Pounding the rock: a rebuttal on Rondo

Jim Rogash

Two weeks ago, mmmmm posted a story about Rajon Rondo's style of play and how it works into the framework of Brad Stevens' motion offense. Here's my response.

First of all, it's a very well researched post and fundamentally, I agree with a lot of it.  It very well details the principles of the motion offense, but points out that even though it's a fairly "egalitarian nature," it still features two of its best players, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker:

In theory, any player capable of playing any of the positions can be called on to setup in any of the 5 spots or to arrive there in motion. This is what makes it an 'equal opportunity' offense. In practice, guys will not normally practice progressions that take them to positions of weakness. From these sets, the ball handler (usually Parker, though sometimes Manu) initiates motion with one of a set of initial moves with either dribble or pass. At that point all players are required to read the defense and move through a progression. The progression for each player is based on a practiced read-react strategy, but never the same in sequence. The resulting plays that are run from this are not unusual: Several variations of pick and roll/pop, motion-counter, baseline screens, etc.

Contrary to some stated conceptions on this blog by some, the Spurs offense is not designed to necessarily spread the ball or shots around equally. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan still dominate touches, each getting far more touches each game than any other teammates. And those two took by far a lot more shots than any of their teammates. Those two were the only Spurs above 25% in USG%. As for passing, Tony (31.7%) and Manu (29.2%) dominated the share of assists dished on the floor, with no other Spur posting above 17.2% AST%.

That makes total sense.  In the NBA (more so in the college game), teams feed their stars.  They're the best players on your team and with the defensive rules as they are and--ahem--refs favoring marquee guys, it would be foolish not to put the ball in their hands.

And yes, Rondo is our best player.  Like TD and TP, he's the sun that the rest of the roster revolves around.  He's not as much of an offensive focal point as guys like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, or Kevin Durant, but he's certainly the engine that stirs the drink.  He won't take the most shots or maybe not even the one at the buzzer of a close game, but his fingerprints will be all over the box score.

However, what's up for debate might be a question of style.  As mmmmm points out, the motion offense "allows for greater flexibility than just running set plays."  That may sound foreign to some of the current longer standing Celtics like RR and Avery Bradley; Doc Rivers was a tactician when it came to X's and O's and a lot of his sets were specifically designed to get a specific player a specific shot.  With Brad Stevens at the helm, this should be a boon to Rondo. He's one of the league's best freelancers who plays basketball like Dizzy Gillespie improvises jazz trumpet.  You never know what he's going to do next.

Unfortunately, that unpredictability has become a little predictable.  Rondo, even more so than Chris or Cliff, looks to assist.  I imagine a commercial where Rondo is hosting the Oprah Winfrey Show and giving away houses to a audience of Pauls.  Even after he came back from his injury with a much improved jumper, his instincts are still wired to find the open man.

It's not necessarily a bad thing for a pass-first point guard to be at the helm of a rebuilding team.  Free agents know how competitive Rondo is and that he'll get them shots if they come to Boston, but is he the right PG for this next generation and specifically, Brad Stevens' motion offense?  mmmmm found that statistically, Rondo didn't pound the rock any more than the other top point guards in the league. If he did, we're talking fractions of a second more.  However, those are just numbers and in this circumstance, they lie.  A little.

Rondo is a master of anticipating the second and third rotation of a defense.  It's part instinct, part hours of film work and in total, that skill set makes him one of the smartest players on the floor.  It's not hyperbole to say that he sees things that others don't and can makes plays that others flat out can't.  It's why Doc trusted Rondo so much when the Big Three were on the downside of the proverbial hill.

Now in his second year, it's Stevens' challenge to figure out how to utilize Rondo in a new system.  As mmmmm points out, the motion offense relies heavily on the principle that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts: every screen set, every pass thrown, and every cut made is focused on breaking down the defense to find every player space against a mismatch.  It's what the Mavericks call their "random flow offense." And just like mmmmm discussed with Parker, Duncan, and the Spurs, the ball will often eventually find Dirk Nowitzki or Monta Ellis as the volume shooters on the team, but that's only because those players have an advantage on their defender, whoever it is.

Sure, Rondo fits in that elite category of most likely to succeed in an offensive possession, but despite the metrics, the ball tends to stick in his hands.  That's a motion offense no-no.  In Saturday's Game 4 between the Pacers and Hawks, one of the Wired segments featured Frank Vogel yelling to Lance Stevenson, "shoot it, pass it, move it!  Don't let the ball settle!"  I couldn't help but think of Rondo in that situation.  There isn't another player I'd rather have the ball in a pressure situation, but sometimes his greatest strength can be his greatest weakness.

It's a conundrum that I'm sure faces coaches with mobile quarterbacks (and we all know how much Rondo loves football).  You'll get the occasional big yardage from Kaepernick, RG3, Newton, or Wilson where they deserve all the credit on a busted play, but maybe the smartest move would have been to hit the check down or take the sack.  You don't want to limit their talent and creativity in the moment, but you also don't want to have to rely on it.

On the other hand, rookie back up Phil Pressey is more of a traditional pocket passer.  He goes through his reads and picks the best option and that decision is made pretty quick.  For comparison's sake, let's take the eye test.  On March 9th, Rondo dished out 18 assists against the Pistons in a Celtics' home win.  A month later, Pressey drew the start in Detroit and finished with 11 assists in a loss.  Here are some clips of their first quarter, half court touches.  I didn't post transition opportunities or hurried shots in 2-for-1 situations.  I think you'll notice a big difference in style between the two point guards:

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With plenty of time on the clock and Monroe and Drummond moving, Pressey opts to swing the ball rather than drive, an option that Rondo might have taken.

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One-on-one with a closing big, Rondo might have driven here.

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Cross action in the paint has Sullinger flashing to the ball.  Pressey makes the simple pass instead of hitting Green at the top of the three point line.

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Simple pick-and-roll that finds Sullinger open for the three.  Rondo might have tried to attack more to try and freeze Drummond more.

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Three more examples of Pressey acting as a trigger man and simply making the next pass in the motion offense.

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Rondo forcing the drive rather than hitting Bass at the shoulder and a possible swing to a wide open Bayless or Green.

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Two forced drives where Rondo got into the paint with nowhere to go.

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Seven straight possessions where Rondo again sucks in the defense and gets good looks for his bigs.

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Rondo is just testing his range here.

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More penetration.

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A good example here of Rondo attracting so much attention from the defense, allowing cutters to go back door and find open space.

Some observations:

  • Rondo's has a tendency, for better or for worse, is to force the issue. He doesn't want to just engage one defender. He understands that they move on a string and he can puppeteer them on his own.  Also, it's not enough for Rondo to get a teammate a clean look.  He really wants to collapse the defense and get a player a wide open jump shot or a lay up.  Pressey takes what the defense gives him. Off a screen, he quickly determines whether to hit the pop/roll man, rotate the ball, or take it himself. He keeps the ball moving rather than trying to make the play himself.
  • In general, the offense has more movement with Pressey in the game.  I wondered this throughout Rondo's comeback: was the offense stripped down for him so that he could test his knee in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop situations?  The offense didn't seem to run as much action when he was in the game.  I don't know how many times Tommy complained about the lack of movement and in the same breath commended Rondo for treating opposing defenses like an accordion and finding Bass or Humphries unguarded at the free throw line after the D is sucked in.

It's a tricky proposition for Stevens.  Does he let Rondo be Rondo or over the off-season, work with him to lessen his playmaking responsibilities?  There's also the issue of the draft.  At #5, Ainge could have the opportunity to pick another point guard if Dante Exum isn't selected by Orlando or Marcus Smart proves to be a better prospect than any big on the board.  However, this isn't a referendum on Rondo.  Hardly.  Teams have shown a lot of success this season with two point guards on the floor like the tandem of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in Phoenix, Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vazquez of the Raptors, and Reggie Jackson and Russell Westbrook in OKC.  With today's NBA putting more of an emphasis on creating offense from the perimeter, you can't have too many playmakers on the wings.

Rondo will always have an advantage over his defender and he knows that, but his next progression in 2015 might be a need get more people involved.  That doesn't just mean getting guys the ball where they can score though.  Sullinger, Olynyk, and even Green are capable of making decisions in the offense and you could even argue that they may be better in that than being finishers.  This may sound counterintuitive, but Rondo is still the best and smartest player on the team, but the team won't get better if they treat him as so.

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