Their 10-12 record, while not great, defies logic. Rookie head coach. Injured star point guard. Overpaid veterans. Ransacked roster. This team should be horrible. Awful. Reminiscent of what we're seeing from the Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. Not atop the Atlantic Division, with the sixth-highest winning percentage in the Eastern Conference.
Sans Rajon Rondo.
Have I dropped his name enough? Can't help myself; can't even drop it enough. The Celtics don't have Rondo and this is where they're at—in the playoff picture. The thick of the playoff picture.
Threatening to become the league's least successful tank job upon Rondo's return.
Groundwork Is Laid
Know who led the team in assists heading into Sunday? Jordan Crawford (5.3). Points? Jeff Green (16.7). Know how many stars they have? Legitimately recognized superstars? Zero.
Tremendous job being done by Brad Stevens. Boston plays energized, they execute. Stevens a big reason this team has been a huge surprise— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) December 8, 2013
All this without Rondo. And a bottom-10-ranked offense. Defense has carried the Celtics this far. They ranked in the top 11 of defensive efficiency before their rout of the Knicks, a standing that will only increase after allowing just 73 points. That won't likely change, even when Rondo returns. Their offense will.
Offense is Rondo's business. Setting up teammates, confusing defenses, being a general assignment nuisance—that's what he does. That's the player Boston's offense will eventually get back.
Rondo won't drill threes, and there will be times, mostly when he's not playing on national television, when you'll want to rip him out of the game, but he's a star. Legitimate star.
His career offensive rating (106), is nearly five points higher than Boston's this season (101.4). He dished out 11.1 assists per game before going down last season, roughly seven fewer dimes than the Celtics were dropping as a team 21 games into the season (18.2).
Does that scare you? If you're a fan of another Eastern Conference contingent, it should.
It's almost like the Celtics are better coached and play harder and have smarter players and are a better organization and will always be.— Jim Cavan (@JPCavan) December 8, 2013
The East is bad; historically dreary. Boston should be right there with the rest. On some nights, it is.
On others, the Celtics are leaving Florida with a last-second victory over the Miami Heat...embarrassing the Knicks on their own turf...showing the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks their rosters look good, but not good enough...proving that there is heart in this roster of outcasts and prospects before there was ever supposed to be.
How Much Better?
These Celtics, these current Rondo-less Celtics, are buying what coach Brad Stevens is preaching. Rondo himself is doing the same.
"Me and Brad have become best friends," Rondo said in October, per Boston.com's Gary Dzen. "We talk every day, we laugh and joke. We just had dinner the other night. I'm going to help him, he's going to help me."
Wait, it gets better. Less funny, more serious; less split-a-milkshake, more watch-out-everyone.
"He has my full support," Rondo continued. "I told him from Day 1 when he came to my camp that I'm behind him 100 percent. Whatever he wants to do, whatever he wants to change, I have an open mind. I'm ready to listen and to be accountable for what he wants to do."
Now this just isn't fair. An engaged, never-easy-to-coach Rondo is developing a deep-rooted rapport with his young head coach? Blasphemy.
But it's happening. A pleased Rondo will inevitably rejoin the Celtics, making an already surprising team—an already playoff-bound team—even better.
Three teams in the Eastern Conference are above .500 and four are at least .500 (see: Eastern Conference stinks), and the Celtics are right there. When Rondo comes back, if he's even a semblance of the revolving double-double he was, the Celtics could be an above-.500 team, too.
In Eastern Conference-speak, that means they could be the third-best team. Third. It could happen.
If Rajon Rondo comes back at 80-85% of last year's Rajon Rondo, Boston could be the third best team in the Eastern Conference.— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) December 8, 2013
With Rondo—a healthy, committed Rondo—it will happen.
Letting It Happen
Things could go wrong. That happens, too. But this roster's fight won't suddenly disappear. Anything that goes wrong, that deviates from the current dynamic, will be premeditated.
General manager Danny Ainge has said numerous times the Celtics aren't tanking, and I'm starting to believe him.
Danny Ainge to Globe: "We are not tanking. Thats ridiculous. This is the Boston Celtics." #celtics— gary washburn (@GwashburnGlobe) July 1, 2013
Sophomore Jared Sullinger has echoed those sentiments, and I believe him, too.
Jared Sullinger: "We just want to win and show everybody that they can kiss our butts about that tanking stuff."— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) December 2, 2013
Kiss his butt, though, I will not—not yet.
Grantland's Bill Simmons says that Rondo "wants a max extension and wants to compete now (and not later)."
If rebuilding truly isn't something he's interested in, that contempt will rear its ugly head eventually.
Boston isn't a contender. Let's make that clear. If the Celtics make the playoffs, the magic ends there in the first or second round. Is Rondo willing to wait around beyond that? Doesn't matter. He's under contract through next season. Deal with it, Rajon.
But that's if the Celtics elect to deal with it. They say they're not tanking, but the worst place to be in the NBA—aside from one of New York's five boroughs right now—is the middle. Little is to be gained by fielding a late-lottery or early-postseason-exit team.
Assuming the Celtics retain Rondo, what's their ceiling in the Eastern Conference once he's healthy?
Blowing It Up, Part II could take place. That really could happen, too. So many things could. The temptation to rid themselves of a bad contract or two—and improve their chances of landing an impact player or two in the draft—could compel the Celtics to dampen this party.
For Rondo to make the Celtics better, the organization has to let him return. Keep him. Allow him to play.
Rondo is sprinting up and down the court, according to The Boston Globe's Baxter Holmes, but his return date, much like his future, is unknown.
Soon, the ceiling of this Boston team will be. And if they're truly committed to Rondo, and he to them, more surprises are on the way. Better victories. Better offensive sets.
Followed by the sounds of potentially 12 other Eastern Conference teams puckering up, preparing to kiss the collective butt of Rondo's Celtics.