Can Rajon Rondo bounce back from injury and lead the Celtics back up the mountain?
Love him, hate him or both, there's no denying that Rajon Rondo is a top-five point guard. He's also the most talented player on the Boston Celtics under the age of 37, and his performance will in many ways decide the future of the franchise.
That's why things looked so grim when Rondo suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Boston's January 25 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
Somehow, without their point man, the C's reeled off 14 wins in the following 18 games and raised the specter of Bill Simmons' Ewing theory. However, Boston's ensuing 7-16 skid and first-round playoff exit put that theory to bed.
The only thing that is certain is this: Rondo must be at the top of his game to precipitate a deep playoff run for Boston.
Conspicuously, the Celtics offense actually averaged 3.5 points per 100 possessions more when Rondo was not on the court, per 82games.com. That should help indicate certain areas to target for adjustment and improvement next year, because Boston needs all the Rondo it can get.
He's had some time to goof around, but this will be a demanding offseason for the mercurial point guard.
Rajon Rondo can cut to the rim seemingly at will sometimes, but if forced to shoot from the outside, he struggles. At least that's the book on him, but recently he began bucking that trend.
In 2012-13, Rondo shot 48.4 percent from the field, a marked improvement from his 44.8 percent year last season. Part of this is owed to his increased proficiency on the perimeter, as Rondo shot a career-high 48 percent from 16 to 23 feet, per HoopData.
The new challenge for next season will be maintaining those solid shooting averages as he rehabs his injured knee.
Rondo's three-point shooting continued to be nearly nonexistent, even though he attempted more triples this season than the previous two campaigns despite playing fewer games. Nevertheless, he sank just a dozen treys in total.
Rondo also posted a 64.5 percent average from the foul line, which is actually his highest mark since his rookie season, but he attempted just 2.4 free throws per game, one less than his average from 2011-12.
It will be imperative for him to come back with the same aggressiveness but avoid picking up bad habits as his knee progresses back to 100 percent.
Rondo continued a troubling trend which has persisted across each of his seven NBA seasons: His turnovers per game increased.
After averaging just 1.8 turnovers a night as a rookie, Rondo coughed up the ball 3.9 times per game this season. Granted, his workload and assists have risen sharply over his career, but it's ultimately an issue of being too sloppy with the ball.
The Kentucky product again averaged better than 11 assists per game for the third straight season, but his injury opened the door for New Orleans Pelicans point guard Greivis Vasquez to lead the NBA in assists. And no, that's not a typo.
With the Big Three looking all but done in Boston, offensive efficiency should become more of a priority as the team forges ahead, and Rondo will need to take better care of the ball.
Remember: Sometimes you should just take the wide-open layup instead of pressing for another assist.
Rondo played in only 38 games last season due to his knee injury, but that was no exception. Over the previous two seasons, he had already missed 27 total games.
With a reckless style that often sends him clattering to the court in a heap, Rondo should beware the tales of Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Jeremy Lin. Each player employs an attacking mentality, but the physical toll it takes can be debilitating.
The challenge for Rondo will be playing smart without being cautious, which is to say, avoiding re-injury without sacrificing his unique ability to assault the rim.
Because he stands at just 6'1" and 186 pounds, his undersized body can only take so much. As the 27-year-old enters what could be his prime years, he will need to ensure he plays with a sustainable approach while still remaining a potent threat.
And that's partly why becoming more efficient in shooting and turnovers could improve his play so significantly.
Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge pictured discussing Rajon Rondo. Or Louis C.K.
Via the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett, Celtics president Danny Ainge certainly sounded upbeat about the coming season, and he even managed to put a positive spin on Rondo's knee injury, saying:
I think Rondo is a smart guy, and he got to see the strengths and weaknesses of our team and the players...when you’re out, you can see things in your team and your teammates that maybe you didn’t see before. You see players that are capable of doing some things that maybe you weren’t sure they could do. I think that’s always helpful. Doc (Rivers) and I have both talked to Rajon about what he can do to get better and what he needs to do.
So according to Ainge, Rondo has had a chance to survey the team without him and has now assessed each player's capabilities for his own purposes. Celtics fans and coach Doc Rivers both sincerely hope that is the case.
But Bulpett experienced some deja vu from Ainge's statement, writing:
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s likely because similar stories are written each offseason about Rondo. Some aspects are factual, as with the talk of his improved outside shot. Other aspects are essentially hope on the part of the Celts, who want/need to see Rondo become more of a leader.
Unfortunately for Ainge, merely willing something to happen does not make it so, and there's no material evidence to suggest that this will be the season when Rondo finally matures into a more complete player and human being.
Oh well, fingers crossed!
If Rondo wants to become a better leader this season, he should start with Jordan Crawford.
The Washington Wizards made Crawford vanish at the 2013 trade deadline, and Boston is where he ended up.
Some wondered why, because he has exhibited the capacity to be an offensive spark plug. But there's also the matter of his objectionable shot selection, which has made him a 40 percent career shooter. And those who have seen Crawford play defense put up no argument either.
The road ahead for Boston seems to depend on guys like Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger, not to mention the stellar defense of Avery Bradley, but Crawford's place on the squad is much more uncertain.
He failed to contribute much in the postseason, averaging 11.8 minutes and 3.6 points per game on 30 percent shooting. His most notable moment came when he insulted Carmelo Anthony on the court.
As Boston's field general, Rondo must take the 24-year-old Crawford under his wing and help mold him into a more efficient offensive weapon.
After watching his team struggle to score points in the first round against the New York Knicks, Rondo should return more focused and motivated to squeeze every ounce of offense from this lineup next year.