In 2005 and 2006, I watched Kobe Bryant play basketball, but not because I thought he was the world’s best player. Even back then, I believed LeBron’s well rounded attack to be superior. But that’s fodder for an argument and not necessarily why anyone should turn on a television. While we like to debate which players are the most effective at creating wins (this is the tacit meaning of “best,” no?), there is a distance between that conversation and why we’re drawn to basketball.
So, without caring much about Kobe as a win-generating force, my college self loved the Kobe show for what it was. What it was, back then, was a man flinging deep three pointers from angles only known by creepy chiropractors. Bryant had invented a new, thrilling, selfish, hilarious way to play the sport we thought we knew.
The awed internal monologue gasped, “Wait, you can shoot contested fadeaway three pointers with no legal repercussions? Wait, you can shoot uncontested fadeaway three pointers were no legal repercussions?” On a nightly basis, Gunner Kobe took on basketball convention and usually won. That he was pulling this off while being near LeBron in efficiency was perhaps a greater accomplishment than being the most efficient. James was approaching excellence logically; Bryant was brilliantly playing like an idiot.
Winning basketball is often concocted by its most aesthetically pleasing practitioners. We take pleasure in a person’s ability to problem solve on the court, and solving problems leads to victories. But it’s not a perfect correlation, as some effective players languish, unloved in our collective imaginations. Tim Duncan is an obvious choice here. Few were better at being better while making the masses shrug. And sometimes, effective players capture our imaginations and run with them to an extreme degree.
Which brings me to Rajon Rondo, a player whom I’ve spent too much time trying to make sense of. He just exited the best statistical playoffs of his career, but numbers do little justice to the entertainment experience of seeing him produce better numbers.
I was always so fixated on how Rondo’s unique game and big market exposure spawned a Kobe-esque mythology. Bryant’s high point totals made him the platonic Jordan shooting guard ideal–never mind the efficiency. Rondo’s high assist totals made him the platonic point guard ideal–never mind the terrible true shooting percentage and mediocre Boston offensive attack. Bryant’s talented, victorious teams helped rebrand his rudeness as competitive fire. Rondo’s ref-bumping and camera interrogating ways are always viewed through the soft lens of “winner.”
Ultimately, the popularity of these players bothered me at some level because it didn’t seem fair to other players. Why should Kobe Bryant get far more credit for those last two Finals victories than Pau Gasol? Why should Rajon Rondo make a third All Star team when he’s 78th in PER? Why should his jersey be the NBA’s third best seller when Ty Lawson’s scraping Rondo in win shares?
The late Spring has been a reminder of how myopic such thoughts can be if thought too much. Rondo was undeniably compelling during the 2012 playoff tear, so much so that ranking his abilities felt impossible and insufficient. Mr. Nationally Televised Game was, as previously mentioned, a better player in the playoff spotlight. He scored more, rebounded better, and made a chaotic chore out of judging a player who thrives in chaos. It was best to stop thinking and submit to a wildly entertaining run.
Merely enjoying Rajon Rondo meant focusing on the elements that make him so damned unique and compelling. Not only does Rondo thrive in the aforementioned chaos, but he has an ingenious way of creating it. He’ll often stand in one place, throwing fake passes through the air. The defense is more likely to move than the ball is, even if they know to watch for this. Some defenders bite on the fakes, others don’t. The space he opens up isn’t predictable, like a pocket pass avenue in a pick and roll. A faked out defense can be a mish mash of players flying and flailing in overlapping directions. But in the mess, he sees angles that will form a split-second later. Chaos triggers his prescient instincts. Rondo shakes up a snow globe and it becomes his crystal ball.
It’s like he’s invented a new way of playing basketball, as Kobe once did. It resonates with fans, as it damn well should. Does this mean Rondo’s better than say, Kyrie Irving? I don’t know, I just miss watching him in these playoffs.