The Inbounds: Rajon Rondo and a game of art not science

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Over Labor Day, I had an opportunity to share a beach house with both a scientist and an artist. (Don’t get jealous, we were pretty much living off our friends’ generosity, it’s not like I’m skipping off to the Hamptons every other weekend.) A social situation involving people on opposite ends of the conceptual spectrum, particularly in their late 20’s when ways of life and outlooks have cemented somewhat can bring some borderline fascinating observations on the conversations and how they develop. The rest of the group was evenly split between leaning more towards the analytically-inclined (an engineer and a financial services rep) and the less-so (an English grad student). So it provided a nice background. The differential between how the two approached things wasn’t striking, it was subtle and textured. Both also very much had a strong crossover to the other’s side of the world. But at their core, one was a scientist, one was an artist, briefly living in each other’s shared universe.

It made me think of Rajon Rondo.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss interviewed Rondo for Bleacher Report as he continued his Red Bull promotional tour last week. In the interview, Strauss asked a series of insightful questions trying to get to the core of how Rondo looks at the way he plays. (Actual basketball questions in a player interview! “The horror,” cried most media.) Rondo answered the way an artist answers a question about the science of their approach. It’s not that there’s not a science to it, it’s that the approach is using science to create art, not the other way around. Two particularly notable sections of an interview I beg you to read:

B/R: Do you ever wonder why more guys in the NBA don’t do what you do with the ball fakes?

RR: I don’t know (laughs). I have no idea. I don’t want them to pick up on it, ya know? I like having a unique game and doing my own thing.

B/R: When did you come up with the ball-fake strategy, because, guys throw ball fakes when they’re on the move, but you do it when you’re planted. Is that just something that came instinctively?

RR: I just came with it. It’s actually funny. A lot of my moves, it just comes out. I don’t really predetermine or practice.

……………

B/R: Did you do that because, when you were growing up, fundamental-minded coaches didn’t like some of the cool, different things you were doing, and you wanted to do it differently?

RR: I just want to give them something different. I don’t want to come out here and give a boring camp. I want to give them something that they actually see me do out on the court. I don’t want to teach them a regular bounce-pass. I want to show them why I throw the behind-the-back pass to Kevin on the pick-and-roll, why I do my shot fake.

B/R: You do throw that behind-the-back on the pick-and-pop a lot of the time to Kevin Garnett. What’s your favorite kind of pass to throw? Is is that one? 

RR: Oh, I like throwing a cross-court one-hand bounce-pass between the defense to P (Paul Pierce). I’ll throw a little English on the ball, throw it between two, three guys that are trying to run extremely hard to the paint. Then you got Paul Pierce trailing for the three—and obviously I’m pleased when he makes it.

via Rajon Rondo Dishes on His Current and Future Status with the Boston Celtics | Bleacher Report.

The answers aren’t particularly shocking. A lot of players like to talk about basketball, but from the outside, you can press too deep, and then they’re like “I’m not overthinking it, I just do it.” It’s basketball, not advanced chemistry. The game is complex, but the actions are instinctive a lot of the time. It’s part of what makes the game so perfect from a conceptual and execution standpoint. The games that reach true popularity are those that have the right balance of entertaining features and no discernible holes for exploitation. The major sports are the models of this. But Rondo’s statement above “I don’t really predetermine or practice” speaks really to who he is and how we consider him.

Chris Paul is considered the Point God for a number of reasons, chief among them the simple superiority of his execution. His floater is in perfect form. He routinely flirts with a 50-40-90 line from the field. His passes are on target nearly 80% of the time, and by that I don’t mean they reach their target, I mean that he lands it in the hand he wants, at the height he wants, at the velocity. If you want to teach a player how to execute the pick and roll or pop, cue up Paul’s execution, which is consistent to a stunning degree, steady like a freight train, sharp like a razor.

But Rondo’s inherently different. It’s not that he’s not consistent. Lord knows he’s run that pick and pop with Garnett the same way so many times the process should be permanently embedded in Spencer Hawes’ brain like in “The Manchurian Candidate” (and yet Hawes will still watch as Garnett nails that 18-footer). He has a series of plays that he runs the same way. But that’s not why we’re wowed by him. Those that come down as pro-Rondo marvel at his instinctive ability in his creativity. Artists don’t wake up one day, say “I will become an artist, now,” and then go learn to draw. Not often, anyway. It starts with drawing with crayons or markers as a kid, with filling notebooks, constantly messing with clay, spending hours on graphic design programs. It fills the brain the way numbers fill the minds of statisticians or biblical passages ruminate in the minds of the devout. It’s just there, it’s the way they process. And the same with Rondo.

It doesn’t come from plotting, from a blueprint, it comes in spontaneous moments, in the instantaneous creation of a play. Observe:

Rondo could likely play in the clinical manner of a lot of point guards. He wouldn’t be as good as Paul, he’d just be a standard, good, blue-collar point guard. I have no way of knowing, but it’s an impression I get that the biggest reason Rondo plays the way he does is that he would get bored otherwise. Read that second quote section. “I just want to give them something different.” Rondo is consistently criticized for his attitude, and there’s every indication he’s driven Doc Rivers absolutely guano over the past five years. He’s temperamental. This is pretty in-check with most of the artists I know. That bit of artistry is all that keeps the world from becoming mundane.

Rondo’s driven by creating plays which fall outside of the ordinary. It’s those plays that make him remarkable, that separate him. And just as it is with most artists, when he’s in a creative groove, the results can be stunning not only in their quality, but volume. His absurd triple-doubles with 20-assists remind me of stories of how Ryan Adams will go into studious and pump out dozens of songs in a session, all stockpiled in his brain.

Rondo’s an avid rollerskater. Think about the actions and way that you do that. It’s about freedom, and spontaneity of movement. Spins, twists, twirls, jumps. The objective is mobile grace. The ball-fakes he uses are sometimes wholly unnecessary. They’re not fooling anyone. It’s just a mechanism. But when it works out perfectly, he fools the defense completely and it’s one of the most unique plays you’ll see, sweeping left to right, whipping the ball from one angle to the polar opposite, and sliding in the layup.

Maybe that’s what’s at the core of the debate over Rondo. Superiority in execution is dependent on precision, consistency, and effort. Rondo’s investment in all three of those principles waxes and wanes as the game goes on, the same way an artist’s involvement in his work can be subject to emotional twists and turns. Much of basketball is geometry. Rondo is constantly working to get bend geometry, trying to do things which aren’t just unnatural in the course of a game, but seem to run almost counter to the principles which decide success.

If you’re not into art, or at least not in basketball, Rondo’s going to seem sloppy, a pain, too inconsistent. But if you can appreciate the attempts to make the game more than a game, even if he’s not consciously aware of that attempt (and Rondo’s mostly just playing basketball and getting paid here, let’s be honest), then he means something wholly different. Creativity can be a liability, but if you consider the endeavor inherently worthwhile, then Rondo’s the point guard for you.

Artists and creative types abhor labels and boundaries. They instinctively act to get past those limitations into a creative and mental freedom. It may not be intentional, but you can see a lot of the same thing in the play of Rajon Rondo.

Lakers to break out powder blue Minneapolis throwback uniforms this season

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The Lakers have gone a few different directions with alternate uniforms in recent years, such as the black version, but when you have a classic brand you shouldn’t mess with it. Same with the Celtics, Bulls, Sixers, and other classic uniforms — if you’re going to go alternate then go older.

The Lakers are doing just that — going back to Minneapolis.

They are breaking out the George Mikan era jerseys, starting on Wednesday vs. Wizards and in four other games later in the season.

I like it.

Now if the Lakers could get George Mikan in the paint it would help.

PBT Podcast: All things Sixers with Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia

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The Sixers have started the season 0-3, Joel Embiid is frustrated about his lack of post touches, and Markelle Fultz‘s shot has gone funky…

Relax. The Sixers are going to be fine, and they still very well could be a playoff team in the East this season. It’s just three games (against teams expected to finish above the Sixers in the standings anyway).

Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia joins Kurt Helin on the Podcast today to talk all things Sixers. They discuss the things that have gone wrong, but also the culture Brett Brown has built, why the Sixers still have to be thought of as a playoff team, and why the future is bright. Also, there is a little discussion of the mess with the Phoenix Suns, their lack of a process, and how Eric Bledsoe could tilt things in the East.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Stephen Curry fined $50,000 for throwing mouthpiece

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Stephen Curry knew a fine was coming, the only question was how much? The NBA had established this precedent before: When Curry (or any player) threw his mouthpiece he got fined. That he’s done it before and threw it in the direction of an official this time meant the price could go up.

It did — Curry was slapped with a $50,000 fine for throwing his mouthpiece during the ejection from Saturday night’s Warriors loss to the Grizzlies. Curry felt he was fouled on a drive and didn’t get the call, and he lost his cool.

Andre Iguodala was also fined $15,000 for “verbally abusing a game official” during the same incident.

Some fans wanted a suspension for Curry, mostly because it’s trendy to hate on Curry and the Warriors in some circles. Reality is there is a precedent here, and the league office stuck with that. Now, if the mouthpiece had struck the official, Curry would have gotten a suspension. If you want to argue the intent was the same, call up the league. They make the distinction.

Reports: Knicks, Bucks, Nuggets among teams calling about Eric Bledsoe

Associated Press
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Eric Bledsoe is done with the Suns. His excuse that his “I Dont wanna be here” Tweet was about a hair salon is as believable as myself, Bruce Willis, and Andre Agassi Tweeting about our time in hair salons. The Suns have told him to go home, and they will work to trade him. Most likely, the Suns are going to get crushed in this deal — they have no leverage, Bledsoe is a free agent in less than two years (2019), plus most teams are not looking for another point guard. But he is being shopped, and he’d like to go to a winning team.

Where will Bledsoe get traded?

A few names have come up — the Knicks, Bucks, and Nuggets are the ones out in public now. There are more, but let’s take a look at those three.

The Knicks have one of the two worst backcourts in the NBA (the Bulls are in that mix, too) so they certainly could use Bledsoe short term. However, long term he doesn’t fit on the Kristaps Porzingis timeline so how much would New York give up to get him.

That price is too high, according to Ian Begley of ESPN.

The Suns have asked about young Knicks such as Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez in trade talks about guard Eric Bledsoe, sources confirm. But New York have been opposed to trading either young player, sources told ESPN. Hernangomez has not been in head coach Jeff Hornacek’s regular rotation in the first two games of the season, which has left the second-year center frustrated. But Hernangomez’s lack of playing time isn’t a sign that the club is looking to move him. Ntilikina has dealt with several injuries early in his career but the point guard remains part of the young core New York wants to build around and management, as of Monday afternoon, did not want to move him in a Bledsoe deal.

Then there is Milwaukee.

On the court, this makes some sense. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the point forward who has the ball in his hands, but Bledsoe is adept off the ball and can hit the three. The move would send Malcolm Brogdon back to the bench, which he may not like but is a good thing for a team looking to bolster its depth.

The trade likely would involve Jabari Parker going West, along with salary filler such as Matthew Dellavedova. Parker is coming off multiple injuries, but he still knows how to score inside and in the right system has value. Whether that system is in Phoenix depends on what kind of system they want to run and roster they want to build.

Then there is Denver.

Denver likes Jamal Murray at the point guard spot and is ready to move on from Emmanuel Mudiay, so there could be a point guard swap but with some more salary coming back to Phoenix (Denver likely would want to dump Kenneth Faried but the Suns will want something that helps them out more than that). This makes some sense as it gives the Suns a young point guard with some skills to try out, while the Nuggets get deeper at a spot of need.

Other deals are lurking (yes LeBron James and Bledsoe are tight, but that deal is a long shot), and the Suns rightfully are going to take the best deal they can find, regardless of whether Bledsoe wants to be there or not. The only questions are how fast do they get it done, and what are teams offering?