From the instant he broke into the NBA, Rajon Rondo has been a polarizing figure.
He's always been one of the league's most difficult players, the guiding question of his tenure with the Big Three-era Boston Celtics being whether his gaudy stats were a cause or symptom of success. Rondo's supporters played down the dominance of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, citing their age, dwindling shot-creation ability and Rondo's propensity to set them up. They lauded his league-leading assist totals and playoff dynamism, like leading Boston into the Finals with triple-doubles against LeBron and memorable hustle plays against the Orlando Magic.
Detractors, on the other hand, considered him the luckiest point guard in the league. They dismissed Rondo's assist totals as the outcome of playing alongside three Hall of Famers, played down his defensive chops by reminding everyone in sight that it's easier to go for steals when Garnett is cleaning up the mess behind you. At the time, with the numbers somewhere in the middle and the explanations on polar ends, the truth felt unknowable.
As the years passed, fanfare slowly dwindled with his play, and Rondo came to embody an amalgamation of his worst traits. Before Boston traded him to the Dallas Mavericks this season, Rondo delivered a case-in-point for his detractors by averaging 10.8 assists despite the 9-14 Celtics being worse with him on the floor. And then, upon his return to Boston, he even admitted to not playing defense for "in a couple of years."
Despite that, prior to the trade, it was still easy to weave Rondo's faults into resume-building "weaknesses":
- Unselfish to a fault
- A misunderstood genius
- No one guards his shot but that gives him a better view of passing angles
- Only motivated by high stakes
- When he does care, he just cares too much
The "Wait for 'Playoff Rondo'" argument isn't exactly the most shining defense, but it's always been alluring.
In dealing for Rondo, if the goal in Dallas was to leverage the continuity and depth of three key cogs – Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder and Brandan Wright – for a championship contender, a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense, it was hard to argue against the results. Like a great politician, Rondo provides enough moments of true brilliance, halcyon stuff even the haters can't deny, to make us want to buy into the entire ball of yarn. It's not just easy but desirable to fall into the old familiar trap, to pretend with Rondo.
But things ricocheted quickly. Dallas' offense has fallen off a cliff since the Rondo acquisition, every pick-and-roll he runs with Dirk Nowitzki easily neutralized by defenders ignoring his shot, to say nothing of the spat between him and Rick Carlisle. Now, in the wake of Dallas floundering to seventh place in the West and Boston's playoff push without him, it's hard to deny the skeptics.
Rondo's Dallas stint feels increasingly like his version of the Pentagon Papers; an exposé demonstrating just how unnatural and laborious false heroics tend to be, the kind of thing that makes reconsidering fans want to think he's worse than he is, because stance-changing is accompanied by the bitter pill of admitting you were duped.
Rondo's assist-hunting tendency, like when he would pass mid-layup (and not in the "misdirection" way) and muck up the offense, reads like the worst propaganda: the kind so obvious it's not even worth following. Surely, the ACL injury and the increased value of outside shooting have affected Rondo's value. But given how much Rondo still physically plays like the guy we saw with the Big Three, hindsight is provoking insecurity: Were we always this wrong about Rondo?
And yet, the more transparent the on-court product gets, the higher I regard his early genius in Boston. Because you have to truly understand a moment to master your place within it. Forget the peaks and valleys of a game in a space-obsessed NBA. When we talk about "Playoff Rondo" or "National TV Rondo" what we're really getting at is where the man really thrives: in the difficult art of memory making. No one has more moments that force the engaged fan to reconcile the occasionally great product he or she sees with the detrimental usual – proof that analytics haven't yet found a way to tip the scales of cold, hard data against memory.
Nothing illustrates this more than the notion that Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle – architect of some of the NBA's most efficient, beautiful offenses – should change his scheme for the sake of Rondo. Considering the Mavericks are stuck with him, it's a logical idea. But that's not where most of the reasoning lies. Singular moments of greatness are so tied to our understanding of Rondo that it's still easy to imagine the right situation bringing them back up again with regularity. Finding the right situation, though, is a built-in problem with Rondo. His uniqueness, the one thread that still connects today's Rondo to the one of popular lore, is what drew us to him in the first place and what makes him so problematic now.
But hey, the playoffs are right around the corner. You never know.