Sure, the All-Star point guard is the last remaining member of the Big Three era that brought the franchise its 17th NBA title. However, given his long history of attitude-related issues, is Rondo really the right choice to usher in the new era for the Celtics?
That’s the question that will ultimately define the success or failure of the team over the next couple of years.
Last season, Rondo only appeared in 38 games for Boston. Yet in that short time frame, he provided us with two distinct ways to look at his contributions.
On the positive side of things, Rondo led the league with 11.1 assists per game. Impressively, his total of 420 assists ranked No. 25 in the league—no other player who appeared in 40 games or fewer shows up on that list until No. 134. Rondo also led the league in triple-doubles with five.
Then there’s the fact that the Celtics were just 20-23 before he was sidelined for the remainder of the season. Rondo also missed time due to suspensions twice—for instigating a fight and bumping a referee. And according to Sheridan Hoops’ Chris Sheridan, there were also allegations that he caused a rift in the locker room that almost resulted in a brawl with then-head coach Doc Rivers.
It all boils down to this: Which Rondo will Boston get in 2013-14?
Here are two areas that will play a large role in that outcome.
Can a 36-year-old college head coach really be the one to finally tame Rondo?
General manager Danny Ainge certainly seems to believe so; otherwise, why would he have chosen Brad Stevens as Doc Rivers’ replacement?
It’s a bold move that makes a lot of sense.
In five seasons with the Bulldogs, Stevens amassed a 166-49 record while compiling several accolades—both team and individual. But his biggest accomplishment was leading the team to back-to-back NCAA national title games in 2010 and 2011 as a No. 5 and No. 8 seed, respectively.
Dubbed intelligent beyond his years, Stevens was quick to realize that communication with the Celtics point guard was imperative for his success with the team.
Just eight days after being introduced, Stevens made the trek down to Louisville, Ky., to visit the point guard during his youth basketball camp. After speaking to the participants, he and Rondo sat down and talked.
Judging by what Stevens told ESPN Boston’s Chris Forsberg, the meeting seems to have gone well:
We just sat down for an hour, or an hour and 15 minutes, and I thought had a nice sitdown. We talked a lot about life, we talked a lot about basketball. We hit on neither exclusively, we just talked. I found him to be very insightful, very intelligent. And that was consistent to what I had heard from those who knew him best. I’m really looking forward to spending more time together.
The feeling seems to be mutual.
According to The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn, sources close to Rondo believe he is viewing the signing of Stevens with a “completely open mind.” It doesn’t necessarily scream excitement and enthusiasm, but that’s as good as you’re going to get from Rondo.
With the 27-year-old still rehabbing, it’ll be hard to really judge if this partnership is working. However, the fact that both parties are making an effort within the first month is a good sign.
Let’s hope it can last.
The Core Players Around Him
Even if Rondo does prove fit to be the leader of this team, he can’t be expected to shoulder the burden alone.
The losses of Kevin Garnett and Paul Piece will certainly hurt in that respect. However, Boston still has several other options on the roster who can contribute.
First and foremost, there’s Jeff Green.
Although he struggled during the first half of the season, Green quickly proved he was worthy of the four-year, $36 million contract he signed during the offseason. The 26-year-old did so by averaging 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.0 blocks over 35.1 minutes per game over the Celtics' final 16 contests. He also shot 50.9 percent from the field and 51 percent from beyond the arc.
Now, without competition for his spot in the starting lineup, expect the dual-threat Green’s potential to soar.
Avery Bradley is another guy who will help make Rondo’s job a lot easier. Especially on defense.
According to Synergy Sports Data (h/t ESPN Boston’s Chris Forsberg), Bradley held opponents to just 0.696 points per play—the lowest in the league among those with at least 475 total defensive possessions. So it should come as no surprise that the team improved from 14th in the league in defensive rating at 102.1 on Jan. 1—a day before Bradley made his season debut—all the way to sixth by the end of the season at 100.4.
The only downfall to his performance last year was on offense. Bradley averaged just 9.2 points per game on 40.2 percent shooting. That’s a far cry from the 15.1 points on 52 percent shooting he averaged during the final month of the 2011-12 regular season.
Then again, Bradley was recovering from surgeries to not one, but both shoulders. Boston is hoping that another year removed from the procedures will help.
Finally, there’s second-year forward Jared Sullinger.
Last year, the 21-year-old logged a total of 25 minutes or more 11 times. In those games, he averaged 11 points and 10.5 rebounds per game on 59.5 percent from the field.
On defense, according to Synergy Sports Data (h/t Forsberg), Sullinger allowed just 0.708 points per play. He ranked third among all players with at least 300 possessions. That played a large role in why the Celtics finished plus-42 with the former Ohio State standout in the lineup compared to minus-60 when he was on the bench.
He may be young, but Sullinger has displayed experience beyond his years.
Sure, there are veterans and role players in this squad—Brandon Bass, Gerald Wallace, Courtney Lee—who will help the team in the immediate future, but the three highlighted above will be key to this rebuild.
Summing It All Up
In a couple of months, Rondo will likely be named the 15th captain in Boston’s storied history.
The talent is obviously there to back up such an honor. However, the mind and attitude are not quite up to par.
The Celtics can surround Rondo with as many pieces as they want. But no matter how strong these complementary pieces are, it’s ultimately up to the seven-year veteran to decide just how far this team can go.
Is he ready to put the game aside and become a leader? Or will Rondo falter and bring Boston down with him?
That might just be the biggest storyline surrounding the team this upcoming season.