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Rajon Rondo, Ricky Rubio, and the new NBA
There's no question that the Celtics are Rajon Rondo's team now. Paul Pierce may be it's public face, and Kevin Garnett may be it's center of gravity, but Rondo is unquestionably it's driving force. His 44 point, 8 rebound, 10 assist performance in game 2 against the Heat last year was one of the most dazzling playoff games by a point guard ever. As Rondo goes, the Celtics go. And for the NBA, that's a very new thought.
The formula for a good NBA used to be so simple. Take a dominant, two-way big man (Kareem, Hakeem, Duncan, Yao, Shaq) and pair him with a big, athletic wing who could generate points at will (Magic, Drexler, Ginobili, McGrady, Kobe) You were at your best with a dynamic duo, playing a slow, deliberate style that emphasized defense.
And then the handcheck rule happened.
Now the league is filled with Rondos...teams driven by quick, creative point guards who break down opposing defenses. With no one elbowing or grabbing or hip-checking them in the lanes, point guards asserted their natural control (they are, after all, the ones with the ball most often) to dominate the flow of games.
That changed the formula. Teams began valuing speedy guards as their cornerstones, building teams heavy on big men to catch and throw down dunks and perimeter players who would hit kickout threes.
Interestingly enough, the trend was first embraced by the team that was a stalwart of the old way: the Spurs. In classic Coach Pops fashion, the Spurs retooled their offense to put the ball in the hands of Tony Parker, who....when healthy....is a veritable blitzkrieg in sneakers. Ever since then, San Antonio has featured Parker at the point, Duncan as their big man finisher, and a revolving door of spot-up three point shooters everywhere else: Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, Glenn Robinson, Michael Finley, Brent Barry, Roger Mason, Matt Bonner....one and on and on.
The trend was then picked up by teams like the Hornets, who featured Chris Paul at the point, Tyson Chandler as their ally-ooper, and guys like Peja Stojakovic on the wings, then got taken to the extreme by the Suns, with Nash, Amare Stoudemire, and a brigade of three point shooters.
Now teams will even draft point guards ahead of big men, something that would be unheard of 15 years ago. Point guards have even started going first overall, as in the cases of Derrick Rose, John Wall and Kyrie Irving.
But even teams with top-shelf point guards have tailored their systems to fit their desires and strengths. Deron Williams and the Jazz eschewed deep shooting in favor of screens and cuts, capitalizing on the talents of guys like Ronnie Brewer, who knew how to break free and get to the rim off the ball. And just this past summer, the Celtics and Ray Allen parted ways, in no small part to the fact that Allen and Rondo did not mesh on the court and did not get along. They won a championship together, but clearly did not share much love, with Allen complaining Rondo was too meticulous and domineering, and Rondo countering that the ball was put in his hands for a reason. The situation ultimately blew up with Ray 'defecting' to the Heat, and Doc Rivers protecting his players by saying the fault was his, since he designed the offense.
The divide there is somewhat descriptive of the divide happening everywhere in the league, as teams try to figure out just who their point guards are and what type of system will suit them best. When the Hornets brought in Ariza and Okafor, it became clear Paul was better in a kickout system. Rondo clearly prefers looking for Avery Bradley in the lanes than Allen in the corners, and the Celtics doubled down on guys like Brandon Bass and Jeff Green because they're good pick-and-pop players for Rondo to work with. And Allen, judging by his recent comments, prefers more of an open system rather than a top-down one. And some teams are still trying to figure it out. What type of point guard is John Wall? Kyrie Irving? What will Damien Lillard's preference be?
For the past couple years, the Timberwolves have been trying to set up the Chris Paul system: tall, athletic big men to throw down (Ryan Hollins, Anthony Randolph) and three point shooters to kick out to (Webster, Wes, Ridnour, Barea). But while the team still has a strong spacing presence with guys like Budinger, Barea and Love, Ricky's history playing Euro-ball, as well as the fact we have Adelman as the head coach, suggests the Wolves would be better served in a Rondo system, which is the way the team has begun leaning with the additions of cutters like Kirilenko and (hopefully, if he can adapt) Brandon Roy.
The Wolves have been absolutely gifted with Ricky Rubio, much in the same way they were gifted with Kevin Love. Ricky is a game-changer, at a position that is increasingly utilized to dominate games. The Wolves need to facilitate that as much as possible. So watch Rubio when he gets back. More important than where his teammates get placed is where he chooses to send the ball. If he has Budinger open in the corner and Kirilenko open headed towards the basket, who does he go with? Those decisions will say a lot about the type of system Rubio prefers, and thus, the types of players the Wolves should collect.