On the Subway, a Defense of Rondo

Somewhere on the way back from a tacos/burritos adventure off the end of the Green Line of the Boston subway system, I found myself recalling a joke to my partner, which she hasn’t let me live down since I originally dropped it weeks ago. I’m not really the joke oriented type of guy, as I hate puns and can’t really stand behind anything funny besides schadenfreude and Parks and Rec, but the bit basically goes: “The Celtics should trade Rajon Rondo for Russell Westbrook.”

I don’t necessarily say “Russell Westbrook” every time, but it usually starts there. Like a fourth grader teasing a crush, I list a series of increasingly ridiculous names, or an item or concept that has personal attachment and she gets peeved (which is, obviously, the intention). In this particular instance, I also recommended trading Rondo for the Red Line between Porter and Harvard running smoothly and on time (without its trademark slow grinding screech that makes commuters anxious). As it seems equivalent, I also suggested that Danny Ainge ditch the struggling Rondo for the 1998 draft rights to Tim Duncan.

For my partner in crime, the subject of the gag is a matter of understandable Celtics fandom from growing up here, going to games with her family, having an authorized Antoine Walker jersey: a complicated, occasionally suffering, but enduring passion. Whereas for myself, I’m actually a little conflicted as I am a “crappy fan” from the outer reaches of New England who only, although following loosely in high school, only started caring about the NBA post-adolescence with the “We Believe” era Golden State Warriors. This difference in approach to love of basketball is, according to Lacan in “Seminar XX,” one of the tenets that provides the fragile foundation for our mutual understanding of it.

Either way, it gets her totally mad, in a lighthearted “I’m going to press an ice cream cone into your face if you’re serious” kind of way. We both know that I’m not serious. Although I rarely talk about it here on Negative Dunkalectics, I have an enthusiasm for the mere concept of Rajon Rondo that is only surpassed for my passions for few things. Here’s a serious example of something up there with Rondo: tuna melts topped with a fried egg and a slice of bacon.

Both contain simple, unique criteria or ingredients which individually provide the airs of excellence. Tuna melts are impartially very awesome by themselves, but adding the richness of an uncomplicated fried egg and some bacon? Indeed, that is a great sandwich. On the other hand, what is more skilled than the court vision of Rondo? His ill floater in the lane that somehow never gets blocked? His talent for utilizing his opponents’ faults to his advantage? Both of these things are densely packed with decadent flavor, a savory array of textures, temperatures and styles. Both have an aesthetic zeal relating to a strict sense of order that, at a superficial glance, seems chaotic. I frequently need a napkin to clean my face after consuming both the sandwich and Rondo’s high-wire act.

When you’ve watched Rondo drive in off a Garnett screen and perform a couple head-turning fakes, then finally a scoop pass leading to a corner three, you have seen a highlight. When you witness Rondo running these offensive sets hundreds of times, performing works of fine art which make old men gasp aloud in their armchairs in obscure hamlets across New England, you feel touched by his careful, mischievous skill, a person under possession by both God and his immortal foe simultaneously, allowing the ball to roll up the court at a crawl, like a conductor holding a baton at the highest gesture, before the cue. This is the dream of Rondo, where a man’s knack for precision and practice has formed such a life form that critics and fans alike admonish him as otherworldly, an alien, and lesser than peers like – at least, revealing himself this season – Russell Westbrook. But what makes this throwaway joke such an insult towards sensibility?

The development of Westbrook up to this point has been different than point guards like Rajon Rondo – most obviously, he has been expected to shoot. Before a firestorm of undue criticism opened up over Bethlehem Shoals’ head, he wrote an essay for the February ’11 issue of GQ where of Westbrook, he noted, “If [Derrick] Rose is money in the bank, the bounding, chaotic Westbrook is a bit like shooting craps in an abandoned missile silo. You expect imperfection, and flaw, from Westbrook.” Shoals is right in describing their styles, but they are clearly both the kind of shoot-first point guards that the now-crumbling Paul/Williams era of dominance were supposed to make irrelevant, through the thrilling skills of likability and moving the ball in a transitional offense. These two people both follow in statistical paths recently trod down by paragons of disappointment like Marbury or Francis, but with the sense of mental clarity that comes from not actually being those players. When I deeply ponder the two Class of ‘08 newcomers and their potential for future greatness, I worry about these dudes in the same frame of mind as the title of Zizek’s most recent thin tome, a line stolen from Marx: “First as tragedy, then as farce.”

If you're not interested in comparing Russell Westbrook with Stephon Marbury, then the next section will be kind of boring. Consider that at the same age – although, it was Marbury's fourth season and not his third, as with Westbrook – they have a very similar "offensive win share" total (6.1 for Marbury, 5.8 for Westbrook), the exact same effective field goal percentage (45.7%), very similar assist numbers (8.4 APG for Marbury, a hair over what Russell does) and that Westbrook's superior advanced defensive and rebounding numbers probably have to do with... how he's physically taller and is a better defender than Marbury was. These numbers are seemingly at odds with that one time in 2007 that Marbury told WNBC host Bruce Beck that he would average “like 12, 13 dimes, like 2, 3 assists and about 4, 5 rebounds” while playing on the Knicks.

The final appearance of Stephon Marbury in an NBA uniform was on the Celtics during the late stages of their 08-09 campaign and in that season’s ultimately unsuccessful playoff run. Marbury played nice for his brief tenure on the squad, playing a gentle pass-first form of his game because his shot had dried up after years on the bench in New York. I think he shot like, 30% from the field in Boston. Rajon Rondo, on the other hand, was completely out of his mind during the playoffs and was a stone’s throw from averaging a triple-double. But hey, remember how this was the year the Magic won the East? When we think of Rondo now, we have begun to think of this as our ideal (in particular the first round series against Chicago where he smoked Derrick Rose and tried to fight Brad Miller): a perfect vision of strange, yet delightful statistical madness in addition to the wide-eyed tomfoolery of trick passes.

Although, here is a relevant fact, for those who are still into those things: the five times that Rondo scored more than 20 points in the 2009 Playoffs is one more time than he has all of this season. And besides one particularly Rondoesque game against Memphis last week, the look of his work has seemed adrift, slower and unfocused, coincidentally since the trade of his personal friend Kendrick Perkins in mid-February. I wrote about Rondo's semi-serious “straight up missing you Perk” condition in the Injured Players Power Rankings a couple weeks ago, and it’s likely true, in an unconscious motivator style of way.

In offensive possessions since the trade, Rondo has often been late into throwing the play in motion, leaving not enough time for the players he finds to find a good shot when he finally makes a first pass. Typically, this has led into a forced attempt as the shot clock expires, and the evidence is in the final outcomes of games, as well as their scores. After a handful of breathtaking Bill Walton-called games against up-tempo Western teams in early March, the floor general has led his team into startling mediocrity: eleven games of not putting up over 100 points (and barely 90 points for the most part), as the omnipresent voice of mainstream sports media calls the Celtics’ title chances over. This is a deep, funky slump rooted in all kinds of profound things that people who have lost friends to seemingly insurmountable distance understand. He could also just be in pain. The confidence is different, swagger lessens, and Mike Wilbon or Peter Mayor or the entire Boston Globe sportswriting staff proclaiming that the Celtics are finished from towers of flame doesn’t help anything either. If you look into your cold, dark heart, you probably can appreciate this slump too, for what it is: a temporary thing.

What makes this gag work is that the mere thought of trading Rondo for anything – and I would put anybody who jokingly or non-jokingly said “bench him!” in as well – is so completely repugnant is that substitutes the heart and humanity of the circumstances the Celtics are in and instead favors the single-minded thought of number crunching at the detriment of one of the most riveting players in the league. Even when he sucks, he's still one of the best point guards in the world, still a being beyond our world's capabilities, et cetera. It’s lovely to think of switching a statistical model of Rondo for a statistical model of Westbrook (because who doesn't want somebody to score 23 points per game for their home team!), but this doesn't take into consideration actual human beings. But trading Ray Allen? Friend, that's another story.

Negative Dunkalectics co-editor/founder Chris Sampson is a young man who lives off the Red Line in Somerville, Massachusetts. Find him through his archaic Twitter handle.


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