What Kind of Team Should Boston Celtics Build Around Rajon Rondo?
If you asked Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge whether Rajon Rondo’s future with the Boston Celtics was set in stone, he’d offer an enthusiastic "yes" before spouting all the reasons why trading one of the game's best point guards in his prime would be silly.
In the real world, it’s Ainge’s job to answer unanswerable questions with fickleness. That neither means Rondo is on his way out the door, nor that he’ll wear a Celtics jersey until he retires. With the franchise currently going through its first major metamorphosis in six years, nobody knows the answer to that question. Not Rondo, not even Ainge.
This article chooses to venture into a future where Ainge isn’t being sly, and the Celtics are 100 percent committed to keeping Rondo as their franchise player. If the team does indeed choose to dedicate itself to its mercurial four-time All-Star, how should Boston do it? What type of players should the Celtics put around him to maximize both Rondo’s talent and their chances of winning a championship?
This exercise lists specific players, but please remember: the purpose is to explain what skill-sets are best around Rondo, not what names. These players happen to exemplify those skill-sets, but there are others who could easily stand in their place.
The four players listed below do a pretty good job answering those questions, while the sum of their individual contracts make it somewhat realistic (though not very practical) for such a starting five to be compiled. (2013-14 salaries are included in the interest of not just throwing multiple All-Stars on this squad and calling it a day.) They are:
PG: Rajon Rondo, 11.9 million
SG: Danny Green, $3.76 million
SF: Arron Afflalo, $7.5 million
PF: Serge Ibaka, $12.35 million
C: Chris Bosh, $19.06 million
Total salary: approximately $54.57 million
While it's true that the total price tag for these five players is nearly already at the $58.67 salary cap, Boston isn't afraid of surpassing that figure. Celtics ownership will tread towards the luxury tax (or even go over it) if the team they're putting on the floor is competitive. And this starting lineup would be extremely tough.
Before getting into why each of these players (and the complimentary characteristics they come with) were selected, let’s first talk about Rondo. What is he good at? What is he not so good at? What type of player does he need by his side in order to succeed?
First and foremost, Rondo can’t shoot three-pointers, and he can’t shoot free throws. (His career percentages are 24.1 percent and 62.1 percent, respectively.)
These are the two detriments Rondo’s detractors most enjoy talking about, and since starting point guards are traditionally one of the two or three best shooters on their team, they have a legitimate point—it's weird for a point guard to struggle how Rondo struggles.
But he makes up for it elsewhere. Rondo loves having the ball in his hands—and rightfully so—since he’s an incredibly bright player who consistently ends possessions with brilliant decisions. He knows how to make players around him better and does so frequently.
The logical thinking then goes that Rondo absolutely must be surrounded by shooters at every position. It's far and away the most important trait those who play with him must possess. Rondo needs a spread-out floor to create off the dribble. He needs passing lanes. He needs to be able to make the other team pay when all five defenders sink into the paint to try and stop him from wreaking absolute havoc.
All four players selected here have range that is well-respected around the league. Now let's get into some other elements that make them worthy of placement on this hypothetical Celtics squad.
As a career 42.4 percent shooter from behind the three-point line—on a solid 688 total attempts—Danny Green is one of the league's most dangerous weapons.
He attempted a playoff-high 114 three-pointers during San Antonio's run to the NBA Finals this past spring, and made nearly half of them (an incomprehensible 48.2 percent). Coming off that performance, if there's one shooting guard in the league that defenses won't be willing to leave alone, it's Green.
He can also guard multiple positions, which takes the pressure off Rondo and allows him to rest a bit off the ball. Rondo isn't a poor defender by any stretch, but given all the responsibility he holds with the ball on offense, fatigue is a definite factor. Chasing around Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving or Eric Bledsoe for 38 minutes can be exhausting, so having a capable option who can step in, like Green, is massively important.
Rondo isn't a scorer by trade, and asking him to set up teammates on every possession is impossible. What any team that wants to be successful with such a point guard needs is an efficient isolation scorer on the wing.
Afflalo can knock down spot up shots (he is a career 38.3 percent three-point shooter), but where he separates himself from Green is in just about every other area of offense.
In his first season with the Orlando Magic last year, Afflalo's numbers took a bit of a slide as defenses treated him like the team's primary scoring option. He's smart with the ball and understands that in order for him to reach his potential, he'll need to make more efficient decisions related to scoring.
Courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com, here's Afflalo's heat map from his last season in Denver, which best represents the role he'd play beside Rondo as someone who can score from just about anywhere.
According to SynergySports, despite the increased defensive attention, Afflalo was one of the 75 most efficient isolation scorers in the league last season. He can also score in the post (making 49 percent of his post-ups last year), run a decent pick-and-roll (for the sole purpose of making the team's offense unpredictable by not having Rondo head it every time) and score in transition.
Afflalo is a bit undersized playing small forward at 6'5", but he fit the role fairly often with the Magic last season, especially before J.J. Redick was traded. (Orlando's most common five-man unit last year had Afflalo at the three and Redick at the two.)
Another solution would be having Afflalo and Green (who's a couple inches taller) switch off at small forward, depending on opposing matchups.
All the big guys who play with Rondo need to either be incredibly athletic or have—you guessed it!—an accurate jump shot. Serge Ibaka can do both these things, while also covering up for Rondo's defensive gambles. (Ibaka has led the league in total blocked shots three years in a row, so sliding through the paint to deter a driving point guard shouldn't be anything new.)
He also brings variance to the pick-and-roll, which is something Rondo's actually lacked the past few years, with no partner capable of rumbling through the lane. Kevin Garnett was fantastic popping out to 18 feet after the screen, but defenses all but allowed that to happen.
Stopping Rondo from getting to the basket would be much harder with a screener who can attract attention rolling to the basket. The pick-and-roll puzzle for defenses only gets more complicated with shooters—like Green and Afflalo—spread in the corner.
Ibaka also made 45.3 percent of his jump shots last season (an elite number) and if Rondo was forced to throw it back to him wide open at the top of the key, it wouldn't be the least efficient option in the world.
As we've seen time and time again over the last three seasons, Chris Bosh is a perfect complementary player. He has All-Star talent and can score on his own from just about anywhere. Synergy pegged Bosh as the 34th-most efficient player in the league (1.03 points per possession) last season, and as he gets older his range continues to stretch further from the rim.
Offensively, almost all that was written about Ibaka also goes for Bosh, except the Miami Heat center is more versatile with the ball. He can take his man off the dribble, use more possessions in the post (without harming his efficiency) and stretch the defense just a bit further than Ibaka can.
Playing with Rondo, Bosh would also be perfect in pick-and-rolls, and his intuition away from the ball would allow him to find open space for easy dump-off passes as Rondo zooms his way all over the place.
In the end, building around any All-Star is easier said than done.
Strengths and weaknesses have to be broken down and analyzed intensely, and skill sets must specifically pay tribute to the team's best player. With Rondo, as polarizing an All-Star as any who's ever existed, we still don't know if building around him is the worthy route.
Even if the pieces around him fit perfectly (as they nearly did in 2011), is that roster going to be powerful enough to win several playoff series on their way to a championship? As of today, this appears to be the path Ainge is most interested in exploring, and that end game brings major question marks. But knowing what type of players might make the whole thing worthwhile does not.
All contract information is from ShamSports.
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