Over the summer, I happened to notice a heated debate occur on Twitter sparked by Ethan Sherwood Strauss, lead writer for Bleacher Report and ESPN contributor (hereafter ESS). ESS made the bold assertion that, at least statistically, Kevin Johnson was a better player than Isiah Thomas – who is widely considered the best all-around modern point guard not named Ervin "Magic" Johnson. Now, it should be noted that to my knowledge ESS is, like myself, only in his mid-twenties, meaning he’s likely too young to remember any NBA basketball he may have watched in the late 80’s or early 90’s. But that fact was part of ESS’s point.
ESS argued that the reason people are so biased in favor of Isiah Thomas was that Isiah’s greatest moments stand out in our memories much more than KJ’s best moments, mainly because Isiah played on a better team (particularly one with better defense) and so had the opportunity to do things like defeat Michael Jordan’s Bulls in a playoff series, duel Magic Johnson in the Finals, and win multiple championships. Without the benefit of extensive recorded evidence upon which to make a visual comparison, we’re left defaulting to either the stats, or our flawed selective memories. Understandably, there were a lot of people who responded quite emphatically that what ESS was suggesting was borderline NBA-heresy. ESS retorted:
NBA isn’t MLB, but the numbers have to mean SOMETHING. It’s that or our collective memories are always perfect & can’t be questioned
Reading those comments, I couldn’t help but cast an eye toward the future and imagine a similar debate playing out about the players of today. Specifically, given the growing crop of highly talented point guards in the league, and the role that statistics increasingly play in evaluating the relative worth of NBA players, it seemed very likely to me that there could be some considerable controversy down the line about where these many highly productive point guards rank historically. That got me thinking even further – how will Rajon Rondo, a fairly controversial player even today, be viewed well after his career has ended, in relation to his peers, and the players that came before him?
Perhaps more than any other active NBA player, Rondo presents an interesting dilemma because his on-court impact and ability to dominate in any given game (particularly ones that are nationally televised) are often at odds with his general averages and statistics. People who don’t watch Rondo very often (or at all) can have wildly varying opinions on his real value as a basketball player. To some, he is a superstar – the best "pure" point guard now playing. To others, he is a role player who can’t shoot and only gets a lot of assists because he’s been surrounded by great scorers for almost his entire career. Indeed, Rondo has had the privilege of playing 5 of his 6 seasons in the league with multiple All-Star teammates.
Given all of this, I think there will come a time, long after Rondo has hung up his sneakers, when there are people, much like ESS (and myself), who follow the NBA very closely and devote inordinate amounts of time to thinking about how to value the careers of different players in relation to one another, who are too young to remember watching Rondo play, and who may not appreciate the kind of player he was.
Those people, I think, might look at Rondo’s multiple All-Star appearances, and listen to some starry-eyed Celtics fan like you or I waxing poetic about Rondo’s nifty passes and seemingly-impossible layups, and say, "Uhm, that’s nice, but haven’t you heard of Chris Paul? Or Deron Williams? Or Tony Parker? Or Derrick Rose? Or Russell Westbrook? Or Kyrie Irving? Or [insert Wall / Curry / Jennings / Rubio / etc]." Rondo was, at best, the 5th best point guard in the league in his prime."
In fact, one doesn’t even need to hop into a time machine and talk to the NBA geek of the future to hear such a sentiment articulated. The closest thing to a consensus of experts on the relative value of active NBA players that we have right now is ESPN Rank, which has been conducted the past two summers. This year, Rondo was ranked #12. In some respects, that is a very favorable place to be. After all, top 10 NBA players are usually perennial All-Stars and legitimate MVP contenders – to wit, superstars – so being at #12 means Rondo is on the very edge of that group. However, a glance at those ahead of Rondo in the rankings reveals that he comes in behind Chris Paul (#4), Derrick Rose (#5), Russell Westbrook (#9), and Deron Williams (#10), making him the 5th ranked point guard on the list.
One of the Tweets included along with Rondo’s NBARank page cuts to the heart of the difficulty of placing him on such a list:
Rajon Rondo is a mix of some mediocre qualities and some top notch qualities. Easily the most unique player in the top 20 #NBARank
The fact that Rondo is such a unique player, with such an odd, tantalizing mix of talents, is part of what prompts me to write this article. My aim here is not to debate whether or not Rondo’s placement on a ranking of active NBA players behind four other point guards who score substantially more often than he does is fair. Rather, my intuition is that even if it’s true that Rondo can reasonably be called the "5th most valuable" point guard – in a vacuum – in the league today, he is such a unique talent that there’s reason to believe he will be a very historically significant player nonetheless. That sort of ranking, in other words, may not be a condemnation of Rondo’s potential legacy. How to investigate such a hunch, though, without the benefit of a time machine, gravity well, or wormhole? Well, it seems like it would be useful to look at what Rondo has done so far in his time in the league (statistically) and see what other players at his position have been similarly productive to this point in their careers.
Rondo has played in the NBA for six full seasons now, and is entering his seventh season at the age of 26. After five or six full seasons in the NBA, the vast majority of NBA players are more or less finished products. Players do often improve (or falter) in certain areas from season to season, but it’s extremely rare that a player shows drastic improvement across the board after that much time in the league. Some players drop off unexpectedly due to major injury or off-court issues, but such things cannot be predicted. Accordingly I’m going to assume that Rondo’s career and season-to-season numbers up to this point are mostly representative of what we can expect from him over the large part of the remainder of his time in the NBA (probably 5-10 years).
Let’s get down to the statistical analysis.
10.8 ppg / 8.1 apg / 4.4 rpg / 1.9 spg
17.1 PER / 40.7 WS / .137 WS/48
All-Star: ’10, ’11, ‘12
How many other guards have been similarly productive through their first six seasons in the league?
The players below (all guards) reached the following plateaus for regular season career averages through their first six seasons – 10 ppg, 7.5 apg, 3 rpg, 1 spg, 1 All-Star selection – listed in descending order by Win Shares:
Chris Paul (18.7 pts, 9.9 ast, 4.6 reb, 2.4 stl, 76.4 WS)
Magic Johnson (18.2 pts, 10.3 ast, 8.0 reb, 2.3 stl, 65.3 WS)
Kevin Johnson (18.4 pts, 9.7 ast, 3.3 reb, 1.6 stl, 55.5 WS)
Terry Porter (14.6 pts, 8.1 ast, 3.6 reb, 1.7 stl, 52.9 WS)
Deron Williams (17.2 pts, 9.2 ast, 3.2 reb, 1.1 stl, 47.3 WS)
Isiah Thomas (20.7 pts, 10.3 ast, 3.8 reb, 2.2 stl, 46.3 WS)
Tim Hardaway (19.6 pts, 9.3 ast, 3.6 reb, 2.0 stl, 42.3 WS)
Rajon Rondo (10.8 pts, 8.1 ast, 4.4 reb, 1.9 stl, 40.7 WS)
Kenny Anderson (15.7 pts, 7.7 ast, 3.5 reb, 1.6 stl, 39.4 WS)
Mark Jackson (12.5 pts, 8.4 ast, 4.1 reb, 1.6 stl, 38.3 WS)
Jason Kidd (13.6 pts, 9.3 ast, 6.2 reb, 2.1 stl, 36.9 WS)
Stephon Marbury (20.1 pts, 8.2 ast, 3.0 reb, 1.2 stl, 36.6 WS)
What if we remove the "at least one All-Star selection" requirement? After all, All-Star selections are subjective and often unfair. If we change the search accordingly, four names get added to the list.
Johnny Moore (10.5 pts, 8.7 ast, 3.4 reb, 2.2 stl, 28.7 WS)
Pooh Richardson (13.0 pts, 7.8 ast, 3.3 reb, 1.5 stl, 21.9 WS)
John Wall (16.3 pts, 8.2 ast, 4.6 reb, 1.6 stl, 5.7 WS)
Ricky Rubio (10.6 pts, 8.2 ast, 4.2 reb, 2.2 stl, 2.0 WS)
Don’t feel bad if you don’t recognize the first two names – I certainly didn’t. Both Moore and Richardson appear to have been relative "flashes in the pan" with quite short NBA careers. They were backups before they even hit their prime, and out of the league not long after. The fact that their WS totals are substantially less than their All-Star counterparts suggests that there’s a reason they weren’t selected.
As for John Wall and Ricky Rubio, it’s fair to say both have had very productive starts to their careers; however, neither has played more than two full seasons (in Rubio’s case, he’s only played half of a shortened season). Therefore, it’s too early in either case to say what kind of players they will be even over the next 4-5 seasons, let alone their full careers. They also have miniscule WS totals, again pointing to the fact that they don’t belong in the same conversation as the All-Star players on the list. Bottom line – the All-Star requirement seems to have some use in weeding out non-representative results, so we’re keeping it.
- These are some pretty impressive names. Rondo is in good company. There are Hall of Famers (inducted already or sure-things) -- Magic, Isiah, and Kidd; there are borderline Hall of Famers -- Porter, K.J., Hardaway, and Jackson; there are guys on track to fall into one of the two previous groups -- Paul and Williams; and then there are very good players who had solid careers -- Anderson and Marbury.
- One name that is conspicuously missing from this list (because he was also a very prolific passer like Rondo) is John Stockton, who misses the cut solely because he wasn’t much of a rebounder.
- Rondo, CP3, and D-Will are the only guards who can really be said to be playing in the same "era." J-Kidd has been active the whole time they've been in the league, it's true, but certainly at the tail end of his career. It definitely seems that there was a lack of really talented point guards entering the league between the mid-to-late nineties and the mid-2000s. This is counterbalanced by the fact that there is obviously an influx of talent at the position in the last few years. It's not hard to imagine another handful of names being squarely on this list in 5 years.
- Rondo ranks last in scoring in this group by a margin of almost 2 ppg; he's also last by a substantial margin in OWS (15.2) behind Jason Kidd (17.8), who is himself a sizable step below the next ranked player (21.9). He's second to last (above Kidd) in Offensive Rating, too.
- Rondo leads this group in DWS by a similarly wide margin. Nobody else on the list is even close, in fact (25.5 compared to 22.2). He's also tops in Defensive Rating.
- Rondo's TRB% is head and shoulders above all the others except for Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson, who are each on a different, significantly higher level (in fairness, Magic was 6'9'' and Kidd 6'4'').
- Rondo is behind only CP3 and D-Will in AST% in this group. CP3 is head and shoulders above the rest, though.
- Rondo and Paul are significantly above the rest in STL%.
- Rondo is by far the worst free throw shooter in this group (61.9%), by approximately 12 percentage points (behind Jason Kidd).
- Rondo's not nearly the worst outside shooter in this group - K.J. and Magic both have 3P% below .200. Of course, Magic started his career at a time when pretty much nobody could shoot 3s. Magic (60.8%) and KJ (58%) are also both top three in True Shooting Percentage, though. Rondo, on the other hand, has a TS% of 51.3%, which places him in the bottom three.
- In a comparison of both traditional and advanced statistics, Rondo is most similar to Mark Jackson, though it's clear that he's a far better defender than Jackson was.
- Rondo is last in the group in minutes played; he played 14,226 minutes, while the top three, Isiah, Hardaway, and D-Will all played 16,000 or more. This is likely a result of the fact that unlike most of the other players on this list, Rondo wasn't a high draft pick, and so was given a much shorter leash early in his career.
What about the playoffs?
You’ll notice that was a look exclusively at Rondo’s performance in the regular season. Many, I’m sure, will be quick to say, "That’s nice, but Rondo always steps it up in the playoffs." Fair point – that is pretty obviously the case.
Rondo’s post-season averages for his career so far (92 games):
14.5 ppg / 9.2 apg / 6 rpg / 2 spg
18.5 PER / 9.7 WS / .131 WS/48
Every single one of those numbers is higher, with the exception of his WS/48, which is virtually the same, but slightly lower. It’s fair to say that between the regular season and the playoffs, Rondo takes his game to an entirely different level. In particular, Rondo’s scoring and rebounding jump noticeably. However, the difference between Rondo’s minutes per game in the regular season (32.6) and in the playoffs (38.5) is pretty substantial, and accounts at least somewhat for the increase in production.
Magic Johnson (17.8 pts, 12.1 ast, 8.7 reb, 2.3 stl, 14.3 WS, 88 games)
Rajon Rondo (14.5 pts, 9.2 ast, 6.0 reb, 2.0 stl, 9.7 WS, 92 games)
Isiah Thomas (24.0 pts, 10.1 ast, 4.7 reb, 2.4 stl, 4.1 WS, 33 games)
Chris Paul (21.9 pts, 11.1 ast, 5.3 reb, 2.0 stl, 4.0 WS, 23 games)
- Obviously, Rondo’s company here is even more exclusive. We’re talking about all-time greats at the point guard position.
- CP3’s sample size is the smallest by a significant margin, and Isiah also played far fewer games than either Rondo or Magic. Paul only led his team to one series victory (in 2008), while Isiah led his team to three series victories, reaching the Conference Finals just once. Nevertheless, from these numbers it is evident that all of these players contributed a great deal to their teams when it mattered most. That counts for a lot.
- Indeed, based on this list it could be said that behind Magic, who won three championships in his first six seasons, Rondo has won more in the playoffs than any other point guard who produced at this level to this point in his career. Again, perhaps that is due in large part to the caliber of his teammates, but Rondo nevertheless has to get a good amount of credit. After all, Rondo has been the "straw that stirs the drink" pretty much since he averaged close to a triple-double in the 2009 playoffs.
- All of that said, for the most part Rondo’s numbers do not stand up compared to the other three on this list. He’s second in assist percentage, rebound percentage, and steal percentage, but his PER is the lowest by quite a bit, and his Offensive Win Shares and Offensive Rating are substantially lower, as well. Similar to his numbers in the last group, he stands out from the rest in Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares; an argument could be made he is the best defender even in this superlative group of defenders.
- Still, given the stark difference in production and efficiency on the offensive side of the court, I think it’s fair to say that though Rondo isn’t clearly out of place in this group, he’s also solidly a step below them in overall impact. But being in this group at all is a huge statement about Rondo as a player.
- It's fair to say based on these numbers that so far, Rondo has been one of the very best pure point guards in the league ("pure" point guard meaning one who runs the offense as the primary ball-handler and looks to set up teammates to score at least as often as he looks to score himself).
Chris Paul has had a more impressive career so far, and based on his resume is rightly considered on a different level. Another name that bears mentioning is Deron Williams, who has been nearly as impressive as Paul a scoring and passing guard, though with much less of a impact on defense and the boards (D-Will also has a less impressive playoffs resume). Paul, Williams, and Rondo have all acquited themselves as the premiere pure point guards in the league during their time.
The league abounds with talented young point guards right now, particularly a large number of ultra-athletic scoring guards (headlined by Rose and Westbrook). But there's no questioning that so far, Rondo has established himself as a premiere talent at his position among players of his generation. That's saying something, because it looks like this era may be remembered as having the strongest crop of point guards playing at the same time in the history of the NBA (maybe that's due to changes to the hand-checking rules, but that's a discussion for another day).
- Pretty clearly, Rondo's biggest challenge in receiving proper historical recognition will be the difference in his scoring numbers compared to the other premiere guards to whom he will inevitably be compared. Especially since casual evaluators of NBA players tend to value scoring over everything else, Rondo is likely to be lumped in with second-tier, borderline-HoF guys like Terry Porter, Mark Jackson, and perhaps even Kenny Anderson or Andre Miller. That's fair to some extent, since Rondo is probably not ever going to be on the same "All-Time Superstar" level as Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas; he may never have that kind of all-around impact on a consistent basis.
At the same time, Rondo may also be underappreciated when compared to contemporary players like CP3, D-Will, Rose, Westbrook, and other 18-20+ ppg scorers, or historic figures like Tim Hardaway and Kevin Johnson who also scored a lot more points. Indeed, one could argue he already is undervalued compared to those players. However, Rondo should continue to distinguish himself from these players with his stellar defensive numbers and impressive rebounding for a player of his size at his position, and with his prolific passing ability, which easily ranks him among the best to ever play the game. One can easily imagine Rondo being among the league leaders (if not the league leader) in assists and steals for much of his career.
- Also important to note is the role that "stand-out" performances are likely to play in Rondo's legacy. Many would argue, and reasonably so, that looking at overall per-game average don't do justice to Rondo's greatness. Rondo's average game could be characterized as fairly impressive, but not incredible. He's a non-shooting point guard who is a below-average scorer, a very good defender, and an unbelievable, if often turnover-prone passer. But when Rondo is at his "best," there are few players in the league who can hold a candle to his brilliance.
Rondo is a well-known triple-double machine; he already has 10 playoff triple-doubles, which puts him in a tie for third (with Larry Bird) in career playoff triple doubles -- behind Kidd and Magic Johnson. Single-game examples abound: his 44 point, 8 rebound, 10 assist performance in Game 2 of the 2012 ECF against the Heat is one of the most impressive performances in NBA history (no other player has ever reached those combined totals in a playoff game). Maybe Rondo's greatest game to date was his seemingly impossible 29 point, 18 rebound, 13 assist performance in Game 4 of second round of the 2010 playoffs gainst the top-seeded Cleveland Cavs, soundly outplaying reigning MVP LeBron James.
In this regard, Rondo is lucky to be playing in the age of YouTube and Sportscenter, because it will be much easier for fans and analysts alike to remember and re-watch all of his greatest performances. Among point guards, perhaps only Jason Kidd and Magic Johnson have had the same ability to dominate a game in so many areas while simultaneously making their teammates better, too. That distinction will count for a lot.
This analysis has focused on Rondo's career so far, and has made the assumption that we can count on Rondo to continue on a more or less similar course for at least another 8-10 years.
Is that reasonable?
Well, looking at the list of historical comparisons, most of those players went on to have long, productive careers. One exception is Tim Hardaway, who didn't do much past the age of 30. Another is Stephon Marbury, who flamed out of the league rather abruptly around the same age -- but I think it's fair to say that may have been due in no small part to off-court emotional issues. Kenny Anderson didn't do much beyond the age of thirty, either, though he did last thirteen seasons. Isiah Thomas also retired relatively early, at the age of 32 after thirteen seasons, but even in his last season he put up solid numbers, suggesting he might have been able to play longer.
The players most similar to Rondo -- Kidd and Jackson -- played well into their late thirties (indeed, Kidd appears willing, though maybe not so able, to play into his forties). Rondo's biggest disadvantages in terms of longevity are that he is a relatively small player who relies a lot on his speed and quickness. He also hasn't developed a consistent, reliable jumper to this point, which could make it difficult for him to be much of an offensive factor once acrobatic forays to the rim are no longer options for him. Many players have developed into more reliable jumpshooters as they have aged, though, so Rondo may be able to do it, too. Also, these days with improved nutrition and training, players seem increasingly able to remain nimble and quick well into their 30s as long as they keep themselves in good shape, and are far more able to come back from previously career-altering (or ending) injuries, so Rondo may benefit from that, as well.
Still, Rondo has already begun to show signs of durability issues -- he played 53 out of 66 games this past season, and 68 out of 82 games the season before that, after missing only 12 games combined through his first four seasons. Nevertheless, Rondo has also shown a willingness to play through even horrific injuries. Even one-armed, Rondo is capable of being a factor defensively and racking up assists, so one would think he could continue doing that for as long as his feet, ankles, and knees hold up.
Another factor to consider is that Rondo has spent his first six seasons being surrounded by an amazing level of talent. Even this past season, when the Celtics depended on Rondo a lot more for scoring, he was still third on the list of offensive options behind Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Rondo has shown an ability to score 15-20 points without too much effort -- though not always very efficiently, due to a lack of threes and free throws. He has also demonstrated a lack of desire to do that, however, clearly preferring to set up teammates (at times blatantly passing up scoring opportunities to pad his assist stats). It's fair to think, based on all of this, that once Rondo's future Hall of Fame teammates finally retire, and he is called upon to take up more of the scoring load -- out of necessity if nothing else -- his scoring numbers might shoot up (no pun intended) considerably.
This makes sense, but it's also hard to imagine the Celtics totally failing to build the team to Rondo's strengths, which would imply continuing to surround Rondo with scoring options. Rondo may have a few seasons where he averages closer to 15 points than 10, but expecting him to ever turn into a 20-10 guy is probably unrealistic -- on a good team competing for the playoffs, anyway. You could also make the argument that Rondo might start producing even more prolifically once the Celtics start building the team to tailor to his strengths (i.e. giving him fast, athletic players to run with) -- that could begin as early as this upcoming season.
Here's the bottom line:
Over the last four seasons, Rondo's production has stabilized somewhat, to the point where it's possible to get a clear picture of what he might do year after year for a while. That goes back to the assumption I talked about earlier, that Rondo is mostly a finished product.
If we throw out the first two seasons that Rondo was in the league, due to limitations on playing time and Rondo's initial development, his averages are as follows:
12.03 ppg, 10.23 apg, 2.08 spg, 4.7 rpg
The very best case scenario, I think, would involve Rondo continuing to produce on that level (perhaps higher at times) until he's in his mid-30s, and then slowly decline for a couple of years before he retires. How likely is that? I don't know.
Magic Johnson (19.5 pts, 11.2 ast, 7.2 reb, 1.9 stl, 17 seasons)
Chris Paul (18.8 pts, 9.8 ast, 4.5 reb, 2.4 stl, 7 seasons)
Chris Paul obviously isn't done yet, and who knows what his career numbers will end up being -- he's already shown signs of considerable decline, due to knee troubles. Magic Johnson doesn’t need me to extoll his virtues. Suffice to say, he’s one of the top 5 greatest players ever.
Either way, if Rondo joins these two, well, I think that kind of legacy would speak for itself.