The best part of watching this year’s Boston Celtics has been the rapid development of Rajon Rondo. The player that in the past had shown so much promise and untapped potential, all the while being maddeningly inconsistent, has come full circle this year. The guy is the MVP of this team thus far, the individual who they could least afford to lose to injury. That’s some heavy praise for a player who is surrounded by three future Hall of Famers in the starting lineup.
Given these developments, it’s fair to ask, what exactly has changed about Rondo this year? Sure the majority of his averages per game have gone up from last year in points, (12 to 14), assists, (8.2 to 9.7) steals (1.9 to league-leading 2.5) but those numbers were pretty impressive in themselves last year. So what’s the biggest improvement Rondo has made in his game this year, to catapult his play into becoming the team MVP and potential All-Star? The short answer? It’s the finishing, my friend.
We had always seen flashes of Rondo’s finishing potential over the course of his career, and especially last year during the first-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls. The guy averaged just under a triple-double for that entire series, and just a shade under 20 points per game while getting to the basket at will against the pesky Bulls. Universal acclaim was bestowed upon Rondo, as the country saw what we Celtics fans had seen flashes of throughout Rondo’s entire career: the ability and confidence to finish strong at, and around the basket.
The honeymoon ended very quickly in the Orlando series. Rondo still provided terrific numbers in other facets of the game, averaging 9.5 boards and 8.4 assists per contest. The presence of Dwight Howard in the paint as well as Orlando’s defense put the clamps down on Rondo’s ability to get to the rim, as much as he did against Chicago.
Rajon’s shooting, as well as the C’s offense, suffered tremendously because of this, with Rondo’s FG percentage dipping down from 45 percent against the Bulls to 36.6% for the series against Orlando. Rondo’s flaws and inconsistent play were exposed to the nation once again, as it had been during his 2008 Finals run, when he was benched in favor of Eddie House at many crucial junctures of the Lakers series.
An offseason of well-documented turmoil surrounding Rondo followed the Orlando loss. Despite this, Rondo returned to the C’s as expected, reportedly more motivated than ever and fresh off of a summer working with shooting coach Mark Price. Needless to say, Celtics fans were excited about this development, as Rondo’s inability to shoot from the outside proved to be his achilles heel against Orlando.
What many fans seem to forget though, is that the 10-15 footers were just as troublesome as the outside shots for Rondo against the Magic. Rondo had opportunities from that range against Orlando all series long, as Magic defenders laid off of the point guard while protecting the rim. Unfortunately, Rondo lacked the ability, as well as the confidence, to take and make those chances on a regular basis. This led to many instances when Rondo looked to pass from this range, despite having a wide-open shot. Once again, Rondo’s perhaps fatal flaw had been exposed. It was a problem, and many C’s fans wondered if it would severely hamper and limit his effectiveness over the course of his career.
Fast forward to Rondo’s performance this year. Despite Price’s coaching, the outside shooting has not improved. In fact, it has regressed. Rondo is shooting 19.4 percent from downtown, a sharp drop from the 31 percent in 2008-09. In addition, his mid-range jumper has taken a hit as well, according to Hoopdata.com, with his shooting percentage from 16-23 feet falling from 40 percent last year, to just 32 percent this year. These numbers combined with Rondo’s problems at the free throw line (though he has recovered nicely to 60 percent in recent weeks) seem to indicate Rondo has not figured out the outside part of his game—not yet anyway.
Now, to make a point of full disclosure here, the inspiration for me writing this blog post came after the Heat win last week. In that overtime contest, Rondo went 9-of-12 from the floor and seemed to make every kind of shot when he got within 10-15 feet of the basket, especially in crunch time. I had noticed he had become a much better shooter this year on these types of “in-between” shots, but I figured it would be interesting to see just how much he had improved this year from this area on the floor. The answer? More than you and I could have ever imagined:
Below are Rondo’s FG Percentage numbers from all areas of the floor courtesy of Hoopdata.com
I highlighted the 2010 column there at the bottom for emphasis. As you can see Rondo showed nice improvement at the rim in his shooting percentage, but the focus should be the percentages inside 10 feet, and the 10-15 foot range. In these categories, Rondo posted unprecedented 17 and 20 percentage point gains, all the while taking MORE shot attempts from both of these regions of the floor. Just remarkable improvement that has gone under the radar for the majority of this year.
When you go back and think about Rondo’s performance this year though, the numbers make sense. The teardrop, floater, lefty layup, up-and-under–Rondo is taking all of these shots now with confidence and taking them well. With the nice array of weapons Rondo now has in his arsenal, number 9 is no longer looking to pass first when he gets within 10 feet of the hoop. Now, he looks to finish.
The advanced progression may have sped up a bit due to the plethora of injuries that have beset the Celtics in the past 2 months, as Rondo’s shot attempts per game have jumped from 10 to 13 per game since December. With the additional workload has come confidence and success as well, as despite the increased number of attempts, Rondo has shot a staggering 60 percent from the field thus far in January.
While digesting all of these numbers, another question popped into my head. Sure, Rondo’s improved numbers were nice inside 15 feet, but how did they stack up overall against other point guards in the league? The answer was a little less surprising this time. Below are Rondo’s rankings amongst PG’s at the various ranges as well as the league averages for point guard’s at that distance.
AT RIM (PG LEAGUE AVERAGE 56.4%)
Rondo: 4th (66.3%)
LESS THAN 10 FEET (PG LEAGUE AVERAGE 43.3%)
Rondo: 7th (57.6%)
10-15 FEET (PG LEAGUE AVERAGE 41.3%)
Rondo: 5th (55.2%)
Once again, impressive numbers for Rondo in all of those ranges. In fact, Rondo finished ahead of great scorers such as Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Mo Williams in ALL of these categories. Expect that? Neither did I.
I still had one question left though. Sure Rondo may be shooting well from all of these ranges, but how many shots per game was he taking in these regions, compared to everyone else. Figuring this out, I thought, would expose Rondo and other players who may shoot well in a particular area of the floor, but didn’t shoot from there enough for it to impact the game. For example, Beno Udrih is the 2nd best PG finisher in the league around the rim, shooting over 70 percent when he gets in that close. However, he only shoots 2.4 attempts a game from that close, so he really doesn’t get to the rim enough for it to help his team significantly.
With that in mind, I ranked Rondo’s shot attempts per game in all of these areas amongst all point guards. Once again, the results were favorable for Rajon:
AT RIM: (LEAGUE AVERAGE FOR PG’S: 3 ATTEMPTS/GAME)
Rondo: 5.6 attempts/game (3rd in league amongst PG)
UNDER 10 FEET: (LEAGUE AVERAGE FOR PG’S: 0.9 ATT./GAME)
Rondo: 2.1 attempts/game (2nd in league amongst PG)
10-15 FEET: (LEAGUE AVERAGE FOR PG’S: 0.9 ATTEMPTS/GAME)
Rondo: 0.8 attempts/game (21st amongst PG)
All numbers from Hoopdata.com
So there you have it. Rondo is not only shooting well from these areas of the floor, he is taking more shots inside of 10 feet than nearly every other PG in the league. In fact, at the rim and inside of 10 feet, Rondo is only behind Steve Nash and Derrick Rose in FG Percentage out of the point guards who take more than 5 shots/game in those ranges.
So not only is Rondo making these shots more than ever, he is taking more of them than ever before. For that reason, I have to proclaim Rajon as one of the best finishers in the league now around the basket. These numbers don’t lie, and Rondo is making the Celtics offense more dangerous than ever.
Given the fact the point guard out of Kentucky is only a 24-year-old, Danny Ainge’s decision to lock up the guard before he hit the market is looking smarter than ever and in all likelihood saved the C’s a couple million dollars a year that some other team surely would have anted up in max (or near max) money this offseason.
For now though, the C’s are left with one of the elite finishers in the league at his position. Rondo ranks 2nd in the league in point guard FG Percentage at 53%, just behind Steve Nash. Combine this with all the other ways number nine can fill the box score, I think it’s fair to start debating whether Rajon is one the top three overall point guards in the game. Now if he could only figure out that jumper.