Commentary

Why do NBA pundits pick on Rondo?

Despite stats and accolades, Celtics point guard still proving himself

Updated: October 24, 2009, 9:28 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo knows all about defense. Maybe that's because he always seems to be on it, particularly when pundits try to pick apart his game.

The act of which is a little confounding. Here's a player who averaged nearly a triple-double during the 2009 playoffs (16.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, 9.8 assists per game) and was voted to the 2008-09 NBA All-Defensive second team.

You'd think the talk surrounding that sort of all-around player would center on whether Boston's Big Three needs an expansion to the Fantastic Four. But, as Celtics coach Doc Rivers noted during last year's postseason, the line of questioning with Rondo nearly always reverts to his shortcomings.

It's downright baffling.

"Every city you go to, [there are questions] about what Rondo can't do and what he's not doing," Rivers told reporters last May. "And I keep saying, 'He's won a world championship at the point guard spot.' [He had] an unbelievable year [in 2008-09], and we continually want to keep picking at what's wrong. I try to look at his brilliance while playing through those flaws."

Rivers is paid to find fault in Rondo's game and even he struggles to identify those "flaws" in the fourth-year guard.

Go ahead, knock his jump shot. Rondo fully expects that to be the pundits' top ammunition for 2009-10. He's made some tweaks that he thinks will improve his consistency this season.

But good luck if you want to nitpick about his defense. By all accounts, Rondo, who averaged 1.9 steals per game in 2008-09, has actually elevated his play in the defensive end.

"I think he's a better defender this year than he was last year by far, because he's doing more team things," said Rivers. "He's not gambling, he's staying in front of the ball. He's doing a fantastic job getting over the pick-and-rolls. That was one of his weak points last year. He would reach on pick-and-rolls instead of getting in front of the ball and squaring it up. He's done that great so far this year."

[+] EnlargeRajon Rondo
AP Photo/Charles KrupaRajon Rondo strips Andrea Bargnani during a game against the Raptors last season.

The main knock on Rondo's defense used to be that he gambled too often. Yet he sometimes masked the problem of letting an opposing ballhandler get by him by picking his pocket en route to the paint.

Rondo admits he'd resort to the same move a handful of times each night. Once the opposing guard got by, Rondo would try to tip the ball away from behind by reaching all the way around the ballhandler's body toward the dribble hand.

If it worked, it meant a highlight-reel moment in transition. Even when it didn't, he sometimes got bailed out by the help defense from his teammates.

Now, Rondo is staying in front of the opposing guard and making steals without gambling.

Rondo has "looked very strong on the ball," said Celtics guard Ray Allen. "He provides a lot of intensity on the ball. He's a very harassing defender. The one thing he's learned over the last year or two is taking possessions off defensively. He has the talent and the quickness to put pressure on his man every time down the court.

"Doc's like, 'Get up on your man.' When [Rondo] does that, he makes it tough. He puts their offense in disarray. I think he's at the point now where he knows he can do that full time."

The Celtics limited opponents to 93.4 points per game last season, third-best in the league behind Cleveland (91.4) and San Antonio (93.3). Opponents shot a league-worst 43.1 percent from the field against the Green.

It's hard to measure just how good Rondo's defense is compared with other point guards in the league, but Rivers noted it's foolish to judge based solely on the number of points the opposing guard scores.

"To me, it's simple: If the point guard is in front of [the opposing guard] all game ... then, defensively, the point guard is doing a good job," said Rivers. "If the point guard is on the side or behind him, that means he's not doing a good job. It means the guard is putting pressure on the rest of the defense. I think [Rondo has] done a fantastic job with that."

General managers across the NBA agree. In a recent survey, they declared Rondo the best on-ball defender in the league, an honor he shared with Kobe Bryant.

Informed of the news, Rivers eased up on the praise and quickly became one of the pundits.

"That's because [the GMs] don't coach," said Rivers. "Don't get me wrong, he's a fantastic defender. But he's got a level to go. He can be a great, great defender. For him to do that, he has to stay in front of the ball.

"I'll believe that when the GMs start coaching. Until then, poll the coaches."

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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