Why Rajon Rondo Must Emerge as Boston Celtics' Best Player Next Season

Mike Walsh@WalshWritesCorrespondent IJune 22, 2013

Let's hope Rajon Rondo's ready. This is all his next season.
Let's hope Rajon Rondo's ready. This is all his next season.Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

I hope everyone is enjoying his re-branding summer, because it looks more and more like the Boston Celtics will be all Rajon Rondo next season.

Until recently, Boston appeared dead-set on getting a deal done with the Los Angeles Clippers for Doc Rivers. That would mean Kevin Garnett follows him out the door shortly after. This presumably sends the Celtics' head coach and starting center out west for DeAndre Jordan and some assortment of draft picks. However, talks do appear to have stalled out once again.

Then the Paul Pierce decision looms, as the team will decide whether to buy him out for $5 million or keep him off the free-agent market by June 30. If Pierce is on the roster next season, he will be paid $15.3 million. While that seems a hefty sum for a player who will be 36 years old before the 2013-14 opening tip, Pierce is a legend in Boston and may be worth it.

Should Pierce be bought out, amnestied or traded before next season, Rondo becomes, most likely, the team's highest-paid player. Though at $11.9 million that isn't saying much from a league-wide perspective, it means a lot locally and within the team dynamic.

Calling the Celtics "Rondo's team" will no longer be posturing to appease his ego or assure the public that strides were being made toward the future for the franchise. Instead, that phrase will be legitimate. The success or failure of the Boston Celtics will lie in Rondo's abnormally large hands.

One year ago, that didn't seem like a risky proposition at all. One could have convinced the most ardent critic that the Celtics were in good hands, being led by a guy who averaged 17.3 points, 11.9 assists and 6.7 rebounds over 19 playoff games in 2012. The guy who almost stole LeBron James' first ring off his finger.

Now James is a quarter of the way through his infamous pledge, and the team he first had to vanquish is looking much worse for wear. Rondo no longer is lavishing in the good graces of a valiant Eastern Conference Finals performance. He is now a player recovering from a torn ACL. Thanks to Derrick Rose’s misfortune, Rondo can be viewed with only cautious optimism in his return next season.

It isn’t only the ACL that brings about a host of Rondo-branded questions. After that 2012 playoff run, he was a budding superstar. Questions of maturity and attitude were silenced for a time. Unfortunately, those concerns were buried in a shallow grave.

Though he played in just 38 games this past season due to the ACL tear, those questions reared their ugly heads again. Rondo was suspended for two games following an altercation he started with the Brooklyn Nets’ Kris Humphries.

Then there was another incident between him and an official, something he has made a habit of in the past. Rondo was suspended by the league for one game after bumping a referee in a January game against the Atlanta Hawks.

Emerging from the clouds of what will be "Rondo's team" that is even more worrisome than the maturity issues is his track record of being a non-scorer. One would be hard-pressed to find an NBA team, at least a successful one, whose best player has never averaged more than 14 points per game. 

His scoring was up, but not by enough. Rondo averaged 13.7 points and 11.1 assists, very good numbers, but a far cry in the NBA from his 17.3 points in the previous postseason. On top of that, the team was a mere 18-20 with him on the floor.

On the positive end, Rondo has improved his jump shot. If the ACL doesn’t set him back in his development, he should continue to get more dangerous from mid-range. 

Per Hoopdata.com, he shot 48 percent on shots from 16-23 feet. More importantly, perhaps, he started to show confidence in that shot. However, teams still don't give him that respect. They continued to sag off him defensively, and they will do so again upon his return. It will be up to him to use that as an advantage, not a slight.

In those 38 games he played, Rondo averaged a career-high 12.2 field-goal attempts per game. His 5.6 rebounds per game were also a career high. This showed an increased focus on looking for his own shot. Though it seems he is often trolling for assists, the numbers show an improved offensive game from Boston’s point guard.

It won't be enough for Rondo to simply improve his efficiency, however. If he no longer has the benefit of Pierce or Garnett's shooting abilities, Rondo's shot must go up to cover those vacancies. He will have to swallow the pride of his lofty assist totals and facilitate a winning team by scoring. 

His offseason has thus far been spent trying to find a new niche in the public eye. Rondo is a polarizing figure, and one people want to see. He has made brief appearances on E!’s Fashion Police and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! Both appearances were lighthearted and actually quite humorous. Coupling this with his recent Red Bull work, Rondo is in a way re-branding himself.

He is getting his face out there more and more. Rondo is trying to prove to us, Celtics management and maybe even himself that he is ready to be the face of this franchise.

The dangers will be very real this coming season. If Rondo doesn’t take some sort of leap, the Celtics will stall in the Eastern Conference middle. That is whether Pierce, Garnett and Rivers continue to lease property in the northeast or not.

No. 7 seeds and one-and-dones don’t keep you in Boston's public eye. Not while the area is swept up in Boston Bruins fever, with the first-place Boston Red Sox waiting their turn. New England Patriots training camp is right around the corner as well.

New Englanders have short-term sports memories. The 2012 Eastern Conference Finals are old hat, and 2008 might as well be 1986 at this point.

All Celtics talk right now is consumed by the Doc Rivers-Clippers saga. While the actual basketball-playing Celtics are fading to the back of everyone's mind, Rondo wants us to know he is still here.

Rondo is proving this offseason that he likes the spotlight. The Celtics are going to need him ready for it next season.