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.

Magic Johnson: Former Pelicans GM Dell Demps leaked Anthony Davis trade-talk details

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The Pelicans reportedly blame the Lakers for details of Anthony Davis trade negotiations leaking.

Former Lakers president Magic Johnson blames former Pelicans general manager Dell Demps.

Johnson on ESPN:

I told Dell Demps, “Let’s just do it in private. What we offer, let’s keep it between us.” Well, Dell didn’t do that. So, that’s how it got out.”

The Lakers have intriguing assets – Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, the No. 4 pick, all their own future first-round picks. Los Angeles will likely try again to land Davis.

Johnson and Demps are out. So, maybe these sour grapes don’t matter.

But enough people remain in each organization – including Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, whom Johnson blasted today – from those winter trade talks. Whether or not there’s an edict in New Orleans forbidding new lead executive David Griffin from sending Davis to the Lakers, there’s clearly mistrust between these franchises. That makes it harder to reach a deal.

Lakers haven for failed coaches

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In the last two decades, 16 teams changed coaches, gave a majority of their minutes to returning players the following season and won 15 more games than the year prior (or equivalent in lockout-shortened season).

Only one of those 16 deposed coaches has gotten another non-interim NBA head-coaching job.

The Lakers will introduce him today.

His lead assistant is also one of the 16. Another member of the 16 was instrumental in hiring them.

Frank Vogel, Jason Kidd and Kurt Rambis make quite a trio.

The Lakers’ new head coach, Vogel is only one year removed from guiding Orlando to a 25-57 record. The Magic’s roster seemed to be the main culprit when they fired him, but Steve Clifford led a similar roster to a 42-40 record. That certainly didn’t reflect well on Vogel.

Ditto how the Bucks responded to Kidd’s departure. After going 44-38 and losing in the first round last season, Milwaukee ascended to 60-22 and is leading the Eastern Conference finals this season under Mike Budenholzer. Yet, Kidd – who’ll assist Vogel – was clearly a priority for the Lakers.

In 2011, the Timberwolves finished 17-65 and fired Rambis. Minnesota went 26-40 the following year under Rick Adelman. After bouncing around other jobs, Rambis is now playing a leading role in Rob Pelinka’s front office.

Every team changes between seasons. Players come and go. Those who stay get older and develop. Injuries happen inconsistently. The NBA hardly runs controlled experiments on coaches.

But these situations don’t instill confidence in Vogel, Kidd and Rambis. That they’re all working together now is remarkable.

Vogel has the most prominent role. Fortunately for the Lakers, he’s also the one least likely to be defined by his fixed-after-he-left tenure. Before Orlando, Vogel had plenty of success with the Pacers.

Kidd also did some positive things with the Bucks. Rambis…

People can learn from their mistakes. Second chances are sometimes warranted.

But the Lakers have LeBron James, whose prime years are dwindling. They’re a prestigious franchise in a premier market. High-end coaches and executives are particularly important and attainable.

The Lakers have given power to this group – maybe for good reason, maybe not.

I hope they explain why today, though there are several other issues they’ll have to address, too.

Magic Johnson on Lakers GM Rob Pelinka: ‘If you’re going to talk betrayal, it’s only with Rob’

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Around the time Magic Johnson stunningly resigned as Lakers president, rumors swirled about his poor work ethic. The source of that rumor was suspected to be Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka. Johnson acknowledged an internal problem the night he quit, citing “backstabbing” and “whispering.”

“If you’re going to talk betrayal,” Johnson said in an incredibly candid interview on ESPN today, “it’s only with Rob.”

Johnson admitted to spending only limited time on the Lakers. But he said Lakers owner Jeanie Buss approved that plan when hiring him.

“I told her, I said listen, ‘I can’t give up all my businesses. I make more money doing that than becoming president of the Lakers. So, you know that I’m going to be in and out. Is that OK with you?’ She said yes,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Do I have the power to make decisions?’ Because that was important for me to take the job, as well. She said you have the power to make the decisions. So, I said, ‘OK, let’s go do it.’ She said, ‘I’m going to put you with Rob Pelinka,’ because I didn’t know Rob.

“And then I started hearing, ‘Magic, you’re not working hard enough. Magic’s not in the office.’ So, people around the Lakers office was telling me Rob was saying things – Rob Pelinka – and I didn’t like those things being said behind my back, that I wasn’t in the office and so on and on. So, I started getting calls from my friends outside of basketball, saying those things now were said to them outside of basketball. Now, not just in the Lakers office anymore. Now, it’s in the media and so on.

“Just Rob. Other people didn’t bother me. It’s really funny, as I sit here. I don’t worry about those type of things. I’m not a guy who is like, oh man, he said this about and I worry about it. What happened was I wasn’t having fun coming to work anymore – especially when I’ve got to work beside you knowing you want my position. And I’m OK with that. Because this is what happened, Stephen A. I told him in year two, I’m only going to be here three years. So, my job is, Rob, to get you ready for this position. So, I was going to help elevate him to the president’s position. And so, when all this was coming back to me and guys calling me saying, ‘You better watch out for him’ – and then what crazy was, when I took the job, you know how many agents called me and said, ‘You’ve got to watch out for him.’ And I said, ‘Eh, I’ve got to give the guy a fair chance.’ I can’t listen to people. But he was a hard-worker, smart guy. But now you have that position, so I’m good with that.”

Though he said the backstabbing came from only Pelinka, Johnson clearly had friction with other members of the organization.

Johnson described mentoring Joey Buss (Vice President, Research & Development) and Jesse Buss (Assistant GM / Director, Scouting). Johnson made clear he had no problem doing so and liked those Buss brothers. But he also indicated he saw ambition that created complications.

“They felt they should have been in powerful positions, whether that’s the general manager or the president,” Johnson said.

And there’s Tim Harris President (Business Operations, Chief Operating Officer).

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was, I wanted to fire Luke Walton,” Johnson said. “And we had, Max, three meetings. I showed her the things he did well and the things he didn’t do well. And I said, ‘Listen, we’ve got to get a better coach. I like him. He’s great. Former Laker, the whole thing.’ The first day, ‘Well, let’s think about it.’ Second day, ‘OK, you can fire him.’ Then, the next day, ‘No, we should try to work it out.’ So, when we went back and forth like that and then she brought Tim Harris into the meeting with some of the guys. And Tim wanted me to – he wanted to keep him, because he was friends with Luke. Luke’s a great guy. He’s a great guy. So, when I looked up and said wait a minute, I only really answer to Jeannie Buss. Now, I’ve got Tim involved. And I said it’s time for me to go.”

Walton, since hired by the Kings, has been accused of sexual assault.

There’s a ton to digest here, but I can’t escape two ironies:

Johnson – who had never worked in a front office before, didn’t work hard enough running the Lakers, felt his power wasn’t concentrated enough, didn’t build a winner – said people should ascend in the organization only  “once you show that you can drive excellence.”

Johnson – who described the Lakers as a mess, called their general manager a backstabber, said their owner is failing to define clear roles – plans to help them recruit free agents this summer.

Report: Tim Connelly rejects Wizards, staying with Nuggets

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Nuggets president Tim Connelly could have led the Wizards’ front office, worked close to his native Baltimore and presumably gotten a raise from his reported $2 million salary.

Instead, he’s stay in Denver.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

This is a huge win for Denver and even bigger setback for Washington.

Connelly has put the Nuggets into a great position. They’re young and good in a combination rarely seen in NBA history. Connelly drafted Nikola Jokic in the second round then built around him a short time later. This season, Denver won 54 games and reached Game 7 of the second round with 24-year-old Jokic flanked by Jamal Murray, Gary Harris and Paul Millsap.

More decisions always lie ahead – notably Millsap’s $30 million team option for next season. But the Nuggets’ core is already in place and mostly under team control.

The Wizards need far more work. John Wall‘s contract is arguably the NBA’s worst. Ian Mahinmi and Dwight Howard are also roadblocks. Several key players will be free agents this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team this season, Bradley Beal be eligible for a super-max extension – a tricky decision for the club.

It would have been great for Washington to entrust Connelly with all that. He has proven excellent at his job.

Troy Weaver, Danny Ferry or Tommy Sheppard might do well for the Wizards. But they’re candidates who offer far less certainty.