Realistic Expectations for Rajon Rondo's Return

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Realistic Expectations for Rajon Rondo's Return
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

There are no more riddles to crack or subtle hints to pick up on"barring any setbacks," Rajon Rondo will log his first minutes of the NBA season on Friday night.

Those were the words of Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, via ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg. After nearly 12 grueling months of rehabbing from a torn ACL, Rondo's body finally seems ready to allow him to return.

Assuming the present is now set in stone, what will come next?

How will he handle going from a team with title hopes to one hoping to climb the draft board? How will the glaring spotlight treat him now that Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers are no longer sharing it with him?

We all remember the unique brand of dominance Rondo brought to the hardwood. But just how might his post-injury form look?

 

Limited Doses Early On

His playing time will be controlled. The flashes of brilliance may come even fewer and further between.

"His minutes will be limited to start, and I don’t know if that’s going to happen for weeks or months or what," Ainge said, via Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald. "He’ll probably be playing five minutes per quarter, approximately."

Easing him into the process makes plenty of sense. He has nearly a year's worth of rust to scrape off.

"I don't think we can expect him to be Game 7 Rajon Rondo," head coach Brad Stevens said, via DeAntae Prince of Sporting News.

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

There are adjustments he'll have to make, but this first will be more challenging than it sounds. He averaged better than 36 minutes in each of the last four seasons. He hasn't seen less than 29 minutes of work since his rookie season of 2006-07.

It could be a long time before he even sees that much action.

He's a control freak, in a good way. He sets the tempo for his team, knowing precisely when to push the pedal and when to back off of it.

But the game speed might set itself. There's a certain flow to an NBA contest, and he might find it easier to jump in at the pace it's being played as opposed to trying to stop and restart momentum. With just five minutes per session, he doesn't have long to make his mark.

Hopefully, he's established some type of rapport with his teammates on the practice floor.  He only has in-game experience with four of the players around him: Brandon Bass, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green and Jared Sullinger.

The first message these new partners need to hear is this: hands up at all times.

"He likes to pass," first-year Celtic Gerald Wallace said, via Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe. "He’ll throw the pass in difficult situations. He makes passes that you’re not even looking for."

It will be interesting to see just how much of a premium Rondo will place on distribution.

Obviously, that's a big part of his game (11-plus assists in each of his last three seasons), but he doesn't have nearly as many weapons around him. Only two players (Green and Bradley) have higher scoring averages (15.7 and 14.8, respectively) than Rondo's career 11.1 output.

His court vision might be the best in the business, but it can't spot scorers that don't exist. If he's forced to embrace a selfishness he's never shown over his first seven seasons, he could be facing a long road back to All-Star production.

 

Change for the Better?

It could very well be. Over the long haul, of course.

First, he needs to rebuild his confidence. As Ainge noted, via Bulpett, that's often the most important part of the recovery process:

What I’ve seen throughout my professional basketball career is that the ACL injury is something that every player has to overcome and coming back mentally, not just physically. I anticipate some adjustments, and just getting used to playing and feeling confident and returning to the player that he was.

Rondo has to find trust in his surgically repaired joint. That means no hesitation on cuts, no second guesses on hard plants and no shying away from contact.

There's a reason he's not facing the same should-he-change-his-play-style questions as fellow injured floor generals Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook. Rondo wouldn't have that option available to him even if he wanted it.

With no semblance of a three-point stroke (24.1 percent for his career), he has to attack the basket to be effective.

Via NBA.com.
Rondo's 2012-13 shot chart.

Those attacks will have to come more often than they have in the past, too. Luckily, he has the talent needed to expand his offensive role.

Flanked by those two future Hall of Famers last season, aggression was optional for Rondo. He had enough pieces around him that if he just took advantage of those players, the Celtics could find a way to win.

However, when he took on a scorer's mentality, he walked away with a scorer's stat sheet. During the 12 games in which he attempted at least 15 shots last season, he averaged 18.6 points on 46.8 percent shooting.

That number would have him tied for the 30th highest scoring average this season. He'd also have the 12th best field-goal percentage of that group.

He won't have any scoring titles in his future, but there's no reason he can't shatter his previous best scoring mark (13.7, in both 2009-10 and 2012-13).

His assist category is likely to take a hit given the downgraded roster, but the rest of his stat line could well hold steady or even improve (relative to his playing time, of course). He's not going to lose his length (6'9" wingspan) nor his heart, and as Rose showed earlier this season, complete athleticism can return after an ACL procedure.

With roughly three months remaining before the playoffs, though, Rondo's facing a race against time to show those improvements yet this season.

There's an even bigger question hovering over his return. Will Celtics fans be the ones reaping the rewards from this new and (eventually) improved Rondo?

 

Should He Stay or Should He Go?

Rondo's had enough time to process this new reality.

He knows who these Celtics arelosers in 12 of their last 14 games. This is a franchise in transition with a young coach who has all the time he needs to right this ship.

None of this will surprise Rondo. I just can't see those problem-child concerns that some have about the mercurial point guard actually coming to the surface.

If Ainge moves Rondo, what should he focus on bringing back?

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What I can easily see, though, is Ainge facing a lot of sleepless nights ahead of him.

He's said he doesn't want to trade Rondo, and he may very well mean that. Then again, he probably didn't want to part ways with Pierce, Garnett and Rivers either, but circumstances dictated his actions.

If Rondo finds anything close to his old form between now and the Feb. 20 trade deadline, Ainge's phone will surely be ringing off the hook. Boston's nowhere close to competing for anything of substance, and it would be extremely difficult for Ainge to walk away from a rebuild-friendly offer of expiring contracts, rising prospects, draft picks or any combination of the three.

Those offers haven't started coming yet. No one really knows exactly how Rondo will look in his return.

That knowledge is coming, though. Temptation for Boston's front office is sure to follow.

Barring any setbacks, of course.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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