In the pantheon of Unusual Single-Game Stat Lines, New Orleans Pelicans point guard Rajon Rondo just posted a first-ballot performance.
Buoyed by a Brooklyn Nets team that does not defend at the best of times, especially when using usual shooting guard Caris LeVert as its current backup point guard, Rondo kept finding seams in the Nets’ leaky perimeter defence and made the game his own. He passed for 25 assists, along with grabbing 7 rebounds, while recording only 2 points and committing only 3 turnovers. It was amazing, in its own unique way. As is Rajon Rondo.
His assists, all included in the video below, were a mixed bag. But that term is used here as a term of endearment.
The 25 assists were a Pelicans franchise best, as were the 40 total team assists that his formed the basis of. It was the highest assists total recorded by anyone in the NBA this season, besting his own league-best mark of 18 set back on December 10th.
Furthermore, Rondo's performance was one of only 16 games of more than 20 assists this millennium. [For some reason, although there are 30 games of exactly 20 assists in that time, that extra one makes all the difference.] It tied for the sixth-highest single game total ever recorded, and was the first 25+ assist performance in more than two decades. No one had cracked the 25 assist mark since then-Dallas Mavericks point guard and current Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd had 26 against the Utah Jazz way back in February 1996.
Let us not use this space to explore the importance of the assist, its subjectivity given its reliance upon discretion and bias, or its accuracy as a measure of offensive execution. That is an oft-explored matter for elsewhere.
For now, let us look at the man who did it – Rajon Rondo, and what he means to his team.
In a roundabout way, the Pelicans brought Rondo in this summer to shore up their wing position. Rondo, of course, is not a wing himself. But having him at point guard has allowed Jrue Holiday to move to the two-guard spot.
Holiday, hitherto a point guard and a pretty good floor general himself, has the skills, size and versatility to play either guard spot, and has benefited directly from the switch. Freed from so much ball handling and playmaking responsibility, he is occasionally running pick-and-pops of his own, but mostly working off of the ball, running the baselines, cutting, diving, spotting up on the wing,
Whereupon Rondo is finding him.
Rondo's ability to snake into the lane and hit cutters, rolling bigs, corner shooters or wing re-feeders with such regularity is the defining tenet of his game, and one very evident in last night's performance. Doing so with an often-unnecessary, always-entertaining degree of flair further separates him from the other (increasingly few) genuinely pass-first points in the game today. There's only one Rondo, and no one else is really trying to be him.
To describe Rondo as a pass-first point guard and to conflate his style of play with any others, however, is to do a disservice to Rondo's game. It's not just pass-first. It's pass first, second and third. It's shoot-only-if-you-can't-justify-passing basketball. It's not what you are supposed to do.
For all the passing ability and desire in the world, it follows logically that one's passing threat grows exponentially in direct correlation to one's scoring threat. There are surely - and normally - causative links between a player's ability to shift the defence and their ability to exploit those shifts. Defences won't guard those who don't need guarding. But Rondo can't consistently score the ball, from anywhere, and Rondo won't ever try to.
The fact that he has shot the outside shot distinctly better in his last two full seasons with the Sacramento Kings and Chicago Bulls has not meant he has begun deviating away from the core of his game at any point. He is perhaps more willing and able to spot up from outside, yet he still wants nothing less than to drive to the rim and shoot.
Even when knowing this, however, defences can only do so much to contain Rondo as a ball mover and shot creator. Although he remains at best a mediocre outside shooter, defences still need to play up to Rondo and apply pressure on the perimeter. To not do so gives him unobstructed views of the court for passing angles, and also gives him the first step or two on the drive, unchallenged. Rondo is far deadlier when passing on the move, and when creating angles with the ball that his agility, unselfishness and vision are custom-built to exploit.
Let him get to the rim, contest him, and you'll make him contort badly to avoid the foul and generally miss by up to twelve feet. But fail to shut down his passing angles on the way to the rim, and he'll use that drive to feed the ball through the gap to a shooter, cutter or roller for a basket.
There is therefore a fine line between Rondo's strengths and Rondo's weakness, and between his good games and his bad ones. His greatest attribute and his greatest deficiency both begin with the same action - gaining a step and driving to the basket. Thereafter, the difference between success and failure is a matter of inches, a variable that the defence can control.
The lacklustre Nets didn't control it. But when any opponent does so, Rondo goes from world-beater to awkward fit.
To their credit, the Pelicans as currently constructed work to accommodate that. In Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, they have two fantastically talented and versatile offensive weapons who can score with low post touches, rolls to the rim, lobs over the top of fronting defenders and on drives of their own, while also decent outside shooters of their own. Both can be corner kick threats and pick-and-pop options, who can make shots from any part of the court. And Rondo can find all parts of their court.
Alongside Rondo, Holiday is playing freely and effectively as a score-first player, a decent outside shooter revelling in the freedom not having to be the main playmaker gives him. Alongside them both, E'Twaun Moore, filling in as a third guard in a largely forward-less roster, has made himself into an elite outside shooter (his 47.4% three-point shooting ranks third in the league).
The Pelicans as a whole can mask Rondo's own scoring and shooting deficiencies, and are a potent offensive unit, ranking seventh in the league in offensive rating at the league's sixth best pace. They give Rondo weapons to find, and on nights like last night, he does so. Even when he doesn't, when defences are clued into his play and shut down the tight margins he needs to succeed, the Pels have enough weapons to overcome. Offensively, even when short-handed, they are there already.
Ultimately, the Pelicans now need to get healthy, shore up their forward positions, and improve their defence. The first of those does not automatically behove the other two - even when Solomon Hill, Tony Allen and Frank Jackson return to the court (along with Alexis Ajinca, although he is expected to miss the rest of the season), their talents are marginal, and while Hill and Allen are more defensively minded and capable than the current backcourt and wing options, their offensive limitations take away from the aforementioned strengths that are keeping New Orleans afloat. Mediocrity is not the aim here. They already have enough of that.
To do so will involve personnel changes, and those will not be easy on a capped out team with little trade assets and no market lure. To do so would be justified, though - the respective free agencies of Cousins and Davis hold the keys to the entire future of the franchise, and bringing them back is the sole aim of the foreseeable future. And to do so requires a decent team around them. For the most part, the Pelicans have not done that in recent years around Davis, and now Cousins as well. The Rondo/Holiday/Moore backcourt is a good start, but more is needed.
Rondo's own limitations go beyond just his shotmaking, too, and should not be overlooked by the gaudy assists total. The assists are a strength and a unique talent, but also a mask. Despite his good hands and anticipation that should make him a disruptive defender, his defence has never been as consistently harassing at it should be, and he also does not keep the flow of the offence going like a point guard should, overpassing for assists and overdribbling when simple switches of play could be more useful. The margins for success in his game are small, and rarely does it come together like last night, as he exposed a defence that hadn't the awareness or legs to stop him passing on the drive. For Rondo to excel takes a very select combination of players around him that can maximise his strengths, mask his flaws, and bring up the talent level to a competitive standard.
However, offensively at least, the Pelicans currently have that. The need right now is to be good enough to keep Cousins and Davis around. And Rondo playing like this is key to that.