The definition of what separates a very good player from a superstar is oft-discussed, but difficult to pin down. The superstar can score. The superstar can lead. The superstar is elite in several areas. The superstar has flaws just like everyone else, but ones that are fewer and far between, less glaring in the spotlight. The superstar never takes a night off and hardly ever cedes a possession. Either indirectly or directly, the superstar makes the game of basketball easier for his teammates.
Entrance into the highest of NBA societies isn’t exactly fluid. By my count there are nine superstars at this very moment: LeBron James, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Love. All of those guys fit the criteria listed above, and all are talented enough to be the best player on a champion.
Now, let’s enter Rajon Rondo’s name into this column. Rondo is not a superstar, but he’s certainly on the next ring of basketball brilliance. He’s elite in a few areas (intelligence, defense, passing), but disappears too often, can’t score at will, and has several technical, well-publicized flaws that shackle him from inclusion with the nine players listed above.
But despite the blemishes, there’s one undeniable thing about Rondo that makes people say he’s not only one of the best at his position, but an absolute nightmare for opposing coaches who’re trying to draw up a defensive game plan: His ability to make teammates better, and in some cases, to a level even they thought they would never see.
The grand piano dangling by a string over Rondo’s head these past few years has been the misnomer that his success is a natural byproduct of playing with three first ballot Hall of Famers. Obviously, having them on board doesn’t hurt his numbers, but what if we flipped this situation around and inspected it from a different angle?
For those who believe Rondo’s inability to consistently convert jumpers is this team’s primary source of offensive struggle, here are a few stats. This season the Celtics are averaging 35 points in the paint per game. When Rondo is on the court that number jumps to an average of 37.5 (a team high when compared to everyone else’s individual impact). When he’s on the bench the number goes down to a team worst 30.8. When it comes to fast break points, the Celtics average 12.1 points per game. With Rondo on the court the number climbs to 14.7 (a figure that makes Boston a top-10 fast break scoring offense). When he’s off the court the number falls off a cliff, tumbling down to a team low 7.8.
These are two of the easiest ways to score in a basketball game, so even though the Celtics don’t have a back to the basket presence or more than one elite rebounder, the numbers show that Rondo has a serious influence on getting his team straightforward buckets. Now, relative to every other team in the league these numbers don’t mean much (the Celtics are 19th in fastbreak points and 28th in points in the paint), but within Boston’s vacuum Rondo’s impact is undeniably gigantic.
Now let’s take a look at how he’s directly impacting the aforementioned trio of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce.
- Despite clearly showing limitations as someone who couldn’t average 18 points a game if he wanted, Allen is having unprecedented success for a shooting guard at this stage in his career. So far this season he’s had 159 of his 207 made field goals come by way of an assist. Rondo was the deliverer on 75 of those 159 baskets. That’s incredible. There are many factors that go into Ray’s success, but if you put him on the Bulls, Thunder, or Clippers (all teams he could legitimately suit up for next season) it’d be interesting to see if there would be any significant drop off in production with three of the league’s other elite point guards feeding him the ball instead of Rondo. If it weren’t for the Celtics point guard, there’s a good chance Allen wouldn’t be viewed as a scale-tipping free agent in the first place.
- Because of Paul Pierce’s ability to independently operate, Rondo’s influence isn’t as great with him as with Allen (although it definitely exists), but Garnett’s renaissance of a season—at least offensively—almost entirely falls on his point guard’s shoulders. Every time he launches a wide open 18-footer, it’s Rondo doing the leg work, drawing the defense, and smoothly dropping a pin point pass back at Garnett’s breadbasket. All that’s left for him to do is bend the knees and release. This not only helps the 35-year-old on offense, but it also allows him to stow away as much energy as possible for the defensive end, where his play has once again been exceptional.
Who around the league is better at directly making his teammate’s jobs that much easier? Well, there’s LeBron James, who I believe to be number one in this category. Then there’s Steve Nash, who continues to put teammates in positions to succeed. And there’s Chris Paul, the best point guard alive.
But even including those three in the discussion, who else can turn the likes of Ryan Hollins and Chris Wilcox into a couple of high-flying missiles that are actually forcing defenses to pay attention? The way he sets up non Hall of Fame worthy teammates like Brandon Bass, allowing them to showcase their strength multiple times each night is truly unique.
He may not be a superstar, but Rondo’s ability to make all four guys around him that much better is unquantifiable. Just remember that if he were ever to be traded, not only would the Celtics be losing one of the game’s most complete point guards, they’d also forfeit a little bit of what makes everybody else on the team so successful.