I will always be a Rajon Rondo fan.
Yes, he no longer plays for my beloved Celtics, the greatest franchise in basketball.
But he is still a captivating, frustrating, unquantifiably irresistible NBA player.
He plays in a way we’ve never seen before. He is totally unique in NBA history. He is an NBA Champion, All-Star, and an elite player at the league’s most competitive position, Point Guard.
Rajon Rondo, certified MoTD ManCrush™
And yet he can’t shoot at an NBA standard, and often won’t shoot even when open. Internet forums debate his worth, and people ask whether he’s even a Top 10 Point Guard. His coach sometimes takes him out of games late, in case it comes down to who can convert free-throws.
Depending on who you ask, he is too turnover prone, he only excelled when he had great teammates, or he is too moody and temperamental to be a true leader.
Then he’ll have a game where he tallies 30 points against a title contender, and remind you that he can do crazy things at the ring that end with the ball going through the hoop. Standing just 6’1” (185cm) has no business rebounding at a high rate, yet he routinely chalks up huge rebounding tallies. And, of course, he is the best passer in the NBA.
This is simply beyond dispute at this point. Steve Nash is gone. Rajon Rondo has tallied gaudy assist numbers even while passing the ball to a cavalcade of good-not-great-and-sometimes-not-even-all-that-good Celtic players. His ‘Assists per 48 minutes’ number is almost unfairly ahead of the competition.
Rondo sees passing lanes that no-one else does. The entire game plan other teams adopt against Rondo is to stay back against him, to deny him passes, which he somehow finds elsewhere. He is the current assist leader in the NBA, and he’s made players like Tyler Zeller and Marcus Thornton look like offensive juggernauts. Now he is settling in to his new role in Dallas, and the ‘Rondo-lob-to-Chandler’ move is already causing headaches in the brutal Western conference.
Arguably more than any other player in the NBA, though, statistics alone fail miserably to tell the whole story of Rajon Rondo. I believe this is because Rondo’s value as a player is tied in heavily with his place on the Alpha Spectrum.
Rajon Rondo is an Alpha. He shares this trait with players like Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant. When Rondo steps onto the court, he is no doubt whatsoever that he is the best player there. It doesn’t matter if Kevin Durant or LeBron James is on the other team. Rondo believes, truly believes, that he is the best player on the court. Being an Alpha is different to being a good clutch player, and it is different to having an ego.
It is unquantifiable, and it is insanely valuable. There are only a handful of players in the league who can even claim to be considered Alpha.
It took the best player alive, LeBron James, nearly a decade to grow into his Alpha role. Kobe’s Alpha mindset destroyed a Laker dynasty. Shaq only had it when he was in shape. Duncan has never needed it. Melo’s self-belief is off the charts, but he lacks the Alpha edge. Durant and Russell Westbrook rotate Alpha duties.
Now we can analyse things and say that LeBron or Durant or Harden or Steph Curry are better players or more dangerous players or harder to defend, amongst other things. That’s probably all true. But the key to being an Alpha is that Rondo believes it.
When Rondo stepped onto the court to lead the tired, battered Celtics against the dynamic, talent-laden Miami Heat in 2012, he faced at least 2 (if not 3) players who were objectively more dangerous and more capable players than he was.
Rondo spent all the entire series proving that to be folly. He dragged the Celtics to within earshot of victory. He was the best player in the series.
The defining image of that series to me was the moment Rondo ended up defending LeBron James with just seconds on the clock in Game 2.
LeBron, taller, heavier and stronger than Rondo by the proverbial mile, should have been able to easily get to the ring for a gamewinnning layup or dunk. Rondo stared LeBron down, literally screamed “Bring it on!” at him, and forced LeBron into an awkward fadeaway 21-foot jumpshot. LeBron missed the shot. He had been out-Alpha’d on the big stage.
Although the Celtics would go on to lose in overtime, Rondo had an insane 44 points, 10 assists, and 8 rebounds after playing literally every second of that game. Not for one moment had he doubted himself, and he was absolutely and unequivocally the best player on the court in a game that featured at least 6 other Hall-Of-Fame calibre players.
So when I read reports earlier this year with people wondering whether the Celtics should have traded him for Kyrie “Is this what the playoffs are like?” Irving, I couldn’t help but cringe. Irving is a talented offensive player, but if we’re in Game 7 on the road I’m taking Rondo over Irving every day of the week.
You cannot trade an Alpha except under the most dire of circumstances. The Celtics did it because Rondo was likely to leave anyway, and a full rebuild is easier with a hoard of draft picks (which the Celtics now have).
Because when the chips are down and the game is close and you’re facing LeBron or Curry or Harden or Durant… you need someone with the cojones, the mettle, the mindset to stand in their way. Rondo has that. It has an inherent worth.
And so I present to you, the quantified unquantifiable.
A definitively arbitrary list of top NBA players and their Alpha Status.
Kobe Bryant: 100% Alpha
Total self-belief for over a decade, even though the Celtic fan in me is just loving watching his current and always-inevitable decline, especially thanks to his legacy-tarnishing stat-chase and ridiculous ball hogging.
Chris Paul: 100% Alpha
Fundamentally altered NBA landscape by playing for the Clippers. Someone with no knowledge of basketball can watch Clippers games and sense that Paul is their unquestioned leader, even if Blake Griffin scores the points. Carries himself as an Alpha.
Rajon Rondo: 100% Alpha
Damian Lillard: 100% Alpha
In the endless Wall/Curry/Irving/Lillard debate about the “next great PG”, Lillard has the edge but gets almost no love since he plays for the unsexy Blazers. Better defensively than the others, he also rises to the occasion and influences games in ways the others don’t… either with defense or passing. Lethal with the game on the line, too.
Steph Curry: 90% Alpha
Yet to prove himself Alpha when his (prodigious) shot isn’t falling. His ascent to 100% Alpha will rely heavily on Andrew Bogut’s health, since Curry can’t hope to dominate the playoffs without Bogut.
John Wall: 88% Alpha
Undeniably talented and almost unfairly fast, Wall is a year or two from full Alpha status. Odds are excellent he gets there, though.
Kevin Durant: 80% Alpha
Strange, huh? You get the sense he wants to climb to 100% but knows that doing so would mean undermining Russell Westbrook’s confidence, who is crucial for any team success. It’s a lose-lose for KD. If he takes the mantle and goes full Alpha, he may risk team success, but at some point his team might need him to do so. Russell’s reaction will be very interesting.
LeBron James: 70% Alpha
He was as high as 90% in Miami but seems to have consciously stepped back from outright Alpha status in Cleveland. And look where it’s taken them… yeeeesh…
DeMarcus Cousins: 70% Alpha
On the nights when Cousins is in ‘unstoppable force of nature’ mode he’s unquestionably Alpha. Then he has games where he chalks up 3 fouls in 4 minutes and sulks. They’re getting rarer, yes, but they hold him back from elevating his Alpha level.
Anthony Davis: 55% Alpha
And growing Rapidly. Be afraid. Fear the Brow.
James Harden: Precisely 50% Alpha
That is the 50% that rests on the offensive side of the ball. Harden isn’t all that interested in acquiring the defensive 50%.
Kyle Lowry: 50% Alpha I add Lowry because he was so dynamic against my beloved Celtics that it was hard to look away. The Raps need an Alpha to contend and he is by far their best prospect. They’re a good team, too. Don’t sleep on Canada, folks.
Carmelo Anthony: 40% Alpha
Sorry Melo, you’re talented with the ball in your hands, but that just makes it more frustrating to watch other Knicks wave you away to launch gamewinning attempts. You seem content to play out your career as the best player on ordinary teams.
Dirk Nowitzki: 40% Alpha
Once upon a time Dirk was rock-solid locked-in 100% Alpha. He’s stepped back as he’s aged, which is fine. In 2006 he was arguably the most Alpha player alive, even though they lost the finals. Dirk had Alpha’d Dallas through two insane series against the Spurs and the Suns. It made it heartbreaking that they lost the Finals, but made it more vindicating that he eventually got his ring.
Derrick Rose: 30% Alpha
It’s a shame. He could’ve been a 100% guy, but injury may have robbed us of that version of Derrick Rose. It’s hard to be Alpha when you’re unsure you’ll be playing. Excuse me while I go watch Grant Hill highlights for the next hour while quietly sobbing.
Dwight Howard: 25% Alpha
I briefly considered giving Howard a negative number, but the truth is that defensively he takes it personally when his man is even trusted with possession. He is a beast on that end. When healthy and engaged, he approaches Alpha, defensively at least.
Blake Griffin: 20% Alpha
Acts like a 90% Alpha, and undeniably a really excellent NBA player, but he stands on the shoulders of giants. Specifically a giant called Chris Paul.
Kyrie Irving: 20% Alpha
Mad handles, big shots, no defense, trigger happy, zero leadership. Like Griffin, Irving is a YouTube Alpha… but not a basketball Alpha.
Tim Duncan: 10% Alpha
He switches it on and off as needed, if he feels like it. Spurs very rarely need an Alpha, because they’re the Spurs and the Spurs don’t need an Alpha. Because they’re the Spurs. Got it?