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There's an old saying: "Great players aren't made, they're born." And in a lot of ways, that's true. Looking up and down the NBA, there are a handful of guys who just look like the best players in basketball.
If you had to look at high school photos of every NBA player and pick the five guys most likely to make for dominant basketball players, you'd almost certainly choose LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Amare Stoudemire and Kobe Bryant. Regardless of who you chose fifth — there'd probably be some sort of red herring in there, too, like Josh Smith — an educated guess at which players look the best would yield a group of players that actually are the best.
There's no getting around it: some of these guys are just born into greatness.
Two guys you would NOT pick? Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo.
By this point, we're all familiar with Nash's shortcomings among NBA superstars: He's small, he's lean, he's white, and today he looks more like an aging hipster than an NBA player. As for Rondo, only a hardcore fan would see his insanely lanky frame as a weapon; more likely, he'd look like one of those people who just never really grew into their body. All arms and legs, more likely to be clumsy than clutch. That was Rondo on the outside.
But on Sunday night, Rondo stole the show against Cleveland. A few hours later, Steve Nash took over in San Antonio. At least for a night, they were the league's premier Superstars.
This is what I love about sports. For all the analysis out there, with everyone searching for the next Chosen One, sometimes the analysts and draft gurus don't get to choose. Sometimes greatness seems to happen by accident, and people like Rajon Rondo just show up out of nowhere to drop 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists on the best team in the NBA. Or Steve Nash plays the second half with one eye swollen shut and carries his team to a sweep.
But let's qualify this: It feels like an accident, but it's not.
So instead, we say these superstars emerged "organically," apart from the systems we ordinarily look to for manufacturing superstars (AAU, the NBA Draft, etc). We may not notice them until all the elements coalesce, and we watch Rondo and Nash run roughshod over powerhouse teams like the Spurs and Cavaliers, but there's still a science to this stuff. So how can we understand how these guys became superstars?
Call it "organic chemistry," which Wikipedia defines as:
A discipline within chemistry that involves the scientific study of the structure, properties, composition, reactions, and preparation (by synthesis or by other means) of carbon-based compounds, hydrocarbons, and their derivatives.
I have zero understanding of what organic chemistry actually entails, but for the sake of understanding what makes Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo so special, indulge my idiot-proof interpretation: elements and compounds bond together to become something greater than their initial composition. Organic chemistry is the study of how that happens. That's what we're doing here.
See, players like LeBron James and Dwight Howard aren't chemical compounds. Their success isn't derived from coalescing elements; THEY are the elements. Their bodies, their athleticism, their games — all one of a kind. On their own, independent of outside elements, they're the forces of nature.
Greatness doesn't come easy, even for genetic lottery winners like Howard. But for people like Nash and Rondo, it's especially true. There's nothing inherently dominant about them as basketball players, and if anything, they were more likely to be out of the league in five years than become superstars. So "Superstar" was a role they inherited slowly, thanks to a number of "chemical bonds" that helped them evolve into who they are now.
Steve Nash, the element, started out as the best high school basketball player in British Columbia, which is something like being the named the best hockey player in Texas.
His big-time college basketball career began with his high school coach sending out 30 letters (complete with highlight tape) to college coaches around the country. He was not recruited by any of those 30 schools, and might not have played in the States at all had it not been for Santa Clara coach Dick Davey, who stepped forward late in the process to offer him a scholarship. Four years later, and Nash was one of the best players in the history of the athletic program at Santa Clara, and good enough to get drafted by an NBA team.
Had he gone elsewhere, he might have been overshadowed by players that were more decorated coming out of high school. Not because he wasn't good enough to play over most anyone in the country; That's just how the process works sometimes. Instead, he was able to evolve on his own time at Santa Clara, coming of age his final two seasons, as he averaged almost 19 points a game and led Santa Clara to two WCC titles, befriending NBA-types like Donnie Nelson along the way. Instead of getting lost in the shuffle, Nash's star found a place to shine.
That's the first bond. Nash-to-Santa-Clara saved him.
Then in the NBA, Steve Nash studied under Sam Cassell, Jason Kidd, and Kevin Johnson as a young point guard during his first few years with the Phoenix Suns. He was never a starter for Phoenix, but in a supporting role, he had a chance to learn from three guys who had mastered the point guard position in completely different ways. It was a coincidence that Kidd and K.J. wound up on the same team; it wasn't a coincidence that the exposure to those players spawned a third great point guard in Nash.
With his pinpoint passing and the ability to turn on his scoring when duty calls, Nash's game is a perfect blend of Jason Kidd and Kevin Johnson, with a dash of Sam Cassell's gigantic testicles thrown in just for fun. Sure, part of that's coincidence, but come on. You think it's just "luck" that the two NBA point guards Nash resembles most happen to be the same two guys he studied under during his first few years in Phoenix?
That's the second bond. Nash-with-Kidd-and-KJ showed him how to be a point guard.
Then, after hooking up with his friend from Santa Clara, Donnie Nelson, Steve Nash landed in Dallas, where he joined forces with the ultimate pick-and-roll partner, Dirk Nowitzki. Neither was a finished product at that point, but who else could Dallas depend on? The Mavs were awful, and that meant Nash was their starter-by-default at point guard. He learned for two seasons, and then, by 2001, he'd blossomed into one of the better point guards in the NBA. He raised his scoring average to nearly 18 points and maintained averages of more than 7 assists a game his last four years in Dallas.
Third bond: Nash-to-Dallas showed him how to be a star point guard.
Finally, there was his return to Phoenix. This one's the most important. Mike D'Antoni's a coach with some definite weaknesses, but when it came to Steve Nash, he saw the light. Rather than use him as a piece in a larger offensive scheme, Nash became the centerpiece of D'Antoni's offense in Phoenix. With a fast-paced system predicated on Nash's decision-making and ability to out-run and out-work opponents, the Suns became the story of the NBA, and Nash was the main character. For the past five years, he's been one of the league's most strangely dominant players, largely because of a system put in place by D'Antoni, and perfected by Nash.
The fourth and final bond. Nash-with-D'Antoni turned Steve Nash into Steve Nash.
How could Steve Nash -- white, gangly, lean and kind of old -- have been the best player on the court in San Antonio on Sunday night? Well, it's not so easy, but it makes sense when you break it down:
Steve Nash, NBA Superstar
Rajon Rondo, the element began in Louisville, Kentucky, and he was recognized much earlier than Nash. And it's true that to some extent, he's closer to LeBron and Howard in terms of his preternatural gifts than he is to Nash. As one of the best players in his recruiting class, Rondo matriculated to Oak Hill Academy, the top high school program in the country, and later, to Kentucky, the winningest basketball program in NCAA history. Some of the pedigree was there all along. But look closer.
Rondo went to Kentucky as one of the most sought-after recruits in the country. He left the school as something of a disappointment. He stayed just two years in college, and left after averaging just 11.2 points and 4.9 assists as a sophomore on a team that finished a disappointing (by Kentucky's standards) 22-13. But look at that team in hindsight: His teammates were guys like Joe Crawford, Randolph Morris, Patrick Sparks, Ramel Bradley and Shagari Alleyne. Just two fringe NBA players (Morris and Crawford) in the bunch. And Rondo's a point guard. Who was he supposed to pass to?
That's the first bond. A bad Kentucky team kept Rondo a secret.
Why did that help him? Because Rondo's athleticism, combined with his passing ability, probably should have landed him in the top 10 of the draft. Instead, he went to the Suns at no. 21, before being traded to Boston for basically nothing. In terms of NBA rookies, he was effectively off-the-radar, looked upon as a potential backup to Boston's Sebastian Telfair. This was key; he wasn't asked to carry a team from the outset.
That's the second bond. A bad Boston team let Rondo develop at his own speed.
Too often, people overlook the effects that can take hold for young players that have to carry bad teams early on. But look at it this way: This year, Ty Lawson had a breakout rookie season with the Denver Nuggets and played meaningful minutes during their first round loss to Denver. He's looked upon as a rising star now. But what if he'd switched places with Jonny Flynn in Minnesota? Couldn't Flynn have done everything Lawson did, and wouldn't Lawson have struggled? Instead, because Flynn struggled for much of the year in Minnesota, we look at him as a potential lottery bust and Lawson as a late-round steal, and that shapes the way each player will approach the rest of his career.
But really, coming out of college, they were the two most similar players in the draft.
Rondo's first season in Boston was a wash. His minutes were constantly juggled with those of Delonte West and Sebastian Telfair and he never "broke out" to become a star, but he also didn't fail convincingly at any point during the 2006-'07 season. That was important. Had he been asked to carry the load during his rookie year, it would have been a train wreck. But because he was only a minor player in the 2006 Celtics disaster, he avoided the stink that ultimately attached itself to Sebastian Telfair, Delonte West and any number of other Celtics that year.
In the eyes of Celtics brass, Rondo was an intriguing young player, someone worth hanging onto; they traded into the first round to get him in 2006. When the Celtics traded for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen after that season, Rondo was off-limits to any team that was asking. Though he remained an unknown quantity, he'd shown just enough during his rookie year to keep the Celtics brass intrigued, but not enough to make other NBA teams demand his inclusion in any trade.
And with Garnett and Allen on board with Paul Pierce, everything changed.
Suddenly the Celtics were title contenders and the only question mark was Rondo. But unlike a rookie trying to carry a bad team, Rondo could learn on a curve, leaning on the veteran superstars when necessary, and picking up some invaluable experience along the way. As Boston rode their stars to the 2008 NBA title, Rondo's confidence soared, and so did Boston's confidence in him.
It became less and less about what Rondo couldn't do, and more about what he could — wreak havoc in the passing lanes on defense, rebound, penetrate at will on offense, hit wide-open jumpers, and generally, come up big when the Celtics needed him. Rondo was a crucial asset.
Third bond: Garnett brought out the best in him.
Sort of like Lawson in Denver; surrounded by good players, Rondo went from an enigmatic rookie to second-year player that did a lot of things to help the Celtics win an NBA championship. He was far from the centerpiece, but there were enough glimpses of dominance to suggest that, maybe somewhere down the line, he could be a dangerous player. With his bizarre, herky-jerky drives to the rim, defenses had no clue what to do with Rondo. Neither did the Celtics, of course, but over time, that's changed.
As Garnett, Allen and Pierce, have faded with age, Rondo's become the Celtics' most valuable weapon. When nobody else on the Celtics can put pressure on the defense — something that's been true more often than not over the past year or so — Rondo can take over games. He still does all the little things that made him valuable in the first place (rebounding, ingenious passing, etc), but now it's his last trait, "coming up big when the Celtics need him," that's made him so great. The Celtics need him, and all season long, he's delivered. That's the final bond.
Fourth bond: Celtics need creates opportunity.
It's been a long road to the top of the NBA for Rondo, and a lot of people may wonder how this also-ran from the 2006 NBA Draft could end up as one of the two or three best point guards in the league. And like Nash, there's a combination of factors to consider. He was better than anyone realized on that crappy Kentucky team, and then he was able to bide his time as a rookie before blossoming with the help of some superstars and finally exploding without warning after honing his skills in the shadows. It's surprising, but only if you haven't been paying attention.
Rajon Rondo, NBA Superstar.
With both players, they've become their own forces of nature, but by any objective measure, they didn't start out that way. Not like LeBron, Kobe or Amare, or even someone like Kevin Durant. With those guys, we knew they'd evolve into superstars. With Rondo and Nash, a lot of dominoes had to fall just right for their ascendancy to take hold. Which brings me to one final point...
Again from Wikipedia, since we're pretty much ad-libbing Organic Chemistry up as we go.
Organic chemistry, like all areas of science, evolves with particular waves of innovation. These innovations are motivated by practical considerations as well as theoretical innovations.
That's an important detail in this discussion. For all the "bonds" discussed above, the innovations that have taken place in the NBA are just as important. Today, point guard is arguably the most valuable position on the floor. The NBA has relaxed the rules on high screens over the past few years, allowing players like Stoudemire and Garnett to set moving screens that free Rondo and Nash to work more freely at getting into the lane and either scoring or kicking.
As far as practical considerations, this has made NBA games more exciting. But more important, both theoretically and in practice, it's made players like Rondo and Nash invaluable.
In other words, the NBA rules have changed the way we value players. Fifteen years ago, someone like Rondo (shaky jumpshot, slim frame, strange, slashing game) would have been a bit player in the NBA. Same with Nash (no defense, average scorer, easily bumped on pick-and-rolls). They would have been good, but not what they are now.
That's what makes their current dominance so fascinating. It's just like how bonds occur in chemistry: temperature, air pressure ... every external factor matters. (I think that's how it works, right?)
In a different era, or under different circumstances, maybe Nash and Rondo never make it to the very top of the NBA. But instead, everything happened just right, at just the right time, leading to moments like yesterday, where they are two of the best players in two games full of great players. LeBron, K.G., Duncan, Amare ... Yesterday, they were footnotes.
So let's rephrase the initial hypothesis: "Most great players are born ... Some are formed."
It leaves us asking: What if Nash never left Dallas? What if Rondo had started every game his rookie year? What if Boston won the 2007 NBA draft lottery and never traded for veterans like Garnett and Ray Allen?
You can play that game all day long, but the answers to all those "What if?" questions always have this in common: the NBA hierarchy would look very different right now. And in all likelihood, neither Rondo or Nash would be considered two of the best players in the entire league.
Put LeBron on any team in the league the past five years, and he's still LeBron. With Rondo and Nash, one detail changes, and it might have jeopardized their entire development. And sure, it's meaningless to think of these "What if?" questions, but it's sort of irresistible in hindsight.
With certain players, every detail matters; timing is just as important as any talent. So with that in mind, and in light of yesterday's heroics, here's a good question:
Rajon Rondo was drafted No. 21 overall in 2006 ... by the Suns. So what happens to Steve Nash and Rajon Rondo if Phoenix never traded that pick to Boston?