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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Comments

This article is even more interesting 5 months down the road. Watching the Rondo-led playoff version of the Celtics has been a real blast. I love how the team has sort of codified some of the more repeatable instances of Rondo's weirdness into something resembling a book of set plays. For example, in the 4th quarter of the Celtics-Heat Game 4, I saw Rondo and Garnett run a behind-the-back pick-and-pop to Garnett for an 18 footer 3 different times (Rondo dribbles twice to his right from the top of the key, draws the double team, and loops the ball around himself to Garnett jumper. The first two times resulted in wide-open shots for KG, on which he went 1-for-2, but Chalmers cut off the passing lane behind Rondo's hip on the third attempt).

Watching Rondo play basketball is a lot like reading a language you've never seen. At first glance, there is nothing recognizable about what he does or where he is, but after a certain amount of time, similar patterns begin to emerge. We still can't quite understand the language, but there is a definite logical syntax to his behavior. More importantly, the rest of the Celtics are starting to understand him. They may not entirely comprehend what he's saying out there, but they know where he wants them to be, and they're getting to their spots. At any rate, they certainly speak his language better than anyone on the opposing team. And when defenses can't speak the language of the offense, they have a much harder time answering them.

Having followed closely, written about and thoroughly enjoyed Rondo since his high school days at Eastern High (pre-Oak Hill), what's most fascinating is that this enigma has existed all along. Fans have been calling Rondo "a team cancer" since high school, despite all he's done is win a high school national title, set numerous records at Kentucky despite playing for a coach who used benching as a motivational technique (which doesn't work on Rajon) and then an NBA title.

Rondo is taciturn, but he is also super intense. I think that fans expect a certain type of personality, and when they see someone as inwardly intense on the court as Rondo, they take that as some sort of attitude problem.

There is still a contingent of UK fans who think of him negatively, despite the fact he is arguably the most successful and dominating Kentucky player in the pros since Dan Issel.

Great piece.

I traveled to the Fleet on Friday evening and watched the Rondo-less Celts (33 pts in the first half- ugh) play the Suns. Rondo brings an element of dark magic to the game that was sorely lacking. Rondo is an interesting juxtaposition to Sunny Nash who smiled (constantly even if his lips are pursed) even when Celtics monotone pg-by-default Avery Bradley stole the ball from him. There is something of the old west in Rondo. Cool and alone even in the company of thousands.

Shoals,

I have been thinking about your post for days...I long for an animated visual that might have been drawn up to demonstrate this inversion ala the first Darko book and countless posts on the site. I have no idea how your readership has shifted, but this piece offers a very insightful look at someone that people (teammates, announcers, fans) struggle to digest and should be shouted from the rooftops. I just put down my pom poms.

I've been hoping for awhile for a reevaluation of your relationship to Rondo, which at one point might have seemed like it should be essential, but turns out to be (like everything Rondo does) entirely tangential. The irreducibly contingent nature of what he does was sometimes obscured by the Platonic role filling of the Big Three, but now that they're falling apart, Rondo's weirdness is the defining characteristic of this team. I love Rondo, and I'm a Celtics fan, but I don't see how he will ever fit neatly into the Boston pantheon, no matter what he continues to accomplish. Nice piece.