Team USA Needs Rajon Rondo

By: 09.03.10  •  40 Comments

Although Team USA has rolled to a sterling 5-0 record in at the 2010 FIBA World Championships, it’s hard to feel completely comfortable with the Americans’ play. In their toughest test, a two-point victory over Brazil, the group managed just nine points in the fourth quarter. A major cause for concern has been the play in the backcourt, causing me to wonder if Team USA could have used the services of Rajon Rondo.

While no one knows the complete story surrounding Rondo’s departure from Team USA, we do know that they’re in need of him now. In retrospect, the knocks on Rondo during tryouts now seem silly. Under the assumption that Coach K understood the vast mysteries of “International Basketball” (after all, he somehow beat Spain with Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul, LeBron James and Dwight Howard on the court), many went along with the belief that Rondo was just not right for FIBA play. The common criticisms justifying his departure were that he couldn’t shoot and didn’t make free throws.

Under closer examination, these criticism don’t seem consequential. Aside from Chauncey Billups, the USA guards have only shot a combined 29 free throws over five games. And despite his lack of pure shooting ability, Rondo’s stroke is not significantly worse than that of Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook, the two players he was competing against for a point guard spot. (Note: In 2010, Rose shot 27 percent, Westbrook 22 percent and Rondo 21 percent from three. I’m not sure you feel the need to fly out at any of these bricklayers). Incidentally, Rondo shot the higher percentage from the field than both Rose and Westbrook.

Meanwhile, Babysitter Billups, who many regarded as an excellent selection because of his ability to play both guard positions, has served as a steadying (if unremarkable) force. His strength and savvy has gotten him to the line a team-leading 18 times, but he no longer has the jets to pressure opposing guards and has been able to knock down only four of his 19 three-point attempts. While he provides a sense of leadership coveted by USA Basketball, he’s looked as uncomfortable as almost anyone with the international game while in Turkey.

What’s so perplexing about the questioning of Rondo’s ability to excel in the FIBA setting is that Rondo is essentially a better version of Ricky Rubio. A flashy penetrator and master of the pick-and-roll, it’s hard to imagine Rondo’s vision and ability to break down defenses with sharp passing or a lighting first-step would be lost in translation.

Although international play has a reputation for being more dependent on outside shooting, the fact is that there are plenty of point guards who excel without being a deep threat. In fact, because international big men are more comfortable shooting away from the basket, it’s more important that the point guard be able to penetrate and create than make the shot himself. There are only a handful of players in the entire world that are as adept at finding driving creases and kick out angles as Rajon Rondo is.

Of the guards Team USA did select, none are averaging more than three assists per game and Rose (the starting point guard) has as many turnovers as he does assists. Aside from these recorded mistakes, Rose has consistently played with shoot-first mentality, averaging a paltry 3.5 assists/36 minutes of run. Against Brazil, Rose killed a number of fourth quarter possessions by going one-on-one (or three) instead of creating ball movement and open looks for his teammates.

Westbrook has shown better vision than Rose at times, but has operated in limited minutes. His defense and electrifying drives have been effective, but he thrives on full court mayhem rather than the organization of FIBA half court basketball. As a result, he is less of an asset in close games that slow to a snail’s pace in the fourth quarter.

Over the last week it’s become clear that the attributes Rondo has in excess – ball-handling, the ability to decipher defenses and floor leadership – are in short supply on Team USA. Regardless of the reason he was left off the team, it’s hard to justify his absence using his history as a player, or the play of his peers in Turkey.

What do you think?

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