Guards excel with styles that contrast
In the beginning, there was the Boston balance vs. the unquestioned brilliance of Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. Or maybe it was simply Bill Russell vs. The Entire Laker Team.
In the ’80s, there was Bird vs. Magic.
Now there is Kobe trying to cement his legacy, and there are the three future Hall of Famers (I’ll avoid calling them the Big You-Know-What) trying to become multiple ring winners and thus gain a seat at the Celtics’ inner council meeting.
Here’s another one you probably haven’t thought about: Derek Fisher vs. Rajon Rondo.
Think about it. Could there be more polar-opposite point guards trying to help very good teams win a championship?
Derek Fisher is 35, lefthanded, 6 feet 1 inch, and built like an NFL defensive back. He runs in straight lines, has nothing in his game that anyone would remotely consider a frill, and has never been anything close to an All-Star.
But he is one of the most significant playoff figures in the Lakers’ illustrious playoff history, having earned four rings as a starting point guard while making some of the biggest shots imaginable.
Rajon Rondo is 24, righthanded, 6 feet 1 inch, and built like a Kenyan marathon runner. He may be the swerviest, in-and-outiest, most unpredictable NBA point guard ever, and there are some aspects of his game that may never have been seen before, at least in a point guard package. This year he made the first of what almost undoubtedly will be many All-Star Game appearances.
He has one championship ring already, and has enjoyed such a spectacular 2010 postseason that a very persuasive case can be made that he is the best player in the entire playoffs not named Kobe Bryant, and perhaps, pending the events of the next week, the best player in the entire playoffs, period.
I would venture to say that neither man could possibly imagine what athletic life would be if he suddenly found himself in possession of the other man’s body. Fisher might enjoy being able to do some of the things Rondo can do, but he might be a bit intimidated and mystified by it all. Rondo would have to make a rather serious adjustment to all the physical limitations he would be faced with.
Fisher’s game is about using his strength, playing angles, and burying altitudinous jumpers, usually 3-pointers. As a general rule, the opposing point guard will be quicker. What we know is that he won’t be smarter or have a bigger heart.
Rondo’s game is about speed, and that means all kinds of speed: straight-ahead speed, lateral speed, backward speed, and any other kind of speed you can think of. But it also involves making maximum use of his other great physical gifts, exceptionally long arms and great big hands. The ESPN science guy addressed this subject in a fascinating piece last week. The truth is that no other point guard can do some of the things Rondo can do because no one else is built quite like him.
We spend a lot of time in sport wishing that some people could be like other people, just to make our lives easier. I think I speak for anyone who has ever dealt with Derek Fisher when I say I wish they all could be like him, not solely because he has superior intelligence and a great command of the language, but also because he radiates such complete common sense and downright decency. He is a thoughtful, polite, and rational human being who just happens to be the starting point guard of the Lakers. You could just as easily picture him making an important business presentation or lecturing on a college campus.
Rondo, 11 years younger and more reserved, is a young man with an unusual presence. He is clearly intelligent, but he is still wary of the media, and is only now, in his fourth year, getting comfortable with the interrogation process attached to stardom. He has a lot going on in that head, and he’s in the process of figuring out how much of it is wise to share. You can be sure he has taken copious mental notes as he has watched the way his celebrated elders interact with the folks in the media.
Like most everyone else in the league, he could learn a lot in this regard from Fisher.
Fisher is in his 14th year in the league, as well as in the third year of his second stint as a Laker. He left them for greater riches and, he hoped, a bigger role with the Warriors in 2004. He was traded to Utah after two seasons, then returned to LA by asking out of a lucrative contract to be in a city where he could get medical treatment for his daughter, who has a rare form of eye cancer.
Things are going well for him on both fronts. By all accounts, his daughter is progressing well. On the court, the great lesson learned by everyone concerned is that he is better off with the Lakers and they, in turn, are far better off with him. The aforementioned huge baskets (e.g. an improbable game-winning three with 0.4 seconds left to beat San Antonio in 2004 and a pair of killer threes to defeat Orlando in the Finals last year) are only the beginning of his contribution. He is a true steadying hand for them at both ends of the floor.
Fisher will be long retired when Rondo will be an admired star of the first magnitude in this league. But he will be retired with the enormous satisfaction of having been a major contributor to however many championship teams, and he will be retired with the complete respect of everyone who played with him, coached him, covered him, and rooted for his teams.
That should give Rajon Rondo something to shoot for.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.