7 Ways Rajon Rondo Will Imprint His Image on the Boston Celtics Next Season
In 2007 when Boston’s new Big Three was assembled, questions surrounded the Celtics’ second-year point guard and whether he would hold the superstars back from a possible title. With Rondo’s emergence, the Big Three’s decline and Ray Allen’s departure, everything has on its head with fans wondering whether the old guys will be able to keep up with their point guard. During the offseason, Celtics President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge put together a team far more conducive to Rondo’s game than the brand of basketball we’ve grown used to seeing from the TD Garden.
So what changes to the Celtics can we expect to see on the court when Rondo and his sidekicks, KG, PP et al., tip off the 2012-13 NBA season?
Running on Energy
Especially in the last few years, the Celtics play on a far higher level when their All-Star point guard has an extra hop in his step. It’s been noted that Rondo plays better on nationally televised games when the adrenaline generally runs higher. Although he’s become much more consistent overall—evidenced by his 28-game double-digit assist streak—now that he’s expected to carry far more of the offensive burden, it’s not always going to be easy for him to move at his usual 100 mph.
Rondo led the Celtics in minutes for the past three seasons and during the playoffs this spring, he averaged a seemingly unsustainable 42.39 minutes per game. Though he played well to the end, in his last three games, he had 15 turnovers, and in Game 5 he suffered through a three-for-15 shooting night. Not surprisingly, he sat for under four minutes that night.
Rondo was still fantastic in the playoffs, so imagine what it would be like if he wasn’t run through the ground. In addition to replacing some of Allen’s shooting, a major reason Jason Terry was signed away from the Mavericks was to relieve some of this pressure on Rondo. Whereas last season, Rondo’s primary backup was Keyon Dooling, now Coach Doc Rivers will be able to sit his starter and entrust some of those minutes to the former Sixth Man of the Year. A rested Rondo should equal a better Rondo and a better team.
More Assists, More Scoring
Rondo’s assists have gone up every season of his career, which is likely to continue in 2012-13.
In previous years, if Allen was hurt or in foul trouble, there weren’t many places to go. Some of the options: Tony Allen (good player, lousy shooter), Nate Robinson (a shooting guard who couldn’t shoot, in a point guard’s body, no less), Delonte West (frequently injured), Avery Bradley (good player—more on him later—but only recently developed an outside shot) and Mickael Pietrus (woefully inconsistent).
With the additions of Terry and Courtney Lee, Rondo will have more have more firepower on the perimeter. It’s no small thing that they were both brought along, either. Terry should offset the loss of Allen while Lee’s presence will provide that depth at shooting guard. Moreover, the Celts brought back forward Jeff Green who—at least theoretically—can score from anywhere and drafted Sullinger whose wide body should be an ample target for Rondo’s passes when Brandon Bass is out.
Rondo also had good chemistry with Chris Wilcox before the (undersized) center went down with a heart condition, and his return should help, too.
Point is, Rondo has several more options once his fellow starters sit down, and they’re all capable of putting the ball in the basket. That’s never been the case before.
Remember last season when Rondo would grab a long rebound, streak down the court on the break and pull it back out because he was ahead of all of his teammates? It happened with regularity, and it was an embarrassing waste of Rondo’s speed and creativity. Expect that to be the exception rather than the rule in the upcoming season.
One of Ainge’s goals this offseason was to get younger. He accomplished it, despite re-signing a 36-year-old KG and signing Terry, nearly 35. Lee and Green can run with Rondo all day and should thrive. Allen’s exit solidified Bradley’s spot in the starting lineup, provided the 21-year-old is able to recover from surgeries on both (yeesh) shoulders.
With the shored-up bench, Pierce and KG—who have slowed down as their years have crept up—will be able to rest for the playoffs, leaving others the opportunity to finish on the break in their stead. Whatever happens, there is no doubt that this will be very different from the Jim O’Brien–Antoine Walker–Paul Pierce offense from 10 years ago.
Thank the heavens, by the way.
Defense Starts Up Top
Rondo has always been an excellent defender, maybe the best at his position in the league. One of last season’s highlights came when Rondo was isolated against the far larger and stronger LeBron James in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Championship for the last play of regulation with the score tied. Rondo screamed, “Let’s go!” at James and didn’t give any ground, forcing the King to give up the final shot.
Good as he is, Rondo has a tendency to gamble on D and use his extraordinarily long arms for steals. It’s great when it works, but when it doesn’t, his assignment too often has an open lane to the hoop. With the older Allen not able to hold the fort defensively anymore, most adequate penetrating guards put C’s big men—or what passes for big men on the Celtics—in foul trouble and made the overall defense look like a sieve.
Things changed, however, when the defensively gifted Bradley supplanted Allen in the rotation last season. With the youngster able to guard—and shut down—the better of the opposition’s guards, Rondo was free to swipe at the ball and take risks. As a result, KG didn’t need to help as often and the defense was much improved.
The Celtics will likely have to wait a bit for Bradley to come back to take advantage of their power-and-glory defensive backcourt, but if and when it happens, it’ll be the guard play that sets the defensive tone for the Celtics, and it could be something special, too.
No More Catering to Ray Allen
This is not to take a shot at a surefire Hall of Famer, but as it's been widely discussed, Allen chose to leave largely because of his fractured relationship with Rondo. Reportedly, Allen—who ran miles around the court in an effort to get open looks—did not appreciate that the surly Rondo frequently rewarded his nightly track meets by getting him just 10.7 shots per night, well down from his 15.5 career average.
Right or wrong, Rondo seemed to be of the opinion that Allen wasn’t necessarily deserving of his shots during this late juncture of his career. Still, it’s unusual for the NBA career leader in three-pointers to be denied shots, and there was always pressure to give Allen what he wanted.
With Allen finally out of his hair and the Celtics effectively choosing him instead, Rondo is free to run the team as he sees fit, with Bradley again the likely beneficiary, assuming he is healthy. Allen may be the greatest shooter of all time from behind the arc, but Rondo seemed to detest waiting for him to get open and needing the other players to set picks for him.
In addition to his sparkling defense, Bradley was able to work within the offense to get bunches of cheap hoops each night using back cuts and a much-improved outside shot. The best part was that Bradley was never the first option on offense and didn’t need to be, either. If Bradley can eventually return to form, Rondo will have the weapon he wants to use, not the one that was forced on him.
Rondo's Got the Keys
As the Allen friction—and eventual result—demonstrates, Rivers and Ainge are clearly of the opinion that Rondo is the future and the engine that makes the Celtics go.
Until now, it’s been all about the Big Three, and that was a good thing. They worked hard, set a good example and kept the rest of the team in line. Allen leaving and Ainge stocking the roster with players that ought to mesh well with Rondo’s unique skills is sign that the Celtics are finally ready to build the team around him and his name will likely stop popping up in trade rumors.
Is this all a good thing? Yes and no. The team is finally a reflection of its most talented player, but it’s an open question whether Rondo—who has butted heads with several teammates and coaches during the course of his college and pro career—is ready to lead the team.
At this stage, it’s the best and only option they’ve got, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to see the Celtics sink or swim with Rondo at the helm.