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Rondo or Harris?

01.14.09 at 10:52 pm ET
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Now that Jason Kidd is in Dallas and Chauncey Billups is in Denver, the Eastern Conference is set to anoint a new king of the point guards. The two leading contenders for the throne were on the floor last night at the Garden: Rajon Rondo and Devin Harris.

The debate, at least this season, comes down to what you want in your point guard. Harris has the dazzling numbers–23 points per game and 7 assists–that Rondo can’t match. But Rondo has the wins, 32 after last night’s victory over New Jersey, (click here for the recap) while Harris and the Nets are sitting on a 19-20 record.

Neither of those sets of figures are entirely fair. Harris has the big scoring average thanks to a team that has him and Vince Carter as the primary scoring options and an offense that plays to his strengths. Rondo has the wins in large part to who he has around him. Both players are having breakout seasons and both deserve to be on the All-Star team, which may not happen since neither will be voted in as a starter.

Choosing between the two comes down to a question of semantics. If you prefer overwhelming numbers on a talent-challenged team that is overachieving in large part because of those overwhelming numbers than Harris is your man. If you prefer your point guard to do a little bit of everything for a team that doesn’t have a real need for scoring, then Rondo is your guy.

Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus had a solid breakdown on the situation (he also included Orlando’s Jameer Nelson in the discussion) and he ultimately came down on the side of Harris, but not by much.

Pelton wrote:

Choosing between Harris and Rondo is more challenging. Using very different skill sets, they’ve nonetheless managed to be nearly identical in terms of per-minute performance and value. One could say that both players are perfectly suited for their team’s needs, Harris offering the shot creation the Nets so desperately need and Rondo leading his superstar-filled team with his ability to distribute the ball while playing a key role in the league’s best defense.

Ultimately, I’d give the slight edge to Harris.

I agree with Pelton’s reasoning, if not his conclusion. Harris thrives in the Nets offense, which has been compared to the dribble-drive offense that the University of Memphis popularized last season with Derrick Rose at the point. It’s not quite that in practice. It’s more of a hybrid which makes great use the old tried and true pick-and-roll. Still, the ball is in Harris’ hands quite a bit and ultimately the Nets fortunes rise and fall with his decision making.

Rondo doesn’t quite have those kind of responsibilities, but he is obviously very important to the Celtics offense. When Rondo is clicking, as he was in the second half against the Nets, the Celtics are essentially unstoppable. He makes defenses react to his ability to get into the paint, and despite his outside shooting difficulties, Rondo’s shooting percentage in the lane wouldn’t be out of place for an accomplished four-man.

Interestingly, Pelton’s numbers showed Harris to be a more impactful defensive player for the Nets than Rondo is for the Celtics, but I think that has more to do with the Celtics defensive dominance, which can obscure individual accomplishment, and the Nets defensive shortcomings, which can make a decent defender look better than he really is.

Last night Harris clearly had the edge in the first half when he scored 13 points, and got to the free throw line seven times. Rondo picked up two quick fouls and was hesitant to pick up a third. Harris’ biggest strength is his ability to vary the speeds at which he attacks the basket and that’s an uncomfortable place to be for a defender watching his fouls.

Rondo has a lot of respect for Harris. “He’s having an All-Star year,” Rondo said. “He’s playing exceptionally well.” Rondo knew that he would have his hands full with Harris once he got the ball, so his plan was to try to keep him from it once he passed halfcourt.

Freed from foul trouble in the third quarter, Rondo was able to show all his skills and he responded with a six-point, four-rebound, six-assist line, while holding Harris to four points and one assist. Not surprisingly the Celtics blew open a 10-point game and turned it into a rout. Paul Pierce was a perfect five-for-five from 3-point range with three of them coming on assists from Rondo.

That’s the kind of impact Rondo can create.

In a weird twist, this was the first meeting between the Celtics and Nets, but they won’t have to wait long for a rematch. The two teams play again Saturday afternoon in Jersey and Rondo and Harris can continue the debate. It’s really all in the eye of the beholder and in the eyes of this one it’s Rondo, but it’s close.

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