exception. However, between the brilliant turns and twists of today’s point guards, one is often overlooked.

Enter Rajon Rondo.

Rondo is a controversial player, and rightfully so. One only needs to view the nasty on court incident between Mavericks’ Head Coach Rick Carlisle and Rondo to see why he is a polarizing figure (video below). Rondo joined Mark Cuban’s side after the Mavericks traded Jae Crowder, Brandan Wright and Jameer Nelson along with a 2015 first round pick and a 2016 second round pick to Boston. A four time all star and NBA champion (2008), Rondo’s resume is impressive, and it’s why the Mavericks traded the farm to acquire him. Yet for much of his career, Rondo has been an enigma. For such a naturally gifted player, none has weaknesses more frustrating.

In theory, a starting five of Rondo, Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler is tantalizing on paper. After the acquisition, many cited the move as the final piece needed to put Dallas over the top and to legitimize them as a contender. However, it’s been a stressful time of adjustment for the Mavericks. Since Dallas acquired Rondo, the Mavericks have posted a fledgling 25-17 record. To further compound the teething process, Dallas have experienced regressions in both offensive and defensive production. In other words, the transition has not been smooth. Because of Rondo’s unique skill set and glaring weaknesses, it begs the question: has the NBA passed Rajon Rondo by; and if Dallas is not a good fit for Rondo, where is?

An analysis of Rondo’s game and level of play in Dallas is required to tackle this loaded question.

The Good

Playmaking –

One of the Mavericks’ weaknesses at the beginning of the season was the lack of a pure play maker. It’s no secret Rondo is an elite facilitator with the ball in his hands. Over his 561 game career, Rondo has totalled 4,694 assists to date, and has amassed 22 triple doubles. The ten year veteran has compiled four seasons averaging over 10 assists or more, the highest being 11.7 assists per game in ’11-’12.

Rondo is an exceptional ball handler in the pick and roll, which will bode well in the playoffs (Tyson Chandler is elite in the pick and roll). According to NBA.com stats, Rondo is ranked ninth in the league this season for assist opportunities per game (15.3). Because of Rondo’s high usage, his assist percentage is elite. Although Rondo’s assist percentage fell below 50% in the months of January and February (45.5% and 46.9%) it’s trending back upwards in the month of March (53.6%).

Interestingly, Rondo’s assist numbers have been down since his arrival in Texas, he averaged just 4.6 per game in February. This can be attributed to sharing the backcourt with Monta Ellis, however in the past five games, Rajon has dished out 8.6 dimes, including 13 in a tight win over Oklahoma City. It’s a sign that the eccentric guard is finally beginning to settle into the Dallas offense, which is further evidenced by his totals in March (7.5 assists per game). Rondo has also been a boost to Dirk Nowitzki’s offensive output, 10.5% of Rondo’s passes go to Nowitzki, who is shooting 46.5% off those looks.

Dirk has benefited from Rondo's arrival
Dirk has benefited from Rondo’s arrival (USA Today Sports)

Defensive Prowess –

Another cumbersome weakness that plagued the Mavericks for much of last season was defensive intensity. Porous defense on the perimeter allowed opposing teams to exploit the Mavs’ soft interior presence (made up of Dalembert and Nowitzki). The off-season acquisition of Tyson Chandler added rim protection inside, but Monta Ellis is a below average defender and Chandler Parsons is by no means elite at locking down on the perimeter. Rondo’s defensive pedigree speaks for itself, a two time member of the first all-defensive team (2010-11) and a two time member of the second all-defensive team (2011-12).

Per 100 possessions, Rondo allows less points (102) than Chris Paul (104) and Russell Westbrook (105). This may not seem impressive at first glance, but to put this into perspective, Anthony Davis has a defensive rating over his career of 103. Of course, Davis rotates between two of the toughest positions in the stacked western conference, but the point remains, Rondo is an elite defensive presence. So far, Rondo is excelling in his role on the perimeter. He’s keeping opponents to just 32.3% on three pointers (2.2% less than league average) and holds his opponents to just 36.7% 15 ft or further from the rim.

X Factor –

The determining factor behind Mark Cuban pursuing the four time all star is his playoff experience and freakish tendency to raise his intensity and production in big games. Although Ellis and Parsons are solid complimentary players, the Mavericks have relied heavily on Nowitzki’s production. The acquisition of Rondo changes this dynamic. One only needs to look at Rondo’s performance in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals. Rondo gave LeBron James and the Miami Heat an almighty scare as he compiled a ridiculous statline that consisted of 44 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and three steals. If Nowitzki slumps in the playoffs, Rondo is more than capable of taking over, his playoff record indicates he may be the move needed that turns the Mavericks into a legitimate team that can go all the way

The Bad

Shot Selection –

Despite Rondo’s greatness, as analysed above, he’s still flawed. He can’t shoot the basketball.

Despite having a liable jumper, Rondo is an elite finisher inside, which has led resulted in the guard shooting as high as 51% from the floor (09-10). Rondo’s inconsistent jump shot is not a problem that has manifested since the mercurial guard’s arrival in Texas, but nevertheless it’s a glaring weakness in Rajon’s game. Below is Rondo’s shot chart for the 2014/2015 season (courtesy of Shot Analytics).

Yikes

Rondo’s career field goal percentage of 47% is excellent, but this season he’s shooting just 41% from the floor. At first glance of the shot chart above, it’s clear Rondo is still an excellent finisher around the rim for his size. So why has his efficiency plummeted?

Shot selection.

As a by-product of the Dallas offense, Rondo is attempting more three pointers a game (1.4 v 0.9) and is making them at an abysmal 13% from the top of the arc. He is shooting 31.6% for the season on triples, which is a small improvement on his career percentage of 26% from down town. Rondo is effective from the left corner, where he shoots 50% from the arc, but his efficiency on three from anywhere else on the floor is below average at best. Despite Rondo’s increase in three point attempts, that’s not the core root of his decline in efficiency. Of Rondo’s shots this season, 46% of those attempts have come from mid range. 46%.

From the left elbow Rondo runs at about league average (40%-43%) but his efficiency from the right elbow and accompanying baseline’s is cringe worthy. 17% of Rondo’s total shot attempts come from the right elbow, a shot he is burying just 34% of the time. Ironically, Rondo is attacking the rim on just 39% of his attempts, where he converts over 50% of those shots.

Why the change in Rondo’s shot selection? Whilst it is impossible to ascertain the exact reason for Rondo’s questionable shot selection this season, it could be attributed to the guard’s ACL injury which he sustained in 2013 against Miami. It’s theoretical that Rondo’s regression in field goal attempts near the glass is a result of reduced explosiveness and hesitancy to attack the defense, due to fear of re-injury (see Derrick Rose). This theory has merit as Rondo shot just 40% from the floor in his first season back from surgery (’13-’14).

Free Throw Percentage –

Rondo has always been a mediocre foul shooter, running at just 60.7% from the line over his career. The bad news is however, he’s getting worse. Rondo’s free throw percentage of 31.7% this season is on track to be one of the worst performances from the line in league history. When comparing field goal percentage and free throw percentage, the chart below depicts how Rondo stacks up against previous and current guards. Warning: it’s not pretty.

(via databallgoodman).

Free Throw Shooting - Guards Only

And here is a chart plotting the same data, including every NBA player from 1946 onwards.

Free Throw Shooting - All Players

Rondo is on track to have the poorest performance from the line of any NBA guard, he’s connected on just 20 free throws for the entire season. It is clear Rondo has lost confidence at the line, this season he is attempting just 1.9 free throws a game (lowest of his career).

Rondo can't shoot free throws
Rondo can’t shoot free throws (USA Today Sports)

The Ugly

Attitude –

It’s no surprise that Rondo’s fiery attitude on the court boils over at times, and it was on display for all to see during the Mavericks’ home game against the Toronto Raptors in January. The incident can be seen below.

The incident did not bode well for Rondo, who was benched for the rest of the contest and then suspended for one game. Rick Carlisle maintains that the incident was born out of miscommunication and growing pains, but it’s not the first time Rondo’s anger and questionable on court demeanour has gotten the better of him. In 2012 Rondo remonstrated with Kris Humphries, resulting in an intense scuffle and ejection (watch here). In the same year Rondo was promptly ejected after making purposeful body contact with an official. In other words, his altercation with Rick Carlisle was not an isolated incident.

Rondo-Humphries-Fight-1024x539

Despite Rondo’s unpalatable shortcomings, his defensive output and elite play making will make him one of those most coveted players in free agency this off-season. Whether he will resign with Dallas remains to be seen (another discussion in its own), and it will largely hinge on how the Mavericks perform in the playoffs. The talent and skillset is there, but the confounding weaknesses of such a gifted prospect makes Rondo not only an enigma but a conundrum. His inability to connect from long range and crippling conversion rate at the charity stripe make him a dicey proposition in the playoffs, yet he holds the key for a team that is going nowhere without him. Although the transition has been rough at best, Rondo brings several traits to the table that make the Mavericks a better team, he’s far from a spent force in the league.

There is hope.

Dallas are enjoying a three game mini streak, and it’s thanks largely to the play of Rondo, who in that time has averaged over 10 assists a game and played excellent defense. If things continue to progress, the Rondo experiment will prove to be a success, because a guard rotation of Jameer Nelson and Devin Harris was average at a stretch. The rewards are starting to sift through slowly, and with the playoffs just around the corner, the Mavericks are beginning to resemble a legitimate contender. The Mavericks front office will be keeping their fingers crossed that Rondo buys into the system and doesn’t bump heads with Carlisle again, otherwise they can kiss him goodbye in the off-season.

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