Why Rajon Rondo Is Poised to Become a Leader for Rebuilding Boston Celtics

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 9, 2013

WALTHAM, MA - SEPTEMBER 30: Rajon Rondo #9 of the Boston Celtics poses for a picture during media day at the Boston Sports Club in Waltham, Massachusetts on September 30, 2013. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE  (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Except for those sophisticated swaps outside of Buckingham Palace, a changing of the guard is rarely a smooth process.

Whether the old guards aren't quite ready to vacate their posts or the new blood isn't yet built to take over, in the NBA, the power struggles in times of transition can often disrupt the very franchise at the center of the exchange.

For Rajon Rondo, his challenge presents a peculiar case in the eyes of the Boston Celtics' rebuild. He was a member of that previous regime, a championship-decorated group responsible for reclaiming the city's perch atop the basketball world.

But now he's the straggler left behind, something of a lost soul in hoops speak. He's an All-Star talent with no more All-Star teammates. He will either be the face of this franchise moving forward or the biggest trade domino destined to drop next season.

Yet amid all of this turbulence, Rondo remains one of the coolest characters in the business. After all, his jersey still has Celtics stitched across the front of it.

And unless that changes, the polarizing point guard will do everything in his power to lead his franchise through this transformation and back to basketball glory.


Playing With a Purpose

Rondo's always played with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but that chip is more of a boulder this season.

Reports of president of basketball operations Danny Ainge's cost-cutting moves this summer—trading away Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Doc Rivers—had barely started their tour of the news cycle when Rondo's name grabbed center stage on the trade rumor mill.

When Ainge tabbed 36-year-old Brad Stevens as Rivers' successor, that was all hoops heads needed to see. Rondo had to go, no analysis needed.

Ainge and Stevens have said all the right things to soothe their hobbled star, but they're in a tough place to get too attached to Rondo. With so many holes to fill and no major salary cap breaks coming before 2015, Ainge needs to keep the phone lines open in case that no-brainer trade offer is sent over.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 20: Danny Ainge, president of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics, left, stands on court with Rajon Rondo #9 before Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals between the Celtics and New York Knicks during the 2013 NBA
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

So Rondo is left fighting for his own spot with the franchise. His challenge is to make himself indispensable to the organizationso good that even that knock-your-socks-off offer isn't enough to pry him out of Boston.

And that unrelenting watch from the Boston media will put even more eyes on Rondo this season.

How will the four-time All-Star selection fare without the help of his former Hall of Fame teammates? How will the lack of a reliable three-point shot affect his performance if his athleticism doesn't fully return from the torn ACL that ended his 2012-13 campaign?

There are so many questions unanswered, but none greater than: why would Rondo risk wasting his peak performance years on a team with no playoff aspirations?

But Rondo said there is a bigger "why" question in his mind.

"This is my team; why would I want to leave?" he said, via CBS Sports' Ken Berger. "Why would I want out? I've (never) really backed away from a challenge."

This challenge will be greater than anything he's faced in the NBA, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.


Side Dish To Main Course

Rondo has to be a leader for this Celtics team; he doesn't have a choice.

He's the longest-tenured Celtic, by far, with his seven seasons in Boston (Avery Bradley is the next longest with three). He's clearly the most talented player on the roster with a sizable gap before whichever name comes next.

His gradual move from the shadows to the spotlight is complete, as he's now the focal point of Stevens' attack and the first name on opponents' scouting reports.

Just as Ainge has been forced to embrace Rondo's importance in potential trade talks, Stevens has had to entrust his on-court success in Rondo.

ORLANDO, FL - JULY 8:  New coach of Boston Celtics Brad Stevens (R) confers with Daniel Ray 'Danny' Ainge, basketball executive, President of Basketball Operations for the Boston Celtics (L) during the 2013 Southwest Airlines Orlando Pro Summer League on
Fernando Medina/Getty Images

So far the rookie coach has handled the relationship like a seasoned pro. He attended Rondo's basketball camp in Kentucky and has kept in constant contact with his floor general.

Rondo told reporters, via Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald, that the two have become almost inseparable:

Me and Brad have become best friends. We talk every day, and laugh and joke...He’s been open and honest. What people say is different from when you cross these lines. The coach and I are off to a great start, and we will continue to stay along those lines. I respect him as a man and as the coach of this organization.

With the support of his coach and those in the locker room, Rondo can put to use what he learned during those years alongside Pierce and Garnett: leading by example, demanding the best from his teammates and always keeping communication lines open.

Rondo's already been putting those methods into practice. He's been the last guy to leave Celtics practice. He's given undrafted rookie Phil Pressey answers to all of his questions.

He's not just a point guard on the box score or in media guides; he's a true extension of his coach.That is not bad for someone so often labeled as a stubborn malcontent.

Perhaps, we're on the verge of finding out that everything we thought we knew about Rondo wasn't what it seemed.


Perception Isn't Reality

Here's what we do know about Rajon Rondo: he's the Bobby Fischer of the Connect Four world, he's never going to play for the Miami Heat, and his hands are gigantic.

And that's pretty much the extent of it. So much of what we think we "know" about Rondo is based off of hearsay and assumptions.

His reported feuds with Rivers and Ray Allen always seemed to cast Rondo in a negative light. It was almost as if Rondo was this big bully stalking the halls of the TD Bank Garden.

The problem is that there are always two sides to every story, and Rondo's was not always being told. Quiet around the media, Rondo didn't feed into the story, so writers focused on the only side they were given.

Former Celtic Keyon Dooling told ESPN Boston's Jackie MacMullan that Rondo's leadership has been a far more important story than those media-driven dramas:

He is the most underappreciated leader in this league. Do you know how many times we were at the Rondo family home [last season]? We were there all the time, bonding, building team chemistry. Honestly, our veterans didn't do a very good job of supporting him in his [leadership] role.

What happens if Dooling's right? What if we've been piling on Rondo for years when his biggest problem is simply the lack of self-promotion?

Like Rondo told MacMullan, "I've been with the same organization for seven years. I can't be that bad of a person."

Rondo may never be a model citizen, but even if he was, we might never know. He doesn't sell his story or feel the need to justify his actions through the media.

So we use words like mysterious and enigmatic to describe him. It's our way of saying we don't really know this guy, but we'd like to sound as though we've figured him out.

And for all we think we know about Rondo's game, even that could be changing by the second. With Stevens at the helm, Rondo will have more offensive responsibilities and a heavier scoring burden to carry than ever before.

Rondo told Comcast SportsNet's A. Sherrod Blakely that he's willing to adapt his game, but not to expect a seismic shift in his game:

Whatever coach (Brad Stevens) asks of me, that's what I try to do. If he wants me to shoot the ball more, I'll shoot it. But at the end of the day, my natural instincts are to make my teammates better. Regardless of who is out on the floor, I believe I do make everybody out there better.

Rondo isn't going to become a leader in 2013-14; he'll simply be modifying his already present leadership approach. The stoic star will be more vocal, and the unselfish distributor will call his number a little more often.

But the big concern for Boston fans centers around when he'll be able to do all of that. Rondo told Blakely that once he can play at his top level without thinking about his knee, that's when he'll be ready to return.

And the basketball world will be waiting for him—even if we're still figuring out just whom exactly he is.



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