I've said many times that I think Rajon Rondo has earned the right to receive constructive criticism from fans and pontificators, instead of the endless putdowns that he often received, which seem evince mentalities that are constantly waiting for him to fail. He deserves a little faith from us, and criticism based on the belief that he can and will get better. This kid has come all the way from barely drafted in the first round to the brink of superstardom. His resume is already packed with potential HOF credentials. To suppose, as the Haters do, that we have already seen the best he can do is nonsense.
Every discussion of Rondo goes back to the Big Three era. We've heard the Hater arguments ad nauseum (eg. Rondo only racked up assists because he had such great scorers around him). What's becoming clearer and clearer, I think, is that Rondo picked up a lot of bad habits during the Big Three era, to go along with the many good things he learned. It's ok to walk the ball up sometimes, but Rondo does it far too much. He doesn't seem to know when to slow down the offense and when to push the pace, pushing the opposing defense off balance. With a young team, pace can be a two-edged sword. On one hand, it maximizes the best thing that youth brings to the table - energy. On the other hand, it can lead to a disorganized way of playing that causes its own problems, and can even lead to a melt-down. A truly great pg has to have a supple understanding of when to push the pace and when to slow things down. Playing with the Old Guys, Rondo seems to have gotten into a habit of slowing the pace down most of the time. It's become his default, and that in turn has become a fault.
Backed up by KG and Perkins, Rondo also got into the habit of drifting off his man a lot, attacking passing lanes, etc.. He does this brilliantly, even better than Larry Bird used to do it, but Bird knew how to grind it out against his man as well. Here again, Rondo's default way of playing - playing his man loosely - has become a fault. He often doesn't seem to be supple about knowing when to stick to his man and when to play more loosely.
Perhaps most importantly, Rondo does not seem to have ever learned the scorer's art. As a passer, Rondo knows that the magic comes and goes to some extent. You might get one assist in one quarter, and six in the next. A great passer knows to keep passing the ball. A scorer is the same. How many times did Pierce fill up one half of play with a pile of bricks, only to pour it on in the second half. Now that the team needs Rondo to be a scorer as well as a passer, he's got to learn to keep pushing. I often think of baseball. How does a hitter break out of a slump? Well, he tries to figure out what he's doing wrong, sure, but the main thing is that he keeps swinging.
I'm not saying, of course, that Rondo should put up 30 shots even if he's having one of those nights where he can't seem to hit anything. I'm talking about something that seems to happen in his mind. If he misses a few shots, he seems to lose confidence. Over the last few seasons, we've seen tantalizing glimpses of an evolving scorer in Rondo, games where it seems that his growing arsenal of scoring options is on the verge of hitting critical mass. But then there are those games, so many of those games, where he goes 2-15, 3-20, and can't even break out of single digits. Now we've seen of those in a row from Rondo, after several pretty good scoring games. Haters will doubtlessly claim that any solid scoring Rondo did earlier in the season was fool's gold. I'm pretty sure they are wrong about that, but even I have to wonder sometimes. Maybe The Kid can only ever be an opportunistic scorer. I don't think that's it, though. I think he's a scorer who just hasn't yet found his way to the mentality of as scorer.
Part of the problem is the officiating. Like it or not, NBA stars get officiated differently. On nights when Pierce couldn't hit the side of a barn, he knew that he's like get some calls if he took the ball into the paint. Every great scorer relies on this. In some ways it's unfair, and it creates a kind of caste system in the league, but it's also necessary in some ways. We've seen how necessary it can be in Rondo's case. A player who doesn't get backup from the officials gets mugged constantly. If the Celtics really want to build a future around Rondo, they need to get busy talking to the league about this. I don't think I've ever seen an NBA star get bodied and hammered the way Rondo is.
Rondo really does seem to be putting together a pretty nice arsenal of moves. Near the basket he has the floater, various scoop shots and finger-rolls, and an increasingly deadly and versatile hook shot. I'd go so far as to say that Rondo is redefining the hook shot. Further out, Rondo has that really nice elbow J, and he's developing a nice touch from beyond the arch. He seems to need something more. Perhaps it's a more reliable postup game. Perhaps it's a shot that he can reliably hit on the run. Perhaps he can specialize in bankers, like Duncan.
In the end, I suppose it all depends on what Rondo wants. If he wants to take the step from all-star to super-star, he has to take the step from opportunistic scorer to scorer. I think that's going to take patience, to wear down the hostility of the officials, so that the calls can start to go Rondo's way. I think it's going to take some work to strengthen and enlarge the arsenal. More ways of getting the shot off around the basket? Even more reliable 3 shooting? Some sort of new shot added? Most of all, I think it's going to take the hardest thing of all: confidence. The thing is, confidence too takes practice. Keep shooting, Rondo. Those shots are going to start to fall.