Rajon Rondo has made the All-Defensive 2nd team twice, as well as the All-Defensive 1st team twice. He led the NBA in steals during the ’09-’10 season. He won a title in 2008 as a supporting player specializing in applying pressure to the opposing teams ball-handlers. Taking that resumé into account, Rondo is an elite defender, right?
Wrong. Rondo is far from an elite defender. Or at least he has been for the last two seasons.
Rajon Rondo's Career DefenseA look at the statical career career trends of Rondo's defensive impact.
FTa/48 Min. Allowed
You an see that in recent years that not only is Rajon Rondo forcing fewer turnovers, but he’s letting opposing point guards impose their will and force the tempo. The eFG% (FG% taking into account that 3′s are worth more than 2′s) allowed is probably the most alarming number. Letting opposing PG’s put up 52.9% if just awful and actually puts Rondo towards the bottom of the league. The only starting point guards who put up an eFG of over 52% last season were Stephen Curry, Mario Chalmers (outlier because he didn’t really have PG duties), and Eric Bledsoe.
A lot of variables need to be factored in to the table above, but they don’t disprove the fact that Rondo’s defense has shifted from elite to below average over the last two years. Sure, Rondo didn’t have Kevin Garnett behind him to bail him out last year. But he did have Avery Bradley by his side. Bradley spent 21% of his minutes last season guarding the point and was a much more effective defender there than Rondo (Bradley allowed a PER of 15.2 against PG’s).
Rondo was still recovering from a torn ACL last season. But his decline started in the ’12-’13 season, when he was healthy and still had Garnett. And the Celtics put Rondo on a pretty heavy minutes restriction last year. If his knee was bothering him, he wouldn’t have been on the court. The Celtics had nothing to play for. They weren’t forcing him to play through pain.
The other claim in favor of Rondo’s defense, and probably the most valid, is that his increased role on offense has lead to him simply not being able to exert the energy he needs to on defense in order to maintain his status as one of the leagues best. Rondo’s usage rate, the % of possessions he uses while on the floor, has skyrocketed. It was 16.5 when he was a rookie. That jumped to 21.7 during the ’12-’13 season. It’s not a new development that as a players usage rate rises, their effectiveness on defense dips a bit and vice versa. The most obvious example of this is LeBron James, whose already good defense went to league-best when he went to Miami and didn’t have to carry such a heavy offensive load.
So what is to blame for Rondo’s clear defensive decline? Is it his supporting cast? Is it the knee injury? Is it the fact that he has to burn so much energy offensively? Is it his lack of effort? Is it due to him gambling so much defensively?
In reality, it’s probably a combination of all those factors. You can’t point the finger at one thing to explain Rondo’s defensive decline. But it needs to stop. Rondo is not efficient enough on offense (17.1 career PER) to be average or below average on defense an still be considered an elite player.
Rondo can’t control who Danny Ainge puts around him and he has to live with the fact that his knee may never be the same again. But he can control his effort, decision-making, and individual defensive effectiveness. To get a clearer idea of exactly what went wrong and how he can fix it, you should look at Rondo’s best defensive season (’11-’12) compared to his worst (last season, ’13-’14) in the table above.
It needs to be noted that by ’11-’12 the Celtics “Big 3″ were already in rapid decline. Rondo was the best player on the team and shouldered the load on offense. His usage rate that season (20.7) was very close to what it was last year (21.3). But for some reason, Rondo’s defense has gotten worse. Last year, it became a major problem. Not only was Rondo not an elite defender, he was below average.
In Rondo’s 30 games last year, the only “plus” PG’s he played against (and guarded) were Deron Williams (3x), Michael Carter-Williams (3x), Goran Dragic (2x), Jeff Teague (2x), Stephen Curry, Kyle Lowry (2x), and John Wall. In those 14 games, the Celtics went 3-11. Here’s a look at Rondo’s numbers versus the players he primarily guarded in those 14 games.
Rajon Rondo vs Quality PG's in '13-'14Numbers taken from the 14 games where Rondo guarded and was guarded by a "plus" PG.
Points Per Game
This probably more alarming than the first table. Against the best competition last season (including multiple games against in-division PG’s like Lowry, MCW, and Williams), Rondo was quite simply outplayed. It’s not the volume of points that’s alarming, it’s that the opposing PG’s shot nearly 50%. Kyle Lowry (42.3%), Deron Williams (45.0%), and Michael Carter-Williams (40.5%) all shot significantly lower than that for the season. They had some of their best games against Rondo (and a little bit of Bradley).
For reference, Tony Parker led all PG’s in FG shooting last season at 49.9%.
With Rondo on the court, the Celtics allowed an eFG of 54.4% last season. When he was off the court, that number was just 49.3%. There’s no denying it, Rondo’s defense hurt the team last season. Rondo has some bad habits defensively. The most notable is his tendency to sag off his man and try to get steals by over-rotating and over-committing with help defense, leading to wide open jump shots or easy cutting lanes. This should be easily fixable. But it’s become a trend, and it needs to stop.
He’s horrendous at guarding the 3-pt line, as evidenced by the teams eFG% with him on and off the court. He sags off whoever he is guarding there.
There’s also the infamous “Rondo Poke”. Rondo often lets his man get a step on him intentionally, then reaches in from behind with his long arms attempting to poke the ball out. He pulls it off quite frequently, and its not a terrible idea when you have Garnett there for help. But it’s another bad habit. Here’s a successful example of the Rondo Poke.
Rondo has the length and quickness to be one of the best defensive guards in the league. We’ve seen him lock down point guards, make miraculous steals, and even do a decent job guarding guys much bigger than himself. It’s all on Rondo at this point. Luckily for him, the addition of Marcus Smart should help alleviate some defensive responsibilities. But Rondo needs to be an average defender at the very least. He’s just too talented of a player for the team defense to be better when he’s not on the floor.
Kevin Garnett is gone. The Celtics lack rim protection. Rondo, whether he’s guarding the teams primary ball-handler or not, needs to stay with his man. If he can do that the Celtics already-decent defense (ranked 18th last season) will see a huge improvement. Rondo’s role on the team now is different than it was four years ago when his job was basically to generate turnovers and just be an all-around disruptive player.
He doesn’t have to reclaim his status as an All-NBA defender. But he can’t allow a PER of 18.3 to opposing point guards. Especially if his own PER is going to stay around his career average of 17.1.