When Rajon Rondo returns to the Boston Celtics, the team will have its franchise cornerstone back. That’s the one real guarantee that comes for a player returning from an injury as serious as a torn ACL.
There are, however, several expectations to be made about how Rondo will perform on both ends of the court, taking into account his injury and the new cast of players around him.
His return will impact the rotation, sure. But more important will be the ultimate effect Rondo has on those who remain in it. Players who’ve never, or barely, been his teammate before.
Here are a few speculative considerations about how Rondo should fare as an active, healthy member of the 2013-14 Boston Celtics.
Worrisome Offensive Tendencies Could Get Worse
Rondo is a fantastic offensive basketball player whose unconventional playing style has always worked to his advantage. More so than other point guards, he’s spent his career utilizing his athleticism in so many different areas of the game, but the one spot on the floor that’s been his kryptonite is the free-throw line.
Rondo is a career 62.1 percent free-throw shooter. That’s bad, but not nearly as troublesome as the brief time he spends there. Before hurting himself last season, Rondo’s free-throw rate was .200, meaning that’s how many free throws he attempted per field-goal attempt. It’s a low number, especially for someone who attempted more shots at the rim than anywhere else.
In 19 games during the 2012 playoffs, his free-throw rate was .186. For his career, Rondo averages only 1.7 made free throws per game.
These numbers are significant and disturbing because Rondo does not possess shooting range that extends beyond the three-point line. For someone with the ball in his hands as much as he has it, Rondo needs to score efficiently in order to improve his team’s offense.
If Rondo feared contact before his consequential knee injury, there’s no reason to think he’ll seek it now. And that doesn’t bode well for him or the Celtics.
Who knows, maybe he’s developed a respectable three-point shot in his time away from live action. But that’s obviously unlikely. If he wants to impact the game in even more positive ways than he already does, he’ll need to develop as a scorer in one of these two areas (preferably both).
Working Off the Ball
Given the relatively sizable number of ball-handlers/playmakers on Boston’s roster who are capable of running something that sort of resembles an NBA offense, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens may try using Rondo off the ball a little more often than he's used to.
Jordan Crawford, newcomer Jerryd Bayless, Phil Pressey and even Jeff Green can make solid decisions out of the pick-and-roll. This allows Rondo to work more as a cutter (his most underrated ability) and lessens the load on a player coming back from serious injury.
Look for Stevens to play Rondo beside Crawford and Bayless a good amount, possibly as much or more than Avery Bradley. It won’t do wonders for Boston’s spacing, but Rondo is excellent at finding open spots, especially when his man’s attention is elsewhere.
Involving Everyone With the Pick-and-Roll
None of that means Rondo won’t still have the ball in his hands quite a bit. Since this season started, the Celtics have been one of the worst teams in the league at tallying assists. Their 19.1 assists per 48 minutes is currently tied with the Charlotte Bobcats for 28th in the league.
Their offense revolves around finding the first open look in transition, throwing it into the post or settling for a quick pull-up, mid-range jumper. In the half court, Rondo can create off the dribble or coming off a screen, and place teammates in advantageous situations.
His pick-and-roll work with Brandon Bass, Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Kris Humphries and Green should become the foundation of Boston's attack, and all those guys will benefit immensely, especially rolling to the rim.
But what makes Rondo so great is his vision after crossing that first line of defense. As he comes off a screen and begins to enter the paint, all three teammates who're presumably spotting up on the perimeter pose a threat to the defense.
Rondo sees them all and can hit any with a quick pass while the defense collectively sags towards the paint.
How Will Rondo Serve On Defense?
Rondo is a four-time member of the NBA's All-Defensive team (twice on the first-team), but don't expect him to defend starting point guards too often this season. Bradley is perhaps the best on-ball defender in basketball, and he will allow Rondo to defend spot-up shooters and less dangerous threats, allowing marginal rest.
In instances where Rondo is defending a pick-and-roll, it will be interesting to see if the Celtics have him switch when the screener isn’t an oversized behemoth. (As opposed to having him fight over or under picks.)
This could be especially useful when teams bring up Bass or Humphries to guard the pick-and-roll, because both have quick feet and can temporarily stay in front of guards. Stevens likes having his bigs sag back to force a mid-range jump shot. But in situations where larger players are handling the ball, he's allowed wings (like Gerald Wallace and Green) to switch assignments.
All this is to keep Rondo healthy without sacrificing Boston's ability to get stops. Defending the pick-and-roll is the most physical task a guard has on defense, and limiting it for Rondo makes sense.
Rondo is a virtuous passer and could still easily average double-digit assists once Stevens is comfortable ratcheting up his playing time to around 35 minutes per game.
Some other parts of the comeback are concerning, specifically surrounding how he reacts to contact, but if he doesn't return to All-Star form by the end of the year, it shouldn't concern anybody.
Rondo hasn't played professional basketball in nearly 12 months, and the rust that comes with such an extended layoff is natural and expected. When he does return, it won't be for an entire 82-game slate, and there's a strong chance Boston won't qualify for the playoffs either.
Individual expectations shouldn't be too high, but there's no doubt Rondo will make this poor Celtics team better.