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Comparing Rajon Rondo to, err, Bill Russell?

One comparison I didn't think I'd hear this year? Rajon Rondo to Bill Russell. But it's the comparison Russell's former teammate, Satch Sanders, offered in today's Boston Herald.

"People have a habit of talking about what they consider the negatives," he said. "In Russ’ case, the negative was that they expected pivotmen to play a particular way. They have to be able to do this — stay in the pivot, stay in close, guard people a certain way.

"They didn’t have the scope or the imagination to understand that here was a guy who could certainly do those things, but could do so much more. It’s almost as if these people had never seen him play in college — the way he had decimated opponents for two or three straight years. He had controlled entire games."

I understand why the comparison was made. Rondo does things differently from the average point guard. Russell did things differently from the average center. They have both overcome some offensive limitations to become terrific NBA players. But, to me at least, that's where the comparison ends.

Russell was doubted out of college, when he was already ready to lead Boston to championships. Rondo was doubted early in his career, when he was a weak link to a championship team. There's a huge difference there. What Russell demonstrated in college was that he had the ability to raise teammates' level of play. What Rondo demonstrated in college was that, well, Kentucky basketball can't always be great.

From the second Russell entered the NBA, he was the piece that brought the Celtics to the next level. His shot-blocking, rebounding, and unrivaled winning spirit immediately lifted Boston from semi-contender to instant-dynasty. Not only that, he changed the entire future of basketball.

Before Russell, centers were almost always lead-footed, unathletic, offensive-minded players. Then Russell came along, and grace and mobility became part of a center's resume. After Russell, it was no longer enough to be 6'10" with the ability to finish layups in "The George Mikan Drill." After Russell, centers needed to affect games on both ends, and it helped if they could also run like guards and jump like small forwards.

Rondo's great, but I seriously doubt he'll ever change the game. That's not entirely his fault, of course. Players rarely ever cause evolution. The last evolution in the NBA (unless I'm missing one) happened because of Michael Jordan. After Jordan's greatness swept the NBA, scouts looked everywhere for the next MJ. Players became more athletic, and often more one-on-one oriented, and it was because the NBA was searching for His Airness, Jr.

As great as Rondo has become, I seriously doubt he changes the way scouts search for talent. Not like Russell and Jordan did. Why not? We've seen payers like Rondo before. There have been lightning-fast point guards with incredible vision and no jump-shot before. Just look at a young Jason Kidd. Rondo's game is unorthodox, but it's difficult to think of one thing he does that's never been done before.

As for not giving Rondo enough credit for his championship, he doesn't deserve credit for leading his team to the title. When the Celtics won their ring, Rondo didn't lead the way. He was actually one of the weaker links. He had his moments, of course (16 assists in Game Two of the Finals, and 21 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, and 6 steals in Game Six), but Rondo was still the player opponents wanted with the ball. There were actually times Doc Rivers sat Rondo in fourth quarters, in favor of Eddie House. The Lakers put together a game-plan that year to force Rondo to beat them. They respected him less than any of his teammates, and at the time it was fair. He wasn't the Celtics' best player, or even close.

Now, Rondo is in the "NBA's best point guard" conversation for the first time. And it's fair that it's taken this long for Rondo's name to be mentioned in that talk -- it's the first year he's actually deserved the honor. Last season, he was clearly a rung or two below Chris Paul and Deron Williams. He was capable of playing as well as any other PG in the league on any given night, but Rondo didn't bring it every game. Just look at his game log. There were nights when Rondo looked like Jason Kidd (22 points, 13 assists, 10 rebounds against Toronto), and nights he looked like Milt Palacio (4 points, 6 assists, 2-10 shooting against Chicago). Rondo was great, yes, and probably Boston's MVP. But he could also be maddeningly inconsistent. At least until the playoffs, when he began to realize, "Hey, I'm good enough to do this every time I step on the floor."

This year, that inconsistency is entirely gone, and Rondo makes his impact known every single night. Better yet, he does it on both ends of the court. He is widely considered a super-duper-star, and some consider him the league's best point guard. He is receiving credit where credit is due, even if his jumper still doesn't scare anyone. 

My point is this: Unlike Russell, who was doubted when he was already equipped to lead teams to championships, Rondo was doubted when his game had serious flaws. But it doesn't really matter whether Satch Sanders' comparison was perfect. Rondo now demands our praise every night, and, at this point, anyone who doubts Rondo's greatness must be A) blind, B) stupid, or C) not paying any attention whatsoever.

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