Rajon Rondo's return is only the beginning.
Returning to action will be a triumphant moment for the Boston Celtics point guard. Once his recovery is complete, he can breathe knowing that he made it.
Then, the real work begins.
Torn ACLs always bring players to a crossroad. Either they'll be the same player they were before, or they won't be. Derrick Rose experienced something similar with the Chicago Bulls. He sat out an entire season trying to get right, and if you've watched him at all during the preseason, you know he's right.
The difference is, Rose wasn't approaching the same turning point in his career. Questions like "what's next for Derrick Rose," aren't questions at all. We're more interested in what's next for the Bulls with Rose.
Chicago's point guard has returned to the court to familiar faces and to resume his role as the face of the Bulls franchise. When Rondo returns, he'll be entering an entirely different situation than what he's become accustomed to.
The Celtics aren't contenders. They're closer to tankers than a team interested in genuinely competing. Rondo isn't yet acquainted with rebuilding. Playing for a lottery-bound aggregate will be new to him.
As will life without Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, two future Hall of Famers who safeguarded him against the difficulties and objections that come with being the one everyone else looks to for direction and leadership.
Where Rose was always The Guy, Rondo is just becoming The Guy. That's if the Celtics even want him to be The Guy. Boston could use the All-Star as trade bait if it's looking for a cleaner slate than it has.
“I’m taking it one week at a time,” Rondo told reporters, per Celtics.com's Marc D'Amico. “I know it’s getting stronger each week, and whenever I’m able to jump off my right leg and probably dunk, that’s when I’ll be back to play.”
Playing as what, and for what, we're not sure.
The Superstar Conundrum
In the past, I've criticized Rondo for his jump shot (it's still not good), but never once have I doubted his standing as a superstar.
Before going down last season, he was dropping 11.1 dimes per game. That's absurd. Four other players in the last five seasons have averaged 10-plus assists a night for an entire season—Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Steve Nash and, yes, Gilbert Arenas. Rondo is in good company (for the most part).
Speaking of four, that's also the number of straight All-Star games Rondo has been selected to (three appearances). He's garnered All-Star honors four times for his career, all of which have come over the last four seasons.
Out of commission, Rondo's past accolades, as recent as last year, aren't enough to fend off questions. Will he be the same? Is he still a superstar? Overrated?
ESPN ranked Rondo as the league's 27th-best player, down from 12 in 2012. Injuries were, of course, weighted heavily, but damn. Saying he's the 27th-best player in the NBA is like saying he's not a superstar.
Serious injuries have that type of impact on a player's trajectory, no matter how established he is. ESPN was concerned enough to move Rose down to No. 9 this year after putting him at No. 5 in 2012. He faced many of the same doubts Rondo is. Now, Rondo will have to exorcise the same demons he has, and that all starts with playing.
"I'll be returning in the 2013-14 season," Rondo said, via D'Amico.
Returning as what? A superstar. We think.
On His Own
Admittedly, Rondo's individual potential post-ACL injury isn't a tremendous obstacle.
Though it had to be mentioned, recoveries of this kind have become almost routine. Rondo has age and medical advancements on his side. Failing to regain his superstar status would shock me. And you. At least, it should.
More uncertain is how he'll fare on his own, away from Garnett and Pierce, and even Doc Rivers. The assists will come, as will the triple-doubles, but can he take a group of young guys, harness their potential and nurture them?
Rondo has never been here before. Only one of his Celtics teams have failed to make the playoffs, and that was in 2006-07, when he was a rookie. And it wasn't even his team. It never has been.
“Without question (he can be the man in Boston),” Pierce said in August, per Mass Live's Jay King. “I’ve already talked to Rajon; Rajon’s mature."
Mature is something he finally has to be. Forget last year or the year before. It doesn't matter if he was responsible enough to lead a team before now. Back then, he had a choice; stepping up, in a sense, was optional. Taking the reins now is a necessity.
Gerald Wallace is the only other Celtic with an All-Star appearance. With Pierce gone, Rondo is the longest-tenured player on the team's roster. With things the way they are now, this is Rondo's team.
"They put him in a role he wasn't ready for yet," Pierce said in 2012 of the Celtics' attempts to hand Rondo the keys, per ESPN Boston's Jackie MacMullan.
Ready or not now, here the Celtics come. How Rondo responds as a leader and how the Celtics perform with him at the helm, alone, will help define how he's remembered when he's gone. Whenever that may be.
Rondo isn't easy to coach. Deal with it. He himself has copped to being stubborn. We must accept he's not a normal case study, as well.
While sitting down with Red Bull Signature Series host Sal Masekala and redbull.com basketball contributor Brian Kamenetzky (via NESN) over the offseason, Rondo dished on his relationship with his former coach, Rivers, ultimately admitting he's difficult to guide:
I still am. It’s not that I’m hard to coach, it’s just that I may challenge what you say. I know the game myself, I’m out there playing the game. So, I may have saw something different versus what you saw from the sideline. I’m going to be respectable. I’m going to let the coach talk.
Rivers is a decorated coach; a champion. If he and Rondo butted heads, what's to become of rookie head coach Brad Stevens? Coaching at the NBA level is new to him, and the Celtics can't afford for Rondo and him to be anything but meant for each other.
On that front, it's so far so good.
"Our relationship is fine," Rondo said of Stevens, per D'Amico. "We talk everyday; he sends me texts all the time. He's given me a second book now to read. I haven't read this much since college."
Game play is a different animal. Picturing Rondo and Stevens feverishly texting each other back and forth into the wee hours of the morning is both comical and encouraging. But things change when the buzzer sounds and Rondo is in the game.
Sheridan Hoops' Chris Sheridan reported that Rivers wanted to leave Boston because of his "intense dislike" for the point guard. True or not, any struggles he had coaching Rondo aren't comforting.
Maybe Stevens' new-age numbers approach will resonate with Rondo. It seems it already has. Perhaps, "Best Friends Forever" lower-back tattoos are to follow. But more than painful branding, the Celtics just need these two continuously clicking, like they are now.
Teams can't built around players who aren't on board with the coach. It can't happen. Usually, it's the coach who goes when the two sides start to clash. In Boston, it could be the other way around if this experiment fails.
Rondo, if he values his standing within the organization, must hope it doesn't come to that.
Age, Direction and Uncertain Expectations
Press the reset button; Rondo is starting over.
The next stage of his career is staring him in the face, only he can barely hold its gaze. Not for fear of leading the Celtics on his own, coexisting with Stevens or returning to action, but because he is blind for the time being.
Those not convinced (like myself) the Celtics are prepared to carry on with Rondo have legitimate concerns. Pushing 28, he's not your conventional building block. Not for the path Boston is prepared to travel.
Established superstars aren't often the pride and joy of rebuilding (or tanking) contingents. When the team's plan is to reload immediately, maybe. Boston isn't preparing to stage a free-agency coup next summer, though. It can't.
There are nearly $49 million worth of guaranteed contracts on the Celtics' books heading into 2014-15. Fellow superstars won't be able to join Rondo until 2015, when the team has cap space. At which time, Rondo will be approaching 30 and unsure of how close to contention the Celtics really are.
This team is rebuilding. Immediately, draft picks are the only relief coming their way. General manager Danny Ainge has amassed more first-round selections than Wrigley produces gum. All he has done suggests the Celtics plan to replenish their ranks through the draft and develop from within. Rondo may not have that kind of time. The Celtics may not have any plans to give it to him, either.
Rondo is owed a shade under $25 million over the next two years, and it's one of the most reasonable contracts out there. Upon return, the Celtics could dangle him as part of a salary dump, ridding themselves of Wallace's hefty contract and snagging more draft picks in the process.
For all we know, Rondo's career with the Celtics hasn't just reached a turning point, it's drawing to a close. Or this could be the beginning of the rest of his career, the time in which he cements his legacy as one of the best players the franchise has ever employed.
"I’ll know when it’s right," said Rondo, per ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg. "Everybody is different, each injury is different... For me, when I come back, I won’t come back unless I know I’m myself again."
Once he's himself again, we'll have an idea of whether Rondo's coming back to fight for the Celtics and his legacy within the organization, or if he'll inevitably be forced to move on from Boston entirely.