Inverting the Court

How Rajon Rondo plays basketball and keeps us honest
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Rajon Rondo is identified by where he is, and isn't. He's the future of the Celtics, and he can't shoot jumpers. These are two of the most important markers of place in the NBA. Yet Rondo, remote by nature, isn't known for being where he should.

The Celtics emboss their greats like no other franchise, even the Lakers. Paul Pierce is a CELTIC; his legacy is his part in the tradition. Rondo is only the de facto future, so he keeps his distance from history. The Celtics tried to swap him for Chris Paul during the preseason, suggesting that their commitment to him was anything but absolute. Their most important player is just there to play basketball, and this suits Rondo just fine.

Point guards initiate offense at the top of the key. Otherwise, the possession is a non-starter, Rondo disdains the jumper, preferring instead to invert the court. Chris Paul penetrates and kicks an eye toward getting a man open on the perimeter, or circles back under the hoop to reset (a la Nash). Rondo uses the baseline as the top of the key. He inverts the court, looking out on his team from the wrong side, setting up a possession where it should be coming to an end. 

Point guard is arguably the most important position in the NBA right now, due in large part to the rule changes that made it so much easier for point guards to do their job. Maybe it made them soft, but on some Guns, Germs, and Steel shit, it also greatly expanded their ability to shape a possession. Outside of world-historical figures like LeBron or Kobe, no player is as easy to write about as point guards. The "point guard as quarterback" analogy is hopelessly flawed, but here it works for one reason: a point guard has his thinking laid bare like no other player on the court. He's responsible for creating on a macro-level, and his failures are systemic in nature. Good teamwork aside, all other positions have the luxury of being primarily responsible for themselves.

Style is individual, and to the extent that it reflects psychology or personality, we read the decisions of non-PGs as moves, gestures, impulses, or scripts. Point guards enact ideas, and beyond that, ideas about ideas. It's not just about their team's execution, but their conception of the court, and the game they use to realize this idea. Ideal is the more obvious choice of words, except while there's Chris Paul, there's also Rajon Rondo, the defect that made us believe. 

I used to write about Gilbert Arenas a lot. That’s what I did. Now, I think it’s Russell Westbrook. Rondo seems an obvious choice for me, but he’s nearly impossible to pin down. He should be revealing himself, but instead, Rondo turns his position into a mask.

There always seems to be something coiled within his plainspoken phrases. Maybe it’s because we know the way he plays, unorthodoxy that can come across as acid at times. He’s utterly distinctive and yet gives off the impression of being blank, opaque. It’s what remains concealed, and yet intuited, that colors our understanding of him. He plays his game as if it’s the most natural thing in the world, and certainly, it’s logic and trickery make for their own readily identifiable language. I wouldn’t even describe him as surprising; he’s internally consistent, just impossible to anticipate. Rajon Rondo does everything wrong and yet frequently achieves the right outcome. That’s not complexity, it’s a paradox enacted. No one has a feel for Rondo, but that sense of discomfort is there for the taking.

We apply a finite number of stories to NBA players, and when that fails, we turn them into one-dimensional symbols. In this season, which is at once too fast and too slow, more than ever we revert to what’s familiar. There’s too much action to keep up with, and at the same time, players are still tentative, out of shape and getting hurt at an alarming rate. This does a great disservice to anyone who sees the NBA as organic storytelling, and for the most part, this season will be dominated by big names and story arcs years in the offing.

Rondo, in all his savant-like brilliance, offers a stark reminder that things can be different. There’s no way to describe him other than through what he does. What happens to him professionally only makes sense as a function of his game. And that big-picture point guard stuff is, in his case, so foreign that it only reveals itself play-by-play, and we can only interpret it through action. Rondo’s story is whatever he does next. This season, that might be enough to keep us honest.


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