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The Inbounds: Rajon Rondo and a game of art not science

Sep 6, 2012, 12:40 PM EST

Rajon Rondo AP

Over Labor Day, I had an opportunity to share a beach house with both a scientist and an artist. (Don’t get jealous, we were pretty much living off our friends’ generosity, it’s not like I’m skipping off to the Hamptons every other weekend.) A social situation involving people on opposite ends of the conceptual spectrum, particularly in their late 20’s when ways of life and outlooks have cemented somewhat can bring some borderline fascinating observations on the conversations and how they develop. The rest of the group was evenly split between leaning more towards the analytically-inclined (an engineer and a financial services rep) and the less-so (an English grad student). So it provided a nice background. The differential between how the two approached things wasn’t striking, it was subtle and textured. Both also very much had a strong crossover to the other’s side of the world. But at their core, one was a scientist, one was an artist, briefly living in each other’s shared universe.

It made me think of Rajon Rondo.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss interviewed Rondo for Bleacher Report as he continued his Red Bull promotional tour last week. In the interview, Strauss asked a series of insightful questions trying to get to the core of how Rondo looks at the way he plays. (Actual basketball questions in a player interview! “The horror,” cried most media.) Rondo answered the way an artist answers a question about the science of their approach. It’s not that there’s not a science to it, it’s that the approach is using science to create art, not the other way around. Two particularly notable sections of an interview I beg you to read:

B/R: Do you ever wonder why more guys in the NBA don’t do what you do with the ball fakes?

RR: I don’t know (laughs). I have no idea. I don’t want them to pick up on it, ya know? I like having a unique game and doing my own thing.

B/R: When did you come up with the ball-fake strategy, because, guys throw ball fakes when they’re on the move, but you do it when you’re planted. Is that just something that came instinctively?

RR: I just came with it. It’s actually funny. A lot of my moves, it just comes out. I don’t really predetermine or practice.

……………

B/R: Did you do that because, when you were growing up, fundamental-minded coaches didn’t like some of the cool, different things you were doing, and you wanted to do it differently?

RR: I just want to give them something different. I don’t want to come out here and give a boring camp. I want to give them something that they actually see me do out on the court. I don’t want to teach them a regular bounce-pass. I want to show them why I throw the behind-the-back pass to Kevin on the pick-and-roll, why I do my shot fake.

B/R: You do throw that behind-the-back on the pick-and-pop a lot of the time to Kevin Garnett. What’s your favorite kind of pass to throw? Is is that one? 

RR: Oh, I like throwing a cross-court one-hand bounce-pass between the defense to P (Paul Pierce). I’ll throw a little English on the ball, throw it between two, three guys that are trying to run extremely hard to the paint. Then you got Paul Pierce trailing for the three—and obviously I’m pleased when he makes it.

via Rajon Rondo Dishes on His Current and Future Status with the Boston Celtics | Bleacher Report.

The answers aren’t particularly shocking. A lot of players like to talk about basketball, but from the outside, you can press too deep, and then they’re like “I’m not overthinking it, I just do it.” It’s basketball, not advanced chemistry. The game is complex, but the actions are instinctive a lot of the time. It’s part of what makes the game so perfect from a conceptual and execution standpoint. The games that reach true popularity are those that have the right balance of entertaining features and no discernible holes for exploitation. The major sports are the models of this. But Rondo’s statement above “I don’t really predetermine or practice” speaks really to who he is and how we consider him.

Chris Paul is considered the Point God for a number of reasons, chief among them the simple superiority of his execution. His floater is in perfect form. He routinely flirts with a 50-40-90 line from the field. His passes are on target nearly 80% of the time, and by that I don’t mean they reach their target, I mean that he lands it in the hand he wants, at the height he wants, at the velocity. If you want to teach a player how to execute the pick and roll or pop, cue up Paul’s execution, which is consistent to a stunning degree, steady like a freight train, sharp like a razor.

But Rondo’s inherently different. It’s not that he’s not consistent. Lord knows he’s run that pick and pop with Garnett the same way so many times the process should be permanently embedded in Spencer Hawes‘ brain like in “The Manchurian Candidate” (and yet Hawes will still watch as Garnett nails that 18-footer). He has a series of plays that he runs the same way. But that’s not why we’re wowed by him. Those that come down as pro-Rondo marvel at his instinctive ability in his creativity. Artists don’t wake up one day, say “I will become an artist, now,” and then go learn to draw. Not often, anyway. It starts with drawing with crayons or markers as a kid, with filling notebooks, constantly messing with clay, spending hours on graphic design programs. It fills the brain the way numbers fill the minds of statisticians or biblical passages ruminate in the minds of the devout. It’s just there, it’s the way they process. And the same with Rondo.

It doesn’t come from plotting, from a blueprint, it comes in spontaneous moments, in the instantaneous creation of a play. Observe:

Rondo could likely play in the clinical manner of a lot of point guards. He wouldn’t be as good as Paul, he’d just be a standard, good, blue-collar point guard. I have no way of knowing, but it’s an impression I get that the biggest reason Rondo plays the way he does is that he would get bored otherwise. Read that second quote section. “I just want to give them something different.” Rondo is consistently criticized for his attitude, and there’s every indication he’s driven Doc Rivers absolutely guano over the past five years. He’s temperamental. This is pretty in-check with most of the artists I know. That bit of artistry is all that keeps the world from becoming mundane.

Rondo’s driven by creating plays which fall outside of the ordinary. It’s those plays that make him remarkable, that separate him. And just as it is with most artists, when he’s in a creative groove, the results can be stunning not only in their quality, but volume. His absurd triple-doubles with 20-assists remind me of stories of how Ryan Adams will go into studious and pump out dozens of songs in a session, all stockpiled in his brain.

Rondo’s an avid rollerskater. Think about the actions and way that you do that. It’s about freedom, and spontaneity of movement. Spins, twists, twirls, jumps. The objective is mobile grace. The ball-fakes he uses are sometimes wholly unnecessary. They’re not fooling anyone. It’s just a mechanism. But when it works out perfectly, he fools the defense completely and it’s one of the most unique plays you’ll see, sweeping left to right, whipping the ball from one angle to the polar opposite, and sliding in the layup.

Maybe that’s what’s at the core of the debate over Rondo. Superiority in execution is dependent on precision, consistency, and effort. Rondo’s investment in all three of those principles waxes and wanes as the game goes on, the same way an artist’s involvement in his work can be subject to emotional twists and turns. Much of basketball is geometry. Rondo is constantly working to get bend geometry, trying to do things which aren’t just unnatural in the course of a game, but seem to run almost counter to the principles which decide success.

If you’re not into art, or at least not in basketball, Rondo’s going to seem sloppy, a pain, too inconsistent. But if you can appreciate the attempts to make the game more than a game, even if he’s not consciously aware of that attempt (and Rondo’s mostly just playing basketball and getting paid here, let’s be honest), then he means something wholly different. Creativity can be a liability, but if you consider the endeavor inherently worthwhile, then Rondo’s the point guard for you.

Artists and creative types abhor labels and boundaries. They instinctively act to get past those limitations into a creative and mental freedom. It may not be intentional, but you can see a lot of the same thing in the play of Rajon Rondo.

  1. truthhurtstoo - Sep 6, 2012 at 1:43 PM

    Overrated…

    • scalfor3 - Sep 6, 2012 at 2:50 PM

      guy is one of the best playoff performers of the last 10 years. every year he takes his game to another level when the stakes get high

    • mlblogsredsoxforecaster - Sep 7, 2012 at 6:55 PM

      In general, Rondo has been UNDER-rated, because he’s not a consistent big time scorer, and too many people place too much emphasis on scoring. Rondo’s jump shot isn’t great, but not as bad as it used to be, and he has the ability to use his speed to get layups and score in bunches, with a high shooting %, WHEN HIS TEAM NEEDS IT, which is when all the scorers are injured. He prefers to get everyone involved, though, and I’ll take a player like that any day.

  2. therealroman - Sep 6, 2012 at 1:50 PM

    Great points in here, thx once again for the Bleacher Report – Interview, that was pretty cool.
    To me, Rondo’s gotta be one of the most fun players to watch, because he’s got that unique style, that special creativity in special moments, that x-factor that i don’t see in a guy like Deron WIlliams for example. Rondo’s play is just so dynamic, there’s always something about to happen.
    Now, if we’re talking about the greatest PG’s in the game right now, I think it’s very hard to argue. You think about Rondo’s insane Triple Doubles and his untouchable performance against Miami, and you gotta say this dude is the best. Then you see CP3 dominate the game, basically willing and carrying his Team past the Memphis Grizzlies, playing seemingly faultless, always making the right decision no matter how much pressure you bring, and you gotta think this guy is the best. But think back of what DRose did before the lockout, his explosiveness, his aggression, his almost inhuman body control in the air, his attitude and leadership, and you think this dude is one of the greatest i’ve ever seen. Russel Westbrook has games where he looks like he’s defining a new position, when have you ever before seen such an aggressive and athletic point guard who constantly puts pressure on your 1, on both ends of the floor?

    So what I’m trying to say: You ask ten different people who the best PG in the league is at the moment, and you’re probably gonna get 4 or 5 different answers. The most consistent might be Paul and Williams, but I’d still put Rondo and a healthy Rose up there with ‘em, because sometimes style does matter ;)

    • saint1997 - Sep 7, 2012 at 9:08 AM

      yeah i agree its so hard to say who is the best because of the styles of so many pgs conflicting but you’d have to put rondo second after paul, then rose and williams

  3. pollocol - Sep 6, 2012 at 4:33 PM

    Way overrated, still doesn’t have a decent jumper, the only thing he’s done is make 3 HALL OF FAMERS look good lol, because we ALL know when Boston won it’s last championship it wasn’t because of Rondo.

    1. Chris Paul
    2. Deron Williams
    3. Derrik Rose
    4. Tony Parker
    5. Steve Nash
    6. Rajon Rando – Russell Westbrook

    And before ppl start going crazy with my list of best PG, look at it again and my top five make there team’s a lot better, remember that since Rondo started to play” better” no championship for Boston and that was with The Big Three or why do u think they never called it The Big 4. And yes I got Nash over Rondo or when do u think Rondo is going to win TWO MVP’S

    • mlblogsredsoxforecaster - Sep 7, 2012 at 6:54 PM

      Nash in his prime was better than Rondo, but now?

      As for the 2008 championship, certainly Rondo wasn’t the main reason, but look at this: The Cs won most of their home playoff games and lost most of their road playoff games that year, and the main reason for that difference was Rondo’s lack of aggressiveness on the road, and hyper-aggressiveness at home. He had a big impact.

      Also, if championships are all that matters, then Tony Parker should be at the top of your list, and Rondo 2nd. How many championships have those top 3 won? Remember, Rondo did help the Cs get to game 7 of the Finals in 2010, with “The Big 3″ not playing their best, and rebounding was the reason they didn’t win that last game.

      Also, they’ve been called “The Big 4″ in Boston for a few years now. I suggest you do more homework before you post.

  4. drunkenjunk - Sep 6, 2012 at 8:10 PM

    I’d take him over any other pg in the league.

  5. dbrooks2375 - Sep 7, 2012 at 10:00 PM

    Definitely not a Celtic fan. Unfortunately stuck in Charlotte w/the Bobkitties. Rondo has so many haters, even though he is the quintessential PG. People seem to forget that ball distribution & running the offense is the PG’s main job. Not making jumpers…

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