A week ago, an interesting debate arose in the basketball blogosphere that led me to reevaluate the way I think about the Celtics and their roster-building plans moving forward.
On the surface, the discussion wasn't actually about the C's at all. Rather, it pertained to the Washington Wizards, and the specific topic under the microscope was John Wall's shooting ability - or lack thereof - and how much of a liability it was for a Wiz offense that was slightly below average last season.
On one side was a Washington Post blogger who called Wall's efficiency into question, and his attention-grabbing headline asserted that the "Wizards would be better off if John Wall would stop shooting." The writer cited Wall's inordinate amount of time with the ball in his hands, juxtaposed with his subpar effective field goal percentage, and concluded that if Wall can't improve his shooting dramatically next season, he's better off looking to pass more instead.
The counterpoint came from an SB Nation writer who was quick to jump to Wall's defense, maintaining that despite the inefficient shooting, he was still an offensive focal point because of his speed and his court vision. He also argued that you can't simply cite eFG and call it a day - basketball is more complex than that because it involves teammates, play execution, game situations and the small matter of the five guys on the opposing team playing defense.
I'm not taking a side in the Wall debate. Both Neil Greenberg and Mike Prada did a fine job arguing their viewpoints, and I respect both opinions. But I find it interesting from a Bostonian perspective because it's refreshing, amid all this debate about Rajon Rondo and Marcus Smart and the future of the Celtics, to realize that we aren't the only ones arguing about what to do with a point guard who can't shoot.
We've been dealing with this in Boston for eight years now. "Yeah, that Rondo guy's all right, but he can't shoot" has become such a common retort that we're pretty much numb to it by now. We hear it from fellow fans in sports bars, commenters in blogs and responders on Twitter daily. And hey - if you're doing a talk radio show and you need to fill 15 seconds with shouting before your next commercial break, it makes for a nice sound bite. But while "Your point guard can't shoot" is a valid point to make in a basketball argument, it's best as a conversation starter, not an ender, wouldn't you say? One player's usage rates and efficiency stats are telling, of course, but they only tell one small part of the overall story. There's a lot more to explore.
Take the Wizards, for instance. Now's the right time to have this conversation about Wall - the Wiz are at this interesting point in their long-term development where they have their core group of players in place (Wall, Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat) and are already a playoff team, but they still face the challenge of climbing from "fringe contender" to "real contender." With their roster fairly well solidified for the long haul, their only way to improve is to take the existing players they have and make them better. Hence the focus on fine-tuning Wall's skills. Should he shoot more? Less? The same quantity, but improve his shot selection? These are great questions to debate.
For the Celtics, the conversation is different. No one is talking about a gradual climb in the ranks here in Boston. Instead, the C's are at the bottom of the heap and they may need a massive overhaul. The task for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens isn't to fine-tune - it's to build from the bottom up. So naturally, people rip apart Rondo (and Smart!) and ask big, over-arching questions like "Can you ever build a winner when your cornerstone is a point guard who can't shoot?"
I've often found these conversations to be unsatisfying. They rarely go into enough depth to be worthwhile, and they typically fail to consider the context surrounding the guy at the point. You can't ask big philosophical questions about team-building and only discuss one guy - the game doesn't work that way.
It's pretty clear that non-shooting point guards can be winners, provided the other circumstances are right. Magic Johnson was a 30 percent career shooter from 3, and he won five championships. Jason Kidd took the Nets to back-to-back Finals in the early 2000s, even though he was still years away from developing a jumper. Even the KG-era Celtics deserve a nod here - the veterans get most of the credit, but that 2008 team never wins a title without Rondo maturing into a poised floor leader. He couldn't shoot then either, but it didn't stop him.
Can the Celtics ever be one of those teams, either with Rondo or Smart running the show, that emerges as a winner despite a lack of shooting ability from the point guard spot? I certainly think it's possible, down the road. But just like all those great teams listed above, they need the right complementary pieces. A slasher, a post stalwart, a couple of knock-down wing shooters, and so on. The surrounding guys need to fit.
Rondo, because he's currently on a losing team in an impatient city, rarely gets the, "Yeah, but if only his teammates were better..." defense these days. People instead dismiss him because of his poor individual numbers as a scorer. And admittedly, there's no debating the numbers are poor. According to Synergy Sports, Rondo averaged 75 points per 100 possessions as a pick-and-roll ball handler last season, 69 points per 100 in transition and 83 in isolation situations. Those were his three most common types of touches, and in all three areas, he looked laughable compared to a truly gifted offensive point guard like Russell Westbrook or Tony Parker.
But to focus on only the scoring deficiencies is a flawed way of looking at Rondo as a player overall. He has other gifts. Those who watch him every night, we know this. Rondo is a brilliant passer and a visionary player. He has a supercomputer brain that watches possessions unfold before they even happen. He makes mind-boggling plays that defy the laws of physics, geometry and psychology. More than perhaps anyone else in the game, he does unique things that help basketball teams win - I fear that whatever stat is actually apt to measure Rajon Rondo is one mankind hasn't invented yet.
Sure, you can point to his flaws. But almost everyone in the NBA, outside of the super-elite LeBron James/Kevin Durant class, has glaring deficiencies. James Harden's defensive ineptitude has gone viral. Steph Curry isn't a YouTube sensation for his own poor D, but he's honestly not much better. Dwight Howard makes the image-conscious play instead of the smart one. Kevin Love can't protect the paint. Derrick Rose, even when healthy, has questionable shooting range.
I could go on but won't bore you. Point is, we live in an era when it's so, so easy to spread the word about a player's flaws, but just because a guy has imperfections is no reason to dismiss him. Let's put it this way: If you only gave contracts to flawless players, you'd have a heck of a lot of cap space every summer. And say what you will about Rajon Rondo (many, many people on both sides have), but I still say he's an elite player in the right situation.
As late July gives way to early August, this is the perfect time to get into lengthy conversations about big-picture issues. If you're following the Washington Wizards, you've got your eye on the Eastern Conference's upper echelon, whereas in Boston, the perspective's a little different. But either way, questions like, "Can you win with a non-shooting point guard?" make for scintillating debate. Until October when the games begin, debates are all we've got. Let's enjoy them.