Most good players who’re destined to evolve into great players reach a moment at some point in their career that changes everything. It’s a benchmark where an undeniable shift takes place, resulting in an irreversible change that in many ways turns this player into a 2.0 version of his former self.
Sometimes the event—whether it be prolonged throughout an entire game, or encapsulated in a single sequence or play—sticks out as an obvious tipping point in real time. After it happens, not only does the viewing public need to catch its breath, but the player himself feels a pinch of satisfaction unlike any he’d ever experienced before. It’s a signal of new-found potential, and afterwards expectations change forever.
During the latter half of his fifth postseason, Rajon Rondo experienced two of these moments in four days. The first came in the closing minutes of Game 7 against Philadelphia, when, after Paul Pierce fouled out, he scored 11 points (including four free throws and a 27-foot three-pointer) in the final 3:39 of the game. An achievement such as this would be impressive for anybody, but for a three-time All-Star whose greatest weakness comes in shooting the basketball, this was special.
The second “happening” was more memorable: Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. In that game, Rondo learned he could score at will against arguably the best defense in basketball, on a gigantic stage, in a proverbially hostile environment. He learned he could lean on his jumper, and confidently step to the free-throw line with a clear mind. That night Rondo believed he was the best basketball player in the world, and who’s to say he wasn’t?
Detractors rightfully point to it as a 53-minute, 44-point, 10-assist, eight-rebound supernatural event Rondo will likely never exceed, let alone duplicate—not only was it so good to the point that no player in NBA history had ever posted a box score stat line like it in a playoff game, but it came as the result of his greatest weaknesses (mid-range jump shots/free throws) suddenly morphing into an unstoppable strength. All logic was thrown out the window.
The game could be looked at as an outlier, but to do so would be missing the point of its significance. Rondo was the best player on the floor in a big-time playoff game that featured LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. That isn’t a fluke, and neither was his jump shot throughout that seven-game series.
In the aftermath of that loss, Rondo’s performance was powerful enough to alter what we, as an educated audience, should reasonably expect from now on. And this season those increased expectations translate to him being a legitimate MVP contender. He’s always been unique in a spectacular, but not traditionally dominant, way. Now on the cusp of his prime, Rondo showed that he can be downright invincible.
I just got through writing about on-court evolution and why the past might be a great indicator of what’s to come in the immediate future. But things are never that easy, especially when trying to analyze a player as mercurial as Rajon Rondo. The aforementioned tipping point should be acknowledged more as a launching pad than final reference point in the “Rondo For MVP” campaign. Here are a few more reasons to further the discussion on why a breakout season feels imminent.
A Plethora Of Young, Complimentary Pieces
Based on their offseason personnel moves and what we’ve so far seen in preseason, the Celtics figure to push the ball quicker than ever before this year, getting into an attack mode before opposing defenses are able to stabilize themselves, and targeting trips to the free-throw line to make their own transition defense as much of a weapon as it's ever been.
According to Celtics.com, the Celtics scored an average of 12 fast break points per game last season. In eight games of this preseason, that number jumped to 16 per game on 66.7 percent shooting, and a 33 percent increase, with efficient scoring.
Last season the Celtics were one of the 10 slowest teams in the league, and because of it their offense suffered. Too many players on the wrong side of 30 forced Boston’s hand (Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Mickael Pietrus, Keyon Dooling, Ray Allen and Marquis Daniels) when it came to choosing an offensive identity, and despite Doc Rivers publicly claiming he’d love to see his guys run more, that option wasn’t realistically sustainable.
With the additions of Jeff Green, Courtney Lee and Jared Sullinger (along with Avery Bradley as soon as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, and Brandon Bass) filling in as heavy contributors this season, the Celtics are no longer an ancient basketball team.
For this reason, the team’s roster better suits Rondo’s skill set than at any point in his career. This Celtics team will run, and run, and run. Doc Rivers has the flexibility to experiment with super small lineups that will group Rondo with a combination of Jason Terry (a spry 35 years old), Lee, Bradley and Green all at the same time. We probably won’t see elongated stretches with units like that, but in small doses Rondo could lead one of the fastest groups in the league.
Looking at Lee specifically for a second—because he’s the presumed opening-day starter—18.7 percent of his possessions came in transition last season, and in them he averaged 1.2 points per possession. (After spot-up shooting, it was his second most frequent method of offensive action.)
Here are two clips from last season that show just how smart and helpful he can be in transition. Not only will this boost Rondo’s assist numbers even further, but it opens up the floor for him to be an aggressive scorer.
Maturation Off the Court
Rondo has always been his own worst enemy. While he’s wired as pound for pound one of the most competitive and serious basketball minds in the league, Rondo’s focus has always been questioned to the point where it’s been well-documented that he takes possessions, and even nights, off. Since entering the NBA it’s been a legitimate concern for his bosses, teammates and fans.
Recent quotes from Pierce, Dooling and Rondo himself can be found in this Jackie MacMullan feature signaling those immature days might be in the past. Off-court growth doesn’t always connect with the decisions a player makes with a basketball in his hands, but in this case, important fragments of Rondo’s personality have evolved to make him a better leader, teammate and more consistent basketball player.
For years Rondo has said in interviews that he believes he’s the best point guard in the game. He’s confident. He’s honest. But right now he heads into the season with a better recognition of where he stands within his own team, and no matter how many assists he racks up, his willingness to be more of an aggressive scorer has never been more important.
I realize what I’m about to present as evidence comes from the preseason, but none of it’s statistically based; these are empirical observations on why Rondo’s attitude and body language prove he’s a better player than before.
Over the past month, Rondo has played with an unexpected earnestness, pulling up and making jumpers, knocking down free throws and setting up teammates at a breakneck speed with little to no hesitation.
During last Saturday night’s preseason game against the Knicks, Rondo went to the free-throw line midway through the second quarter and missed long on the first attempt. He then rattled in the second.
After a Knicks miss on the next possession, Rondo took an outlet and sprinted up the court, in a furious beeline towards the basket as if it were the only option. He was fouled just inside the three-point line, and with Boston in the bonus he immediately stepped to the line and swished two straight free throws.
It was a telling moment for Rondo. Not only did he not shy away from a part of his game that’s scared him before, but he knocked the subsequent two in like it was nothing.
Generally speaking, defenses don’t “stop” Rondo; they force him to strangle himself by going under on pick-and-rolls and dramatically sagging off when he has the ball. If an argument is to be made that the one thing holding Rajon Rondo back from being basketball's most complete point guard is himself, then this season should be a breakout campaign.
Saying someone is an MVP candidate and believing he can actually win the award are two very separate things. In real life, Most Valuable Players not named Steve Nash need to score the ball, and popular thinking has LeBron James locking up the award for the foreseeable future, with superstars like Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, and, when healthy, Derrick Rose closely behind.
But if the Celtics finish either first or second in the Eastern Conference, and a key reason for it ends up being because Rajon Rondo averages seven or eight more shots per game, it’s certainly possible for the MVP to end up in an unlikely pair of freakishly large hands.