If you’re my age or older, you remember when passing was the mark of a great player. Larry Bird won three MVPs in row. Magic won three of the next four. If a team wanted to win a championship it had a pass-first All Star point guard: Magic Johnson, Tiny Archibald, Mo Cheeks, Dennis Johnson, Isiah Thomas. There’s a passage in Michael Jordan’s 1989 self-promotion masterpiece VHS cassette “Come Fly With Me” where he talks about expanding his own passing in order to reach the kind of success that Magic and Bird helped bring to their teams.
Then there was the triangle offense and the success of Jordan as a slashing wing scorer who brought home six Finals MVPs in 8 years and captivated an international audience for a decade. Attacking the basket off the dribble became the assumed path to basketball glory. Iverson, Bryant, Carter, and McGrady took up the play style, or at least the appearance of Mike’s play style. The rules were altered to eliminate physical defense on driving guards, providing further incentive to dribble the ball at the rim ferociously.Enter the up-and-coming point guards of 2011. Derrick Rose. Russell Westbrook. John Wall. Brandon Jennings. All fantastic talents with great speed and explosiveness, and in most circumstances all shoot-first slashers who look to pass primarily when trapped. These players are great and have tremendous futures in front of them, but does that slashing point guard style promise top-level success in the NBA? Tony Parker might sort of fit that mold, but he has Manu to assume the playmaking role when he takes the scoring load on his shoulders. Phil Jackson’s Lakers rely on the triangle to distribute the ball and keep everyone involved. Otherwise the pass-first point guard has traditionally enjoyed the championship success.
Thus far this season it looks like Boston has the best set-up man in the league – though I’m sure Steve Nash and Chris Paul would like to see how many dimes they could drop with Allen and Pierce running the wings and KG and Shaq in the front court. Still comparing Rondo to those great assist-leading guards you can see how he’s doing it. He prods the defense like they do. He controls the pace like they do. He keeps his dribble alive throughout each possession and experiments with multiple opportunities to pass like they do. He has the gifts of blow by speed and tight handles, and he uses them to move the defense to open up passing lanes not to shake off defenders to take shots. In that respect he’s even more of a pass-first guard than Paul or Nash.
Now that’s not to say Rondo is the best point guard in the league. The aforementioned CP3 and Steve Nash have claims on that title, as does Deron Williams, and even Billups might have a place in the argument. But Rondo looks like as pure a point guard as any team could want, and the way the Celtics are composed that’s the player they most need running the show. Pierce, Allen, and Garnett can all manufacture buckets in the half court and knock in shots from the outside. In fact so can Nate Robinson and Glen Davis. Rondo makes their jobs easier without duplicating their skills. Rondo gets them the ball where they can use it best. Rondo embodies the old NBA cliche – he makes them all better. That’s a point guard’s job, and that’s winning basketball.
Oh, and on a team full of defensive stalwarts, he may be the best defender too. You certainly can’t say that about Paul or Nash or Rose.