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Essay: Theorizing The Rondo Slippage

March 19, 2011 1 comment

Let me begin with this honest bit of  full disclosure: Rajon Rondo is my favorite basketball player. To watch him play is a near blessing every night; the equal mix of unselfish play, fearlessness, unparalleled court vision, blazing speed, handle, and photographic memory intelligence makes him one of the most alluring, entertaining athletes in professional sports. Many people in this world were blessed with all of those attributes, but what separates Rondo, in short, is his body. Those hands, so Dr. J. And those long arms allow him to cheat on defense in ways that would make a coach bench any other player who even thought of trying it. It’s almost like he’s toying with opposing point guards, the way he lets them drive by, like bank robbers with bags of money dragging from their bumpers. Then he pokes his arm in, knocks the ball forward to a teammate, and takes off the other way for an easy layup. He makes it all look so effortless. Rondo’s embraced Kevin Garnett’s “no need to make friends in this league” attitude; only adding to the Celtics’ aura of brotherhood. He’s the perfect player on this team, but certainly not someone who couldn’t find avenues to thrive on every single team in the league. After playing with Rondo for just a few months, Shaquille O’Neal said a player of that caliber probably comes around once every six or seven years.

Sure he has his faults—most notably free throw shooting and the mid range jumper—but I’ve always viewed those as being correctable at some point down the line. Like Jason Kidd or Tony Parker. They’re also the type of flaws you can live with your point guard having. Especially if he’s the fastest player on the court and able to attack the rim whenever he so chooses. His job is to distribute the ball to the scorers on his team, which he’s been doing better than everybody else. I say “been doing” because lately Rondo’s been off. Disturbingly so. Last night against Houston, Rondo scored four points on 2-11 shooting. Over his last four games, Rondo has now scored a total of eight points and has a field goal percentage of 13.8 (4-29). He’s scored over 20 points just twice this season, so those numbers are wonderfully peachy unless two things aren’t happening: He’s racking up double digit assists and the Celtics are winning games. Last night neither happened. In a March 3rd win against Golden State, he went 3-11 from the field but had 16 dimes. This, for the most part, is acceptable. Since that game the Celtics have gone 3-4 with Rondo attempting just two free throws and looking almost lost with the ball for the first time in three years. From ESPNBoston:

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it’s the fewest points over a three-game stretch for a Celtics starter since Brian Scalabrine in January 2008. Scal put up only three points while starting three straight in Kevin Garnett’s absence. In 2007, Scalabrine actually went scoreless in three straight starts. Those stretches were largely due to a lack of offensive touches. Rondo, on the other hand, is in near constant possession of the ball. You have to go even deeper into Elias’ archives to find a starting guard for the Celtics with a similar low scoring stretch. In 2001, Randy Brown, filling in for an injured Kenny Anderson, started three straight games in which he managed just four total points on 2-for-14 from the field.

Yeesh. Here are three possible explanations as to why the Rondo we’re seeing of late isn’t the elite floor general we’re used to:

He hasn’t adjusted to “The Trade”—Since Kendrick Perkins was shipped to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green and Nenad Krstic, the Celtics have played 12 games. Of those 12, Rondo has recorded 10 or more assists only four times. For someone who’s notched 15 or more assists 14 times this season, this is slightly alarming. While Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce have all taken the older brother role with Rondo, Perk was always the best friend. The guy who shared the dimly lit background during their championship run. They bonded as more than teammates and grew to become best buddies off the court. (Rondo was the best man at Perkins’ wedding two summers ago.) By all accounts Rajon Rondo is a mentally strong individual. He backs down from no player on the court, displays a confidence that’s borderline arrogant, and has shown an ability to manage the egos of his first ballot Hall of Fame teammates to an almost perfect degree. But what if the loss of Perk did something to him? Maybe something that’s subconsciously effecting him on a level even he hasn’t yet realized. Tying this in, is it possible Rondo hasn’t been able to mesh with his new teammates? The Celtics have done the unthinkable in overhauling a first place team at the All-Star break. Regardless, I don’t buy this theory. Krstic has better hands than Perkins, offers the pick and pop option, and has a better eye for finding open spots in the transition game. Plus, Rondo and the Celtics were doing just fine before Perkins returned from rehabbing his knee. Jeff Green looks to be getting more and more comfortable by the game and he gives Rondo the most athletic specimen he’s ever had the pleasure of working with. On court chemistry shouldn’t be a problem come playoff time.

He’s Injured—At a hair over six feet and just about 170 pounds, when Rondo goes airborne against some of the world’s larger individuals, it’s like a human game of kick the can. He crashes and crumples; sometimes he literally bounces off the court. We’ve seen Rondo settle for jumpers lately, sometimes miscalculated ones early in the shot clock, and it’s made the injury excuse a simple and rational one.  Kevin Garnett says he’s hurt, but Doc Rivers won’t allow it as an excuse. This video makes me wonder, though it could be a reach…It’s March. Everyone’s hurt to some degree or another, but Rondo’s minutes have begun to decrease. Strange for a player who’s 15th in the league in minutes per game (more than Dwyane Wade and 0.3 less than Derrick Rose). In 12 games representing his lowest playing time this season, four have come in March. With Delonte and Arroyo in the fold and Boston historically holding the priority of health over seeding, maybe resting Rondo for a few games regardless of whether he’s “hurt” or “injured” isn’t such a terrible idea. Of course Rondo, being the player and person he is, doesn’t want any of it.

He’s Human—I don’t remember seeing Doc Rivers more agitated in his time since the Big Three’s arrival than in his recent discussion of whether or not Rajon Rondo is injured. Either Rivers is a very, VERY talented actor, or his display of rare head coach candor needs to be acknowledged with open arms. I tend to believe almost everything that comes out of Rivers’ mouth, so this explanation of Rondo playing poorly being a simple case of homo sapienitis comes off as both reassuring and unsettling. But have no fear. Why shouldn’t you buy this explanation? One word: Defense. Rondo has been getting burned by players he’d normally eat alive. Last night it was Kyle Lowry, a few days ago Darren Collison. Not to knock those point guards, because both of them are playing above their heads good lately, but this is an elite defensive player we’re talking about. Rondo is currently second in steals percentage, ninth in defensive rating (one ahead of Tim Duncan), and 10th in defensive win shares. He knows the plays opposing teams are going to run and relays them to his teammates during games like a well studied middle linebacker.

There’s no denying Rajon Rondo hasn’t been playing up to the best of his abilities these past couple of weeks, but is it really such a cause for concern? The playoffs are a month away, and all three of these possible problems can easily be corrected by then. The unselfish play, fearlessness, unparalleled court vision, blazing speed, handle, and photographic memory intelligence are all still there; it’s more a matter of when, not if, we see them again on full display.

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Shook Ankles: March Has Been Mad (MORE COLLEGE SPECIALTIES)

March 18, 2011 Leave a comment

For several reasons, this is without a doubt my all time favorite crossover. First and foremost, let’s take a look at the moment. It was the 1995 ACC Championship game between Wake Forest and North Carolina. Some future NBA players competing were Tim Duncan, Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, and, the man of the moment, Randolph Childress. A great college player whose NBA career was unfortunately cut short by a torn ACL, Childress scored 37 points in the championship game (including the game winner), leading the Demon Deacons to victory. On that night he was unconscious, just completely out of his mind and incapable of failure. If the show he put on was a giant cupcake, this crossover was a lit candle standing firm in the center. It’s the first thing remembered (by me) whenever his name is mentioned.

So why is this the best? Well, in short, it brings everything to the table. The art of the great crossover is to lose your defender and immediately create points for your team. If he falls over, all the better. Childress not only makes this poor, nameless Tar Heel tumble to the ground, he stops, looks down at him, waves, and then nails a dagger three-pointer.  The confidence factor is an 18 out of 10, and if an identical play were to happen in today’s game, chances are Childress would be hit with a technical foul. The move was one of a kind; never duplicated. Remembered forever.

If you want to see it in real time along with the rest of Randolph Childress’ iconic production, fast forward to about the 30 second mark.

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Commentary: The JaValevator Needs To Pump Its Brakes

March 16, 2011 3 comments

To say JaVale McGee’s arms are long doesn’t do them justice. Broom sticks are long. The crossbar on a soccer goal, also long. But the two spokes dangling from JaVale McGee’s shoulders? They’re more like those never ending guard rails hugging the sides of a highway. The moment you fly by one at 60 mph another sidles up beside you. Now pretend that you driving your car is actually an NBA guard driving into the lane, ball in hand, ready for liftoff.  Those guardrails are instead the league’s freakiest appendages. (If they could jump 40 inches off the ground or spin around and wipe a few dozen passing cars off the road whenever they felt like it.) This is the almighty power they hold and the limitless potential they allow.

After leading the league in block percentage last year, McGee’s currently tied in first with Darko Milicic; despite his inconsistent offensive play this season, his offensive rebounding percentage is higher than Pau Gasol’s. Signs of a game changing big man glow from his 7’1” frame. Raw and upside are both adjectives commonly used to describe basketball players born with the rare physical gifts it takes to play the game at a professional level. JaVale McGee has those gifts. At 23 and almost through his third year in the league, he’s still rawer, with more upside, than just about every prospect looking to enter the 2011 draft (save Perry Jones III). There’s his wherewithal to leap over or through almost every defender in the league and as we saw in the dunk contest, McGee can do things literally nobody else can even dream about. See this: 

Now here comes the lead, buried deep beneath JaVale McGee’s dignity. As you probably know by now, a certain Washington Wizards big man recorded a triple double last night; 11 points, 12 rebounds, and 12 blocks (!) in 39 minutes of play. Despite this valiant effort the Wiz lost by 19 points. Last night we were witness to the undeveloped side that comes with unlimited potential. In McGee’s case, as is the situation with most who never fully tap into their inner capabilities, the problem lies between his ears.

Courtesy of The Washington Post’s Michael Lee:

Coach Flip Saunders called four consecutive plays for McGee to reach the milestone. McGee first got the ball near the foul line and badly missed a runner off the backboard. He then got the ball on the left side of the block, turned around and shot an air ball about three feet over the rim. He got the ball near the foul line again, but in an effort to dribble around Thomas, McGee lost the ball out of bounds. His teammates kept looking for him, and John Wall eventually helped him reach his goal. With the Wizards trailing by 20 points in the final 30 seconds, Wall dove to the floor for a loose ball and turned around to place the ball in McGee’s hands. McGee drove inside for what he called “a dunk of relief” but accentuated it with a chin-up on the rim, collecting a technical foul as he nearly kicked the bottom of the rim. “We knew he was pressing,” said Wall, who had a triple-double in his sixth career game. “I heard him just calling my name when I picked it up, I gave it to him and I turned around, threw it to him, cleared the lane for him.”

Forget the intense overreaction to scoring his ninth point in a blowout loss, and a few minutes later, the technical foul for kicking the ball four rows deep and doing a pull up on the rim. I’m all for a player having a statistically impressive performance in a losing effort. It happens. But the way McGee went about obtaining his is wrong. All wrong. Going down the stretch it was clunky, embarrassing, falsely ordained basketball. The type of basketball which devalues exactly what makes the triple double such a hallowed benchmark. Reaching double digits in three different statistical categories is to be achieved organically as you scrape and claw towards a well deserved victory. By forcing a round ball through a square peg—exactly what JaVale’s last four possessions looked like—the performance goes for naught and will be remembered more for the ugly way in which it was achieved, if it’s remembered at all, than the impressive numbers in the box score. What’s the point of acquiring something when you depreciate its value in your process of securing it?

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Shook Ankles: The Italian Stallion Rides By Amar’e

March 16, 2011 1 comment

Couldn’t be any more positive that had Andrea Bargnani pulled this move on just about any other player in the league it would be emphatically denied, but so it goes, Amar’e Stoudemire is the mark. Still, to pull off a nimble between the legs blow by as a seven footer is a beautiful thing to watch. Not to pick on Stoudemire too bad, he probably went for 54 that night.

UPDATE: Bargnani has indeed put his between the legs crossover on display more than once. Granted it wasn’t done in as impressive a fashion, but the ball goes through the basket. So yea, its worked here and here.

Shook Ankles: The Carlos Arroyo Experiment

March 15, 2011 Leave a comment

The Celtics have been in dire need of a reliable backup point guard’s services for what now seems like a decade.  They’ve made several attempts in that time to patch up a rather important position with torn and tattered cloth; players who were either too young and inexperienced (Avery Bradley, Gabe Pruitt), too old (Stephon Marbury, Gary Payton), too incapable (Sam Cassell, Marquis Daniels, Tony Allen, Nate Robinson), or too hurt (Delonte West) to make a meaningful impact.

In the time between the team announcing they signed Carlos Arroyo and his first minutes as a Celtic, I would’ve placed him in both the too old and too incapable categories. Arroyo looked to be nothing more than a spot up shooter in Miami and through age had devolved into a point guard no longer adept in running a contender’s offense. So far with Boston (in 53 minutes of play) Arroyo’s turnover percentage is about double what it was in Miami (26.4 to 14.5%), but so is his assist percentage (26.9 to 15.4%). Weird. Sometimes he looks older than 31, and sometimes he looks three or four years younger. There’s a good/definite chance he’ll never look like he did in this clip ever again, but that isn’t what Boston needs. The big question is this: Did Arroyo pack more in his bag than a jump shot?

Commentary: A Noiseless Challenger

March 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Funny how a few wins here, some moderate success there, and you’re a blip on the league’s radar.  After a much maligned yet expected 3-13 start, the Philadelphia 76ers seem to have finally poked their head up and through the soil. Their last two playoff appearances were of the quick and painless first round exit variety; with an unfairly tagged franchise player and a disinterested fan base creating zero hype or excitement. But over the past two months Philadelphia has played the best basketball the city’s seen in 10 years, and people are clawing over one another’s backs for a seat on the bandwagon. Still, without any superstars, the attention given to Sixers basketball pales in comparison to New York, Boston, or Chicago. Very few teams can match their collection of uber-young talent, and in the years ahead, it’ll be interesting to see who their general manager, Ed Stefanski, chooses to keep in development, and who to cut from the herd as useful assets. Since their shocking upset of San Antonio a little over one month ago, Philadelphia has gone 9-4 with a win over Boston and an overtime loss to Oklahoma City to prove just how competitive they’ve been when pitted against the league’s best.

So why is this happening? An obvious answer would be the new coach, Doug Collins, who, in a move that made more than a few heads shake, left a longtime job in broadcasting to commandeer a young, meddling franchise in Philly. Collins, along with Chicago’s Tom Thibodeau, is now a front runner for Coach of the Year. Another reason could be the improved play of Elton Brand, who has been a pretty big disappointment since leaving Los Angeles a few years ago. Or maybe it’s the surprisingly consistent and confident play of young guards Jrue Holiday, Jodie Meeks, and Lou Williams. These are all valid explanations, but when it comes down to it, the most solid answer available has been right under everyone’s nose the whole time. A player who defines under the radar, who has just recently taken the task of defensive stopper to heart and adjusted his game accordingly. I’m talking, of course, about Andre Iguodala. Courtesy of CSNPhilly.com’s Dei Lynam:

The question is: when will Iguodala make his first NBA all-defensive team? In his seventh season, he is definitely knocking on that door.

Iguodala is given the toughest defensive assignment nightly and he relishes in studying the play of the Kobes and Carmelos and figuring a way to slow them down.

“I focus on that every night, so it is always there. Playing against those guys you have to play at a high level or you are going to get burnt,” Iguodala said. “I like to play at a high intensity defensively year in and year out.”

It might look like his defense has improved this season, but Iguodala says it has not. He thinks that because he is part of a better team defense and because the Sixers are winning games, his defense is a more common topic of conversation.

His performance this season has been somewhat of a carryover from an integral participation on Team USA this past summer: offensively speaking, it’s been sacrificial. His usage percentage (18.98%) is his lowest since he was 22 and barely puts him above Spencer Hawes on the team’s pecking order.  So are his field goal attempts, down to 11.3 a game from 13.7, last year. His true shooting percentage is sitting at 53.8%, slightly higher than last year’s 53.5% which was a career low. And at just 13.8, his points per 36 minutes are the lowest they’ve been in five years. I realize this makes Iguodala look like a crap sandwich, but he’s doing a great job of helping Philly out in other ways: His assists, assists percentage, and win shares per 48 minutes are all career highs. On defense, Iguodala’s arms are lacrosse sticks, scooping up loose balls and snatching errant passes like its their designed purpose. Last season the Sixers ranked 24th out of 30 teams in defensive rating (giving up 110.3 points per 100 possessions) and today they’re 9th (104.9 per 100); Iguodala and his unmitigated commitment to the defensive end is a major reason why (his defensive rating is the lowest it’s been since his rookie season).

Iguodala is competitive. He is also physically gifted and he knows he has an asset that aids in his defensive prowess. Iguodala has a longer wingspan than most so if he gets beat off the dribble, he uses his quickness, long arms and instincts to recover before he is scored on.

“I know I have intangibles and a God-given physique of a guy who can get beat but still recover,” he said proudly. “I have been beat a lot and still got back to the ball or still contest a shot.”

“I joke with Jodie [Meeks] all the time saying just make them take a tough shot and you don’t have to jump,” Iguodala explained. “And he would say back, ‘you have long arms. I have to jump just to contest a shot.’ I had never taken that into consideration and when he said it. I realized he had a point.”

But Iguodala also says a player doesn’t have to steal the ball or block shots to be a good defender. In a league that is star driven, guys are going to get their numbers, but the harder a defender makes it for that star, the better.

The Sixers, unfortunately for them, are stuck in an Eastern Conference top heavy with more than a couple of championship contenders. Their chances of winning a championship this season are zilch to nil, but what this stretch of fine play does is finally give the city a basketball team they can be proud of.

Shook Ankles: The Cousins Boogie

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

Ahhh yes, the big man crossover; is there nothing sweeter? I’ve been meaning to write a piece on the league’s mercurial son for a minute now, and this sleek deception on Marcus Camby forced me into (at least) bringing his name to the forefront. For one second, forget the immaturity that understandably can go hand in hand with a 20-year-old who’s given the keys to a mansion, DeMarcus Cousins is a superb talent and the least tradeable player  on Sacramento’s roster (Sorry Tyreke). His usage percentage is at 28% right now, higher than the career averages of Paul Pierce and Tim Duncan, and at times it must feel like an unbearable amount of pressure for any rookie to deal with. Time will tell whether Cousins can show a more developed—both on and off the court—side to himself, but with what he’s put on display in a tough luck rookie season, the future looks bright. Hopefully it’s in Sacramento.

Shook Ankles: Kemba Walker Embarrasses The University of Pittsburgh (COLLEGE SPECIAL)

March 10, 2011 3 comments


Being that my calendar says “March”, it’s only right to include a college basketball shimmy or two. This one came down in the Big East Tournament’s quarterfinals matchup between Pittsburgh and Connecticut, by way of Player of the Year candidate Kemba Walker. Drawing the NBA into this discussion, I’m not sure how Walker’s game fits into the pro level. With the 2011 draft class looking thinner than Nina Sayers, the junior phenom should hopefully find some lottery love.  He’s a blur with the ball, but listed at a short 6’1″ which poses more questions than answers for general managers looking to snag a difference maker. Can he run a team? Can he make plays for his teammates? Can he get to the line? I’m not sure the answers stack up optimistically for Walker right now, but who cares? It’s March! Let Kemba have his moment in the sun. It’s a pleasure watching him make plays like the one above; enjoy this while it lasts.

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Shook Ankles: When Kidd Was A Kid

March 10, 2011 1 comment

 

We’re bringing it way back on this one. Jason Kidd, a first ballot Hall of Famer, two-time Olympic Gold Medal winner, and All-Generation point guard, is now 37-years-old. My how time flies. I know this clip of a much younger, capable, faster Kidd makes Mavericks fans sad (in last night’s loss to New Orleans, he missed all seven shots he took, scoring all three points from the free thrown line) but the Rowdy Roddy Frenchman currently waiting in the wings should spice that franchise up as the years pour by.  Take a minute and reminisce greatness at its most divine hour.  Jason Kidd not only crosses up Ron Harper—a man whose wingspan resembles a small couch—but almost like he’s thinking two steps ahead of the defense, reverses direction and blows by Scottie Pippen, a phenomenal one on one defender. Just a glorious move from a glorious player.

 

Shook Ankles: Iggy Makes Barnes Pop

This killer crossover is Andre Iguodala’s new age take on a basketball move made famous by Tim Hardaway in the early 90′s. A man standing 6’6″ shouldn’t be able to pull it off, but don’t tell that to Matt Barnes. The first two dribbles between his legs come lightning quick; the defender has no time to get down in a proper defensive stance. The setup is gorgeous, but the blow by completes the masterpiece.

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