The great debate rages when Rajon toes the line

The great debate rages when Rajon toes the line

Published Jan. 7, 2011 4:19 p.m. ET


The harsh objectivity of statistics is not always immune from the subjectivity of how they are applied.

That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it. For now. Or until something truly perspective-altering occurs.

This tricky stat navigation drags us toward the question of how relevant free-throw shooting should be in determining the true greatness of NBA players. As a longtime coach and player-development geek, I believe the free throw is to basketball as the side dish is to a meal.

Never underestimate the importance of asparagus.

But Exhibit A in today's statistically bracketed predicament is Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. Yeah . . . him.

OK, before examining Rondo's issues from 15 feet, let's remove post players from this review of free-throw clanking and its role in defining greatness.

Based on job description, really big rascals such as Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard are paid to bend rims, terminate shots with extreme prejudice, claim rebounds in the name of their franchise and provide general intimidation qualities. Pretending to be Superman is a bonus. Anyway, the triumph in their work has little to do with finesse.

Missing free throws at (relatively) alarming rates certainly has the potential to diminish their effectiveness to a degree, but it hardly seems like a Springfield deal-breaker.

Chamberlain's inability to help his teams win numerous championships was influenced by a greater variable . . . the existence of the Boston Celtics. Shaq vigorously assisted the three-peat of a Los Angeles Lakers team that failed to make a large percentage of its free throws in each of those seasons (mostly because of him).

So let's hop back to Rondo, who's on pace to record the NBA's highest per-game assist average in the past 20 seasons. He also rebounds (4.6 per game) with more gusto than most 6-foot-1 players in history and is one of the rare point guards capable of staying in front of his swift peers on defense. He missed eight games in December; the Celtics � who have the league's second-best winning percentage � lost three of them.

But here's the rub: Rondo is making free throws at the coach-sobering rate of 43.9 percent. As a center, that would be unacceptable. At the position of point guard, it's alarming.

If you're unfamiliar with game-closing NBA tactics, the really smart teams prefer giving the ball to their best free-throw shooter when the opposition is fouling in a desperate effort to catch up. Having a point guard who's a deadeye at the line is cool because the point guard also is less likely to be adversely affected by the all-out Plan A trap that usually precedes the Plan B purpose foul.

Coaches and fans also would like to think of their point guards (basketball's quarterbacks) as mentally tough enough to prevail in these pressure situations.

With "mentally tough'' hanging out there like a pinata, let's go back to Rondo. I think Rondo is mentally and physically tough . . . until he reaches the free-throw line. Sure, his mechanics (at the line and shooting jumpers) could be upgraded � it's mostly a rhythm issue. But he's more than 18 percentage points below his career average, which mirrors what he shot in 27 attempts during the most recent exhibition season.

So unless someone inserted a rusty hinge in Rondo's wrist in late October, this ride as a one-brick pony has been evolving between his ears. If you don't believe there's a strong mental component in free-throw shooting, try shooting 20 by yourself. Then shoot another 20 as someone � whose opinion of your shooting matters � watches.

If you're as accurate with company as you are alone, you may have better mental focus (in free-throw shooting) than Rondo. If you stink either way, you may be Chris Dudley.

Rondo's failure to make free throws at a reasonable rate has not prevented him from making a huge impact for the Celtics. But with so much balance among the NBA's best teams, every little variable or timely play can matter � much like Ron Artest's rebound and basket after a Kobe Bryant air ball.

As Rondo's inability to make free throws continues, its potential to trip the Celtics rises. His reduced number of attempts � from 3.5 per game last season to 1.7 now � suggests he's attacking the rim with less conviction. With less commitment to dribble penetration, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce may be subject to easier close-outs by defenders attempting to challenge their perimeter shots.

It also could be argued that fewer attempts means fewer misses; what's the big deal if Boston's winning? It hasn't been a big deal . . . yet.

Opposing coaches, who otherwise might be inclined to engage in Hack-A-Shaq maneuvers, will prefer fouling Rondo. The under-two-minutes penalty for simply grabbing someone usually won't apply because Boston needs the ball in Rondo's hands to beat pressure.

Now that the problems have been outlined, does it seem fair to judge Rondo as very good rather than great? For perspective, let's look at players whose greatness goes unchallenged. Magic Johnson, for example, shot 85 percent from the line for his career. John Stockton checks in at 83. Celtics great Bob Cousy � who made only 37.5 percent of his shots from the field � managed to knock in 80 percent from the line. NBA passing/shooting wizard Steve Nash is registered at near 90 percent.

Michael Jordan stopped wagging his tongue long enough to hit free throws at 84 percent. Late in games, he seemed to be more cold-blooded at the line than anyone.

This pressure-free-throw issue could take us to the slippery slope of looking at crunch-time percentages and how often Bryant, for example, makes free throws on Tuesdays on the road in cold-weather cities against teams with winning records.

Rondo has shot 67 percent at the line in Celtic losses and 39 percent in Celtic victories. So maybe it doesn't matter. We do know Boston is better with Rondo on the floor. We can't be sure if Rondo would be as good playing on a team with lesser players unless he's traded, and even that could be dicey. The Celtics were bad with Rondo before Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived, but he also was younger. Their greatness made him more influential, and his improvement has kept them at a high team level as age creeps in.

The most disturbing part of Rondo's free-throw woes is that his best shooting percentage came during his rookie year, when overall confidence should be tougher to muster than it is now. The mental tick in getting worse at the line is not easy to overcome.

But if his positive impact on the game continues and the Celtics win big, Rondo simply could go down as the worst-shooting great point guard in league history.

We all prefer the players we coach or root for to make free throws at a high rate. Despite the handicap it can create for the Celtics, downgrading Rondo's accomplishments on the other 90 percent of the team's possessions seems crazy.

Let's continue to love the free throw, admire its top practitioners and remember that last season, three of the league's best free-throw-shooting teams were the Knicks, Warriors and Nets.