When Rajon Rondo returns to the Boston Celtics, the four-time All-Star will unquestionably be the team’s best player. Where once we thought this month was out of the question, Rondo's reappearance is reportedly happening Friday, per Chris Forsberg and ESPN.
Though his rehab seems to have gone smoothly and ahead of schedule, that doesn't mean his acclimation won't arrive without an avalanche of questions. How will he fit into his new head coach's system? What can we expect from him on the court after a catastrophic injury?
Point guards and their knees have unfortunately clashed far too often over the past few seasons. Eric Bledsoe, Ricky Rubio, Derrick Rose, John Wall and Russell Westbrook all suffered various ailments, some more serious than others.
Towards the end of a January 25 contest against the Atlanta Hawks in 2013, Rondo joined that list after tearing his ACL. It ended his season along with Boston’s era of championship contention.
In the nine months since suffering the injury—and the eight months since undergoing surgery to repair it—the Celtics have stabilized, bringing in wunderkind Brad Stevens to replace Rivers.
Stevens has the Celtics working tirelessly on both ends, making up for their lack of talent by capitalizing on the growing strengths in each rotation player. Jared Sullinger has evolved for the better, as have Avery Bradley, Jordan Crawford (sort of), Brandon Bass and Jeff Green.
Rondo's Offensive Impact Will Stretch Beyond Individual Numbers
Before his injury, Rondo was one of the best passers in the league. Nobody averaged more assists in 2012 (11.7 per game) and 2013 (11.1 in 38 starts).
While on the floor, he also assisted on 50.9 percent of all his team’s baskets over the past two years, a sensational mark that’s slightly better than John Stockton’s career average. Rondo’s 40.87 career assist rate is fifth all-time.
This season the Celtics are averaging 1.22 assists per turnover, the worst ratio in the league. The team lacks consistent playmaking from any one player, with Crawford standing as the only contributor averaging more than three assists per game. (Newcomer Jerryd Bayless is above that mark as well, but has only played in five games.)
No surprise, then, that Rondo should help. He’ll run pick-and-rolls with Sullinger, Bass and Kelly Olynyk, getting them outside shots from the perimeter and easier looks at the rim after drawing the defense’s attention on forays into the paint.
But on his own, it’s tough to picture Rondo suddenly emerging as the team’s leading scorer, which is something the Celtics need him to become more than ever.
He’s never averaged more than 14 points per game; his average last season tied a career best of 13.7. Rondo’s usage rate has also never rivaled his fellow All-Star point guards. Despite having the ball in his hands quite a bit over the past few seasons, his career-high is just 21.7 percent, and it came last season.
That figure would put Rondo behind Sullinger, Crawford, Jeff Green and Avery Bradley’s output so far this year. He simply hasn't been the finisher his talent suggests he should be, even though his mid-range shot has steadily improved over the past few years.
Here are two shot charts. The first is from 2010 (when he posted career-bests in PER and effective field goal percentage) and then it’s 2013.
Despite missing live game action for quite some time, it’s unlikely Rondo’s shot has deteriorated. Last we saw, the mid-range was his candy land. In transition, expect him to avoid contact at the rim and instead continue shooting from 10 to 16 feet whenever the defense sags all the way into the paint.
It’s a shot Rondo’s shown he can hit, and Stevens will encourage him to pull up off high screens in the same way Bradley has all year long.
But that whole “avoiding contact” thing that Rondo has been known for will likely only get worse post-injury. His willingness to bang into big men in the paint and get to the free-throw line has been compromised throughout his career because of an inability to knock down free-throws.
Rondo has never averaged more than 3.5 free-throw attempts per game, and his career percentage is an abysmal 62.1 percent.
He averaged 5.1 attempts in the restricted area last season, per NBA.com/Stats (registration required). The year before he was at 5.4. Not a major decrease, but his shots in the paint (non-restricted area)—a less dangerous space reserved for floaters—went from 1.8 to 1.4 per game.
Rondo saw his free-throw attempts drop by one per game from 2012 to 2013, too. As a point guard who’s yet to develop a three-point shot (career 24.1 percent shooter who hit 24.0 percent last season), the free-throw line is the next best alternative for Rondo to tally efficient points for his team.
Given his knee issue, it’s more probable he spends the rest of 2014 sharpening his range than risk further injury trying to live at the free-throw line, a place Rondo’s become increasingly allergic to over the years.
This season the Celtics have been one of the slowest teams in the league. Would they push the pace with Rondo at the helm? Why not?
In 2012, Boston was 1.41 possessions per 48 minutes faster than their average with Rondo on the court and 2.26 possessions per 48 minutes slower when he sat.
Only counting the games that took place before Rondo tore his ACL, last season the Celtics posted a pace 3.04 possessions slower than their average when he was on the bench, according to NBA.com/Stats. It'd only make sense for Rondo to run more and more now that he's surrounded by younger players.
Helping Out On Defense
With his long arms, quick feet, swift reaction time and brilliant ability to identify which play the offense is running as their point guard or coach calls it out, Rondo is an integral defensive asset.
Opposing ball-handlers operating a pick-and-roll averaged just 0.68 points per possession when Rondo defended them, which was good for 32nd in the league last season, according to mySyngerySports. These numbers are nice—and Rondo is a physical marvel who can stay in front of the world's fastest players—but they're not the best indicator of overall effectiveness as an individual defender.
Pick-and-roll defense, especially the way Boston played it, took an entire team effort, with constant rotations from all five guys.
As someone who carries immense responsibility with the ball, Rondo's impact on the other end has lessened over the years. A bit too often he tip-toes over the line between properly executing a game plan and gambling to create turnovers.
And with Bradley on board to lock down the opposing team's best guard, Rondo has been even greedier, jumping passing lanes and roaming off his man to help elsewhere. This could conflict with Stevens' defensive approach of making sure the three-point line is guarded tightly at all times.
According to NBA.com/Stats, Boston's opponents are shooting just 34.2 percent from behind the three-point line this season, converting 6.3 per 48 minutes (fourth toughest in the league). It'll be interesting to see if Rondo buys in and stays accountable for his man or continues to play with risk.
His work on the glass is yet another area that makes Rondo so peculiarly gifted. He's that rare guard who's allowed to spring for missed shots before pushing the ball in transition. Thanks to their small front line, the Celtics have instituted a team-rebounding approach, especially on the defensive end; everyone's helping out (Bradley is pulling in nearly twice his career average).
Will Rondo's rebounding numbers get even better? It's certainly possible.
Rondo's vision, intelligence and ability to make teammates better will not be limited in his return, and it wouldn't be surprising to see him back at double-digit assist numbers after a couple weeks of getting his feet wet.
Rondo relies less on athleticism than unpredictable guile. He understands angles and anticipates movement better than all but two or three NBA players, and a torn ACL will not affect those things in the long-term.
He already has experience playing with Sullinger, Bass, Green and Bradley, so the process of learning teammate tendencies won't be that difficult. Rondo is valuable because he makes all who play with him better.
The individual numbers—rebounding and scoring especially—may not reach career-highs, but Rondo's impact as a primary on-court decision-maker will decrease the team's dire turnover percentage, increase the tempo and eventually improve a team that has looked lost.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.