Player Capsules 2012, #124-126: Hasheem Thabeet, Rajon Rondo, Baron Davis

Posted on Wed 29 August 2012 in 2012 Player Capsules by Aaron McGuire

As our summer mainstay, Aaron's writing a 370-part series discussing almost every notable player who was -- as of last season -- getting minutes in the NBA. Intent is to get you talking, thinking, and appreciating the myriad of wonderful folks who play in our favorite sports league. Today we continue with Hasheem Thabeet, Rajon Rondo, and Baron Davis.

• • •

Follow Hasheem Thabeet on Twitter at @HasheemTheDream.

Has Hasheem Thabeet succeeded? I find this a more interesting question for Thabeet than I do for most players. If you're looking at it from the right context, for most players, the answer is usually an unqualified affirmative. Few NBA players could make the sort of money they make in their sport elsewhere. Few NBA talents come from wealth -- by playing in the NBA and entertaining millions, they've made more money than they'd have possibly made in their lives, and opened their lives up to a plethora of new experiences they wouldn't have otherwise had. They work on their game for years and years, spending untold hours in the weight room and keeping their bodies in peak physical condition to play a beautiful game for a discerning audience. You get to be one of the several hundred greatest-on-earth at the game you love, and you get to live a ridiculous lifestyle. How cool is that?

On the other hand, you have players like Hasheem Thabeet, who have been tarnished with the label of an eternal, bottomless bust. A seven foot stiff that "wouldn't be in the game" if it wasn't for his height. A failure on the court, if nothing else. Thabeet was drafted at 2nd overall, and it's worth noting that even at the time this was seen as something of a reach. For instance, Bill Simmons called him "either a homeless man's Dikembe Mutombo or a rich man's Keith Closs Jr." Not exactly sparkling praise. People weren't really sure what to make of anyone past the first pick in the 2009 draft, and while it's true that Thabeet has disappointed relative to his draft position (I count at least 25 players selected after Thabeet that have up-to-now had better NBA careers), it's hard to really argue that at the time Thabeet was any especially hyped up or expectation-laden second pick. He was just an overdrafted player that nobody expected huge things out of. This is what bugs me about the concept of a "bust." We're necessarily decoupling the player from his humanity and turning him into a concept -- some sort of icon for severe disappointment.

Look, Thabeet is reasonably good at basketball. He's no amazing player, but he's proven to be effective in limited minutes as an off-the-bench change of pace for numerous teams. He was decent in college, if not sea changing. On next year's Thunder, I expect him to play 7-10 minutes a night and be instrumental in a win or two for one of the finest teams in the NBA. It's not great, but hell -- look at where he came from. Thabeet comes from Tanzania, and is actually the first ever NBA player from his country. He'll finish his career having made around $20,000,000 in U.S. dollars -- given the current exchange rate ($1.00 U.S. dollar = 1,572 Tanzanian Shillings as of August 29th, 2012), Thabeet may very well be among the 10 richest Tanzanians in the world! Only by decoupling Thabeet's broader life can we really come to the conclusion that he's some kind of a failure. He may not be as great an NBA player as we'd like him to be, but it's not like he's dramatically underperformed the already-low expectations he had coming in. And relative to his background, he's done some pretty amazing stuff. That's context that I think is essential to grasp Thabeet's place in both life and the NBA, and to understand what makes him interesting. Even if he's a veritably penniless man's Dikembe Mutombo. (Which he basically is. Reasonably good call, Simmons.)

• • •

_Follow Rajon Rondo on Twitter at __@RajonRondo._

Let's say I'm examining an NBA player. He's Team #1's primary man in the middle -- he played 2,838 minutes in the season we're focusing on, over 70% of the minutes available for the team. No other big on the team came remotely close. Let's say the team he plays for is a winning team -- in this case, a team that just made a conference finals! It's a really good team, but not a great team. Now, let's say Team #1 has a rather... unique way of winning games. They rated out over a full season as the 23rd out of 30 teams, defensively -- offensively, however, they were #1 with a bullet. Absolutely dominant. But their defense? Hide the children, seriously. Team #1 barely ever forced turnovers, and while they kept teams to a league-average field goal percentage, it didn't really matter that much when they can't get a rebound to save their lives. It was bad. Even though they were 23rd of 30, they were barely a point out of 25th in the league. It's rough. Very one-sided team. The thought process would generally lead to some element of blame. Some aspect of "hey, Mr. NBA Center, please play better defense. This is your fault." You look at their offensive dominance and wonder just how incredible the team would be if the center could really play defense.

What I just described was the situation of Amare Stoudemire and the 2010 Phoenix Suns. The Suns were a good team, but not a great one. And there was a strange, surreal ceiling to the Suns teams that featured him. He was fated to carry them offensively but disappoint defensively, and always bore the brunt of the blame for the Suns' constantly failing defense. After all, he was the big man. Controlling the defense is the primary responsibility of a team's largest player -- that's as close to gospel as you can get, in this sport. So, I present this question to you. If we're going to blame a primary big man for a team's defense consistently failing, why don't we blame the primary playmaker for a team's offense consistently failing? That question -- and the implications thereof -- brings us to today's main player. I don't want to bash Rajon Rondo, because I think he's a wonderful player to watch. Some call him immature -- I'd simply call him a loveable weirdo who doesn't seem to take the media too seriously. His oddness is refreshing, and while I doubt I'll get too far into it today, I highly recommend checking these videos out. Rondo is great, in a lot of ways.

But let's get real: at what point does Rondo need to bear some element of responsibility for Boston's abysmal offense? Don't cut corners -- the Boston offense is exactly that. The Suns defense I described finished as the 23rd worst defense in the league. Boston's offensive rating in the 2012 season tied the Wizards and Pistons as the 27th worst in the league. Relative to league average, it was significantly worse than the 2010 Suns, and among the worst ever to make a conference finals. If we're divvying up "credit" for the Suns performance, I don't know how you point out anyone but Amare. He was the primary defender on all those blown coverages. Amare's reputation has always included as an asterisk his defensive failings -- it's always included his inability to properly cover, and the odd habit he's got of being the primary defensive center on teams that are abysmal at defense. That's just part of the package. As for the Celtics' awful offense, how do you really point to anyone but Rondo as the catalyst? There isn't a single team in the league with the offensive weaponry of the Celtics in their stratosphere of offensive teams -- they had a 40% three point shooter, one of the best midrange big men in basketball, and a still-potent, efficient, volume-shooting wing. And various nice pieces off the bench, too!

It isn't that Rondo's a bad player, at all, but this is an honest to God curiosity for me -- why is it that basketball fans as a collective pillory big men whose teams are defensively suspect but completely excuse point guards who helm demonstrably bad offenses? The Celtics' offense is the epitome of drudgery. It's "give the ball to Rondo and let him do everything." He creates a lot of decent shots, but not a surfeit of great shots -- the Celtics offense is based around moving pieces trying to get open around a point guard who's great at passing, and taking the shot whether it's still open or not. It's a relatively uncreative design for an offense with so many good offensive pieces, and you have to wonder whether there's a better way. Rondo's passing is a work of art. It's a Dali, a Pollock, a Chavel. But in basketball, you play the game to a measure of results -- the aestheticism is compelling, and can at times be more than enough. But aestheticism shouldn't (and can't) completely erase the facts of a situation. I love watching Stephon Marbury (when he's not playing next to Duncan, obviously), but that doesn't mean I excuse the fact that he's an incredibly inefficient player.

In the same way, as fun as Rondo is to watch, you really have to wonder when people are going to catch on to the dirty little secret that underlines his beautiful game. He's a great passer, in a vacuum. But if we're assessing how much a singular player contributes to their team, it's hard to dock Rondo some for the dismal offense he's responsible for. Blame Doc some-- he deserves some for putting together a poor scheme like that around a player with Rondo's talents. But some has to be on Rondo. The idea that the Boston offense would be markedly worse without Rondo seems flawed to me -- if you took Rondo out and replaced him with a point guard that could generate more efficient offense of their own alongside worse passing like Stephen Curry or Ty Lawson, are we really saying that players like Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett would find themselves completely unable to make a shot?

The problem with assigning paramount post-aesthetic value to Rondo's passing and offense is that you are necessarily assuming that to be the case. You're saying that an offense that ranked 27th out of 30 teams would suddenly collapse unto itself, a black hole of dust and woe, if Rondo left the picture. That a team with those pieces and that bench would suddenly become the worst offense in the history of the sport. Because there's little room to fall beyond where they already are. His aesthetics are doubtlessly incomparable, and I've no problem with calling him things like the most entertaining player in the game, or the best showman in the sport. Where I find fault is when we conflate his incredible showmanship with efficient and effective usage of the pieces around him, and assign incomparable basketball value to a player whose presence isn't demonstrably sea-changing in the aspect of the game he's most attuned to impact. After all. He's an incredible player, and a very valuable piece. But the results that underly Amare's defensive failings will never leave our thoughts, and will never allow us to exogenize our distaste for his teams' defense in favor of a unbiased look at his career.

If that's the case, whither Rondo?

• • •

Follow Baron Davis on Twitter at @Baron_Davis.

It's rather strange to look at Baron Davis' numbers and facts to realize how little time he has left. After all, consider his age -- he's 33 years old, right now, a solid 5 years younger than Steve Nash and 6 younger than Jason Kidd. Both of those guys just got two year contracts. Unlike those two, though, Davis recently suffered what may turn out to be a career-ending injury -- he went through an exceedingly brutal injury in the 2012 playoffs where he not only completely tore his ACL and MCL, he also suffered a partial tear of his patella tendon. As Knickerblogger pointed out at the time, a tendon injury like that isn't an injury players tend to whistle their way back from -- when Antonio McDyess suffered a similar tear, he missed 72 games of the 2001 season to try and recover. He then proceeded to completely tear the tendon in the 2002 preseason and missed another entire season. Given that he's out for the entirety of the 2013 season and may still be recovering when 2014 begins, it's exceedingly unlikely Davis makes a big comeback. His numbers have been declining for years, and he hasn't really been capital-B Baron since 2008.

Still, if this is really it, what is there really to say about a player like Davis? As compelling as he's been -- the wonder of leading the 2007 Warriors to the biggest upset ever can never be taken away -- there is certainly a sense that he's left something on the table. His abysmal conditioning throughout his career didn't cause his career-ending injury, but it couldn't have helped him recover from all the minor injuries he's suffered over the years. Despite the disappointments, Davis is the 37th highest earning player in NBA history. That's a suitably absurd place for Davis to be, in-context. He hasn't been a failure, necessarily -- there have been brilliant successes in his career, and there have been awful nadirs. A bit of a disappointment in totality, but hand wringing over that doesn't erase the fact that Davis has made hundreds of millions of dollars and will likely make even more in a variety of entertaining post-retirement moves. He's a smart guy, a cerebral guy, and an entertainer through and through. If we aren't making the case that he's an all-time elite (and, well, nobody in the known universe is), that's about all one can really ask for, isn't it?

• • •

At the end of each post, I'll be scribing riddles for the next group. Whoever gets the most right will get a shout out at the end of the next post. Tweet me your answers at @docrostov, or post them in the comments. A friend of mine from work got 2/3, as did "my funeral" (?!?!?!?), and mgallop from the comments. Good work folks.

  • The most famous Czech in Serbia, Player #127 has avoided making a serious impact in the NBA. (Yet.)
  • He was a revelation in last year's playoffs, but I've got doubts that Player #128 can play with CP3.
  • After Player #129 does anything on the court, the only reaction allowed is "CARLOS!"

I shall now prepare to be lit on fire by the people of Twitter. See you tomorrow if I'm still alive, friends.