Why There’s No Easy Answer When Defending Rajon Rondo

This ancient Grecian urn depicts the "Rondonian Sphinx Riddle." Does any NBA team have the answer?

How do you defend someone who often has the ball but is rarely looking to score?

That’s the riddle taunting every opponent charged with corralling Rajon Rondo, the quicksilver quarterback of the Boston Celtics. The prevailing wisdom is to defend him in much the same way that teams defend other speed-merchants like Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook. Because Rondo is not a proficient outside scorer, most defenders are content to give him yards of space—heels on the free throw line—to prevent penetration. With many players this amounts to “baiting” the offensive player to shoot. This strategy has worked in the past, as Rondo looked uncomfortable shooting even when he was wide open.

But unlike Derrick Rose, whose scoring role prompted him to launch 31 shots against Oklahoma City, Rondo’s team does not ask him to score. As a result, Rondo is a hyper-disciplined shooter, attempting a whopping 48.84% of field goals “at the rim,” according to Hoopdata.com. Most people would agree that Carmelo Anthony, who attempted 36.23% of his 2010 shots at the rim, is a far “better shooter” than Rajon Rondo, yet Rondo has shot a better percentage from the floor than Carmelo for the last three years because he so rarely shoots outside of his range.

Rondo is also different than typical point guards in that he plays with so many good passers and excels at getting free off the ball for lay ups and scoring off of catch-and-slashes opened up by the C’s smart ball movement. Last season, 32% of Rondo’s rim buckets were assisted by a teammate, compared to 8% for Steve Nash. This is due to Rondo’s exceptional awareness and cutting speed, the design/spacing of the Celtics offense, and because when defenders play off Rondo, they can have a tendency to get lost once he gives up the ball.

None of this is news to NBA teams. The backed-off defender is really meant to prevent Rondo from penetrating and assisting rather than score himself (although I’d argue that Rondo likes having the room to gain speed when he attacks the hoop). Yet, another adverse side effect of attempting to limit Rondo’s drives is that it leaves him free to operate the bone-grinding machinery of Boston’s baseline-screen sets. How many times, in clutch situations, have we watched Rondo idly dribbling at the top of the key, waiting to feed Ray Allen yet another crisp chest pass for yet another game-sealing three pointer? The Celtics’ criminal screening techniques often afford Allen miles of space, but even when he doesn’t get a ton of room he is sure to receive a perfectly timed and placed pass, giving him the best chance to get a clean look.

Allowing Rondo to handle with impunity 20 feet from the cup also creates optimal spacing for the Celtics’ jump-shooting big men. Against the Knicks–not the pinnacle of pick and roll D, but still an NBA team– Rondo dropped nine dimes on pick and pop looks (compared to two pick and roll buckets) to Baby Davis, Garnett, and Paul Pierce. Paul Pierce can shoot the three, but Davis and Garnett, who set dozens of high picks for Rondo throughout each game, thrive on 18-20 footers. By allowing the screen to be set at or near the free throw line, both big men naturally roll backwards into their shooting comfort zone, creating even more space for a hedging defender to make up. Playing off him also takes the option of trapping Rondo out of the equation. Rondo is undoubtedly one of the most difficult players to trap in the league with his exceptional pace and ability to find angles—but he is only 6’0’’ tall, and by mixing in a hard, athletic trap or stunt it’s possible to at least disrupt the primary pick and roll action. In addition to trapping on ball screens, with the right personnel, denying him a catch and forcing the Celtics to run their offense through other players might also disrupt their flow.

I’d also be curious to see an adventurous team attempt to force Rondo to score 40+ a la the Mavericks’ strategy for Steve Nash in the 2005 playoffs. Keep in mind that Rondo is essentially souped up Nash without a jumper, and for all his finishing wizardry, Rondo actually converts at the rim at a lower percentage than Nash. In fact, Rondo has never in his career attempted more than 20 shots or scored more than 32 points times in a game—why not attempt to make him and the Celtics beat you by playing in a way to which they are unaccustomed?

Rondo can score a bit, but here’s what he does best [thanks to Jason Ouellette (@MrTrpleDouble10) for the film]:

In his phenomenal 24 assist game, Rondo only had one assist on a pure dribble drive. Three were on cuts or catch-and-slashes, five were on fast breaks, five came from just handling the ball and finding an open shooter coming off a screen and 11 were out of the pick and pop or roll. So how smart of a strategy is applying no pressure to Rondo when he’s more than happy to hook up his skilled teammates? Against New York he shot a low percentage (4-12) for 10 points, but his ability to orchestrate the offense was unimpeded, and he generated over 50 pts in assists.

Who knows, forcing Rondo to carry the scoring load might backfire–it may even be impossible given the Celtics cornucopia of offensive options. And surely there are moments, especially at the end of the shot clock, when giving Rondo a wide berth is the most prudent play. The Los Angeles Lakers sagged off him in the finals last year and used their otherworldly length to effectively clog up passing lanes. But to be as effective as LA was, a team must consistently trot out comparable length and defensive organization.

Press him and he flies by, lay off and he coolly distributes to a cast living legends. Whatever the answer to stopping Rondo and the Celtics is, no team has found it yet.

@BeckleyMason/Beckleym@gmail.com

Note: Thank you to Coach Anthony Macri of Hoopsworld.com and Pro Training Center for some excellent advice on this post!

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