NBA / Oct 29, 2013 / 2:30 pm

Which Star PG Coming Off Injury Will Be The Best: Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook?

Rajon Rondo

Rajon Rondo (photo. Garth Milan/Red Bull Content Pool)

You know, it was only a few weeks ago that everyone was still questioning Derrick Rose. Would he be the same? Was he scared to play? Was he mentally tough enough? His nearly flawless preseason — and the Bulls were flawless by the way, going 8-0 — that saw Rose average 20.7 points on 48 percent shooting from the floor, with 3.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.7 threes and 1.3 steals in just 27 minutes a game answered every question. The dude is back.

But as he’ll find in the coming days, the regular season is a different animal coming at him with a different speed. Factor in the 82-game marathon schedule, and Rose still has a few mountains to climb before he’s considered all the way back.

The same goes for Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo, two other dynamic point guards rehabbing from injury. Neither is playing right now, but both are expected to be back on the court soon for franchises — Boston and OKC — going in entirely different directions.

All three All-Stars face tremendous expectations and hurdles. But which one coming off injury will look the best this season: Rose, Westbrook or Rondo? We argue. You decide.

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RAJON RONDO
Out of the entire 2007-08 Boston Celtic championship team, only Rajon Rondo remains. His former “Big Three” companions have all jumped the sinking ship, leaving their flourishing apprentice take hold of the wheel.

It’s going to be a futile effort. Rajon Rondo is not going to lead the Celtics to their seventh consecutive playoff appearance simply because there isn’t enough talent. You can’t expect the point god to make miracles happen when Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have been replaced by MarShon Brooks, Gerald Wallace and Kris Humphries.

That’s going to be a culture shock to Rondo when he has Humphries setting screens for him now that Garnett has departed. On and off the court it’s going to be a new scene to adjust to for Rondo, who has been the starting point guard on a championship contender since his sophomore year in the league in 2008.

Analysts knew Rondo would flourish with the Celtics following the franchise’s dealings for Garnett and Allen to accompany Pierce. However, they didn’t expect him to so fluidly complement the Hall-of-Fame worthy talent around him.

But the 21-year-old Rondo wasn’t like most players his age. While he’s proven to have a short fuse that can go off when he’s frustrated, his intelligence in knowing the ins-and-outs of the game are the equivalent to facilitation geniuses such as Steve Nash and Jason Kidd; they know how to dictate tempo and they know how and where to find their teammates in spaces they are comfortable in.

What separates Rondo even more from the pack of elite guards is his ability to play on the defensive side. He’s a wizard on both ends of the court, creating plays on one end and then ruining plays on the other, making him arguably the best two-way player in the NBA.

The numbers reflect it, too. Although the sample size for last year is reduced to the 38 games he played in, SynergySports indicates Rondo as one of the league’s top players running and defending the pick-and-roll.

Per Synergy, Rondo ranked 59th in the league in points per possession (PPP) and was even more effective on defense, ranking 32nd and holding opposing P&R ballhandlers to 39 percent shooting.

The pick-and-roll is Rondo’s go-to move, utilized for 37 percent of his offense last year, and it worked especially well when he had Garnett setting screens for him. What allows him to thrive so well in those settings is how easy he makes it look in getting near the rim, forcing the defense to collapse and then finding an open shooter.

In this particular case, it’s Garnett:

Garnett sets a terrific screen to get Anthony Carter off of Rondo, leaving the point guard with only Amar’e Stoudemire in his way along the baseline. Because he’s such a good finisher at the rim, Stoudemire has to keep an eye on Rondo. By the time Carter recovers, Stoudemire has already fully committed to defending Rajon, leaving Garnett wide-open for a 20-footer that Rondo finds easily.

Also of note in that video is how quickly Rondo is able to get that pass to Garnett, even though Stoudemire is waiting for it. He methodically keeps the defense on its toes only to accelerate at the last second to have three Knick players commit to him.

It’s that illusion of indecisiveness of Rondo that throws defenses off. Rondo appears to be playing in slow motion, but is only doing so to keep the defense wary and in the dark of what move he’s going to pull next. He’s just a pick-and-roll genius. He makes it look easy, and he even says it is, but it’s not.

In the very same game on the very next possession, Rondo is able to find Garnett again for a wide-open 20-footer because of his methodical approach in keeping Stoudemire on him and near the rim. When he sees that Amar’e has committed to defending him, he sends it out to the open Garnett:

For a third example, here’s Rondo doing the same thing he did to Amar’e, this time making Oklahoma City’s Nick Collison his unwilling participant:

Brandon Bass sets a screen on James Harden and, like a good pick-and-roll man should, rolls to the basket in Rajon’s line of sight. Rondo slowly approaches the rim off the screen at first, but a quick change-of-pace is able to make Harden and Collison fully commit to him, leaving enough room and time to find Bass for a layup.

In the second part of that video, Rondo runs a pick-and-roll with Garnett. It’s one of the easier opportunities for Rondo in these examples as the Thunder’s Kendrick Perkins unwisely commits to Rajon.

Per 82games.com, 64 percent of the Celtics field goals last year were assisted on when Rondo was playing. That number drops to 59 percent when he was off of it. His assist ratio, the percentage of a player’s possessions that end in an assist, of 39.3 percent was third-best among point guards, only behind Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni, but his usage rate of 22.4 percent far exceeds that of either of those two.

There were only two other players who had a usage rate as high as Rondo’s that were in the top ten in assist ratio. Those two, Jameer Nelson and Jeff Teague, have assist ratios that fall well short of Rondo’s mark.

Rondo also helps himself, too. While he’s led the league in assists the past two years and has averaged at least 11 assists the past three seasons, Rondo can get his own in a variety of ways on his own accord. It genuinely helps to just be an extremely talented player capable of feats that few other players in the game of basketball can complete:

Mainly, however, it’s Rondo’s ability to use the glass that aids him, on top of always being a threat to find a teammate open along the perimeter or in the midrange. That ability came as a result of having an inconsistent jumper, forcing him to find more creative ways to score until he finally became a respectable midrange threat.

Per Basketball-reference.com, he has converted at least 55 percent of his rim attempts every year of his career and has greatly improved his ability to hit from the midrange. Since shooting 35 percent in the 16-to-25 foot range in the 2009-10 season, he most recently pulled that percentage to 51 percent this past season, albeit on only 132 attempts.

For a larger sample size, he was a 41 percent shooter in 2012 on 189 attempts and a 42 percent shooter in 2011 on 224 attempts. It’s about time the notion of defenders being able to play off Rondo without any consequences comes to an end, otherwise you end up in situations like the Miami Heat did when they yielded 44 points to Rondo by just leaving him open from 20 feet the entire game.

As for the defensive end, where Rondo has earned as many awards and recognitions as he has on offense, Rajon has been supported by freakishly-long arms, stupendous hands, and the knowledge of how to play the pick-and-roll so well, thus knowing the tendencies of your opponent.

In this example, Rondo is able to avoid a screen by Tim Duncan and has a pinpoint reaction to get to Tony Parker‘s pass before it reaches an open Duncan:

Rondo recognizes the play that’s being run, sees Shaquille O’Neal has picked up Parker, and realizes that Parker’s only option here for a scoring play is to get the ball to Duncan. That never materializes, however, as Rondo saw the play unfolding immediately and got in-between the pick-and-roll.

Because of those hands and those arms and that sponge of a brain of his, Rondo has emerged as one of the league’s most feared defenders, leading the league in steal percentage twice and racking up 43.5 defensive win shares over his career. Between 2007 and 2011, Rondo was in the top seven in DWS and was in the top six in steal percentage between 2006 and 2011.

The team as a whole improves as well when he’s frustrating the opponent’s most vital component of facilitation. In lineups that have featured Rondo, the Celtics were allowing less than 100 points per 100 possessions on two occasions, while recently allowing only 100 points per 100 possessions this past season.

Also, his ability to rebound as a 6-1 point guard is astounding. He’s averaging nearly five rebounds over his career and has grabbed as much as 13.9 percent of total available rebounders while on the floor, setting the mark in 2009. He recently grabbed a career-high 5.6 boards per last year. Among point guards last year, Rondo had the league’s third-highest rebounding rate, only behind Kyle Lowry and Jason Kidd, per Hollinger.

Those numbers come from Rondo having unbelievable awareness of how the ball bounces, as well as his athletic ability, but also because of one other factor that has elevated his game to heights nobody expected.

Rondo is just tough. He doesn’t shy away from contact, and he doesn’t shy away from creating it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he ranked 21st and 63rd when defending spot-ups and hand-offs, respectively, last year, per Synergy.

It’s partly being an intelligent player, but also partly because of the cultures he was brought up in. He played for two years at Kentucky under coach Tubby Smith and then spent the first seven years of his career learning under defensive professors Doc Rivers and Tom Thibodeau.

And because he’s an intelligent person, he knew that he would have to spend plenty of time around guys like Allen, Pierce and Garnett if he was going to be able to coexist and thrive on a team with two starters who could have easily usurped the duties of facilitation.

Rondo stands out from guys like Westbrook and Derrick Rose because he was never expected to be the player he is today. He was the 21st pick in the 2006 Draft after putting up decent numbers at Kentucky and was a seldom-starter as a rookie on a putrid Boston team that went on to only win 24 games that year.

He was initially Sebastian Telfair‘s backup. That’s what you call starting from the bottom.

The 6-1, 171-pound Rondo, who will turn 28 in February, will be entering his eighth season once he’s deemed healthy enough to play following a torn ACL last year. In that time, he’s picked up a championship with the ’08 Celtics, four All-Star appearances, one All-NBA Third Team nod and been selected to two All-Defensive First Teams and two All-Defensive Second Teams.

He has finished as high as eighth in MVP voting and has led the league twice in assists per and once in steals per. It’s safe to say that none of this was expected when he was traded by the Phoenix Suns for a first rounder that only yielded the since-departed Rudy Fernandez.

To diminish his achievements, many will cite how the Celtics performed as efficiently on offense without Rondo than they did with him last year, but it’s nothing new for a team to suddenly start playing well when the main facilitator or star of the team is absent.

I’m not going to discredit Rondo when that Celtics team was still composed of a gang of veterans who already knew how to play the game, as well as an excellent sideline leader in Doc Rivers. It became apparent once the postseason came along that Rondo was a necessity when Boston ended up scoring less than every other playoff team, dropping only 82.3 points per game and dishing out only 16.8 assists per, good enough for 15th among 16 playoff teams.

Boston’s turnover percentage in that series against the Knicks: 17.2 percent. No other team had as high a mark in the first round. Not even a Milwaukee Bucks team that was facing off with the Miami Heat could match that.

Their offensive rating: 93.8. What was all this talk about the Celtics not needing Rondo? There have been plenty of good teams that have skated through the regular season without their star player, but it becomes incredibly tough to replicate those performances come postseason time. You may remember how the 2011-12 Chicago Bulls ended up having the best record in the Eastern Conference, despite having Derrick Rose for only 39 injury-plagued games. Once the postseason rolled around, however, and the Bulls were without Rose, they fell to an inferior Philadelphia 76ers club.

Rajon Rondo may receive flack for his attitude on and off the court, but one can’t deny that he’s arguably the league’s top point guard when it comes to facilitating and making his teammates comfortable. There are few players like him in the game that can make the game come to them and make something as simple as a pick-and-roll one of the most lethal components of Boston’s offense.

This season will be Rondo’s most difficult, even more than his first year playing with Boston’s former “Big Three.” He’s surrounded by a bunch of fringe guys and role players, meaning the workload, especially when it comes to creating plays, will be firmly on his shoulders.

Then again, Rondo is no stranger to pressure.
-JOHN FRIEL

Hit page 2 to hear why you can count on Westbrook emerging as the best this year…

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