Rondo Bringing Back the Mystique of the Pass

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I'm passing but I'm not looking. How do I do it?

Through four games, Rajon Rondo has set a record for total assists dished at 67. That’s more than John Stockton, more than Magic Johnson, more than Oscar Robertson… more than everybody. The next highest assist man in the league going into games tonight is Andre Miller of the Portland Trailblazers. Miller has 37 assists through 5 games. Yeah. Your math is correct. The Amazing Rondo has 30 more assists than the next highest guy and has played 1 fewer game. Through four games he’s averaging 16.8 assists. His closest competition in assists per game is Jason Kidd averaging 11.7 per game. Yes, it’s early. Yes, the sample size is ridiculously small. Yes, the numbers will likely return to the mean as the season progresses. But don’t think Rondo’s early-season style of play is meaningless.

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.

Race you to the rim!

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.

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5 Responses to “Rondo Bringing Back the Mystique of the Pass”

  1. High Above Courtside Says:

    No article about passing would be complete without mentioning the greatest “pass first” guard of all time Bob Cousy. What he accomplished leading the Celt’s in the late 50’s and early 60’s is legendary. Unfortunately because very few of his games in the early years of the NBA were televised there is not enough video footage to document his greatness.

    Cousy’s nickname was Mr. Basketball, and when he retired in ’63 he was considered the greatest palyer in NBA history. He is the only palyer to be named in the 25th anniversary All time, 35 anniversary All time, and the 50th anniversary All time teams for the NBA

    • jpalumbo Says:

      You are correct, sir. It’s probably no co-incidence that the team with the most rings had one of the most dedicated pass-first point guards ever (and his replacement was a non-scorer as well).

  2. pmadavi Says:

    So at this point, if Rondo had a jumper, and defenders couldn’t play 5 feet off him in the half court set, he’d probably be averaging 18 or 20 points a game to go with his 16 assists. He’s absolutely amazing.

    • High Above Courtside Says:

      Look I love Rajon, and I wish he had a jumper, now and again he’ll
      throw in a three pointer, and I know he is trying to develop/improve his jumper. However, his free throw shooting last year reg season and in
      the playoff was atrocious. So far this season he is doing a little better.

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