This article’s headline asks a difficult question, one filled with many unanswerable variables: How far can the Boston Celtics go with a four-time All-Star point guard as their best player?
Two seasons ago, Rondo was Boston’s best player. The team unexpectedly showed up in the Eastern Conference Finals and traded uppercuts with the eventual champion Miami Heat. That year, Rondo was marvelous in 19 playoff games, posting a 22.0 PER and postseason-high assist rate that doesn’t even register as logical (54.0 percent!).
In the Eastern Conference Finals, he was arguably the best player in the world, guarded by LeBron James (actually the best player in the world) and Dwyane Wade for extensive stretches.
In 45.2 minutes per game, he averaged 20.9 points (on 48.8 percent shooting), 11.3 assists and 6.9 rebounds. He notched a triple-double in Game 7 and a 44-point exercise in all things flawless during Game 2.
The point: He was magnificent, and there’s no reason to believe he won't do something like that again.
This is where things get tricky. Rondo has weaknesses just like any other player. He doesn’t stretch the floor (yet) and is petrified of the free-throw line.
Like all great players, he needs a capable supporting cast to have any chance at team-wide success. He needs fellow All-Stars in the form of an efficient secondary ball-handler to take over when the team absolutely needs a bucket. He needs three-point shooters. He needs rim protection and rebounders and defensive savants.
All great players need those things, and Rondo is a great player. For six years, he was an irreplaceable cog in Boston’s championship-hungry machine.
But all great teams have more than one irreplaceable cog.
The Chicago Bulls weren’t winning any championships without Scottie Pippen. The Los Angeles Lakers weren’t winning any championships without Pau Gasol. The Miami Heat aren’t winning any championships without Chris Bosh.
Rondo can be the best player on a champion contender, but he won’t be leaps and bounds above whoever’s second. He’ll never be a primary scorer. But that’s fine, because perhaps nobody in the league is better at elevating his teammates' play.
Rondo doesn’t find passing angles so much as he creates them from nothing. He anticipates movement into space before who he plans to fill it knows what’s going on. It’s special.
He also rebounds and defends. A photographic memory allows him to shout out offensive signals and put his teammates in the best position to defend the rim. He’s studious.
This article’s headline also asks whether building around Rondo is a smart decision at this stage in his career. It’s easy to look at that wondrous playoff performance two short years ago and say, “See, he can totally do it!” But, in reality, that team was perfect for him and had three Hall of Fame players and a Hall of Fame coach.
The next six years of Rondo’s career will probably not be as successful as the past six. That doesn’t mean the Celtics can’t win a championship, just that the particular situation he found himself in was extremely rare, and the team could well be prepared for organic growth more so than blockbuster upheaval.
The question then mutates into different forms of “is Rondo a franchise player?” or “is building around Rondo a smart decision?” Both questions are complex like the headline.
Rondo is a point guard, and the last team to win a championship with a point guard as its best player was either the 2007 San Antonio Spurs (Tim Duncan has a serious problem including them here) or the 2004 or 1990 Detroit Pistons.
Rondo isn’t like Tony Parker or Isiah Thomas. He doesn’t score first or look for his own shot before setting someone else up. This makes him winning a title as Boston’s best player not likely, but not impossible either.
Today’s Celtics are young and lack experience. Next season, they will probably be even younger, wading into battle with even less experience on the margin. It’s here where Rondo, a point guard, is the perfect piece. He knows how to make players comfortable, how to feed their sweet spots and how to control the game’s tempo.
Boston has a lot of work to do before we see another meaningful 40-point detonation from Rondo. But the organization should sleep knowing it already has its most important piece in place.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.