Rajon Rondo Must Use 2014-15 Season to Prove He's a Max-Contract Star

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Rajon Rondo Must Use 2014-15 Season to Prove He's a Max-Contract Star
USA Today

Rajon Rondo wants what he isn't worth.

Right now.

Speaking on Rondo's future with Yahoo Sports Radio, former Boston Celtics player and current radio analyst Cedric Maxwell said the star point guard was looking to get paid like, well, a megastar, per WEEI.com's Ben Rohrbach:

I think it basically gives you an indicator of what the Celtics want to do. Rumor has it that Rondo has asked for a $100 million extension. You’ve got Smart, the young kid, and you’ve got Young, the other kid from Kentucky—both guards. And in the NBA system right now, the way they’re being paid, you would pay both those guys probably about $4 million for one year instead of the $100 million right now that Rondo wanted to ask for.

Contract demands stand to define Rondo's future with the Celtics. But his reported price tag isn't about the Celtics. It's about him asking for more than he currently deserves from any team that will eventually consider signing him.

Soon enough, once the 2014-15 campaign begins, it will be about him proving his contractual mettle, establishing himself as someone worthy of the payday he seeks.

 

Healthy Improvement

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Teams will always be leery, if not completely averse, to handing superstars fresh off serious injuries max contracts.

It starts there for Rondo. He missed 52 games last season while rehabbing an ACL injury. There were flashes of the old, mobile, incisive Rondo upon his return, but he wasn't completely the same, sitting out back-to-backs and spending most of the year on a strict minutes cap.

Staying healthy for the entire season is imperative at this point. Durability sells in the grind-it-out NBA. Red flags, however insignificant, are powerful deterrents. Remaining on the court and logging consistently extensive minutes is a boon for his free-agent stock on its own.

Attention shifts to what he does with his health from there. He needs to improve his game so that it reflects and incorporates the skill set of legitimate superstars.

There is no questioning his playmaking abilities. Even during his transition-riddled 2013-14 campaign, and even though he was quarterbacking an inexperienced, lottery-bound supporting cast, he still managed to hand out 9.8 assists per game.

The most pressing uncertainty, as it's been for the last eight years, is the rest of his offensive repertoire. Can he take over as a scorer in addition to a passer? Can his statistical dominance become a reliable constant and not something that varies by game? 

Can his jump shot cross into the realm of fully developed?

Steve Babineau/Getty Images
Rondo needs to become a reliable shooter. Period.

That last one is a sore spot. Rondo's jumper is fluid in its effectiveness; it is indeterminable. Depending upon whom you speak with, there has been marked improvement, marginal improvement or a complete absence of improvement.

Optimism was at an all-time high when he first returned and was chucking three-pointers with more frequency, as CelticsBlog's Alex Skillin observed: 

But beyond the rust and inconsistency that Rondo has shown, one facet of his game has proven to be a pleasant surprise since his return in January. The 28-year-old’s jump shot, long his biggest weakness, has looked much improved so far this season.

While he has only played in 13 games (meaning many of his stats should be taken with a grain of salt), Rondo’s increased willingness to shoot more three-pointers is an encouraging sign. Thus far in 2014, he has taken 2.6 three-pointers per game and has nearly equaled the amount of three-point attempts he took back in 2011-12 despite playing in 40 less games.

Rondo continued to hoist bombs in volume, firing a career-high 90 long balls despite appearing in a career-low 30 games. The concept behind it makes sense. Spending less time in the paint is safer—easier on his fragile, recovering knee. 

But he still only connected on 28.9 percent of his treys—his best mark since 2008-09—and his mid-range game was shaky at best. He converted just 39.6 percent of his attempts between 10 and 24 feet, according to NBA.com.

Advocates of the "Don't Read Too Much into his Recuperating Year" persuasion will look to past seasons for answers. 

They will find some, but not many. 

Here's a look at how Rondo has performed on the perimeter since 2010-11:

Rondo's Efficiency Progression (FG%)
Year Less than 5 FT 5-9 FT 10-14 FT 15-19 FT 20-24 FT 25-29 FT
2010-11 59.5 26.3 33.3 43.6 30.8 25.0
2011-12 53.3 36.0 31.4 40.4 35.4 20.0
2012-13 56.7 41.5 33.3 47.0 44.7 25.9
2013-14 51.4 28.3 11.1 48.9 36.4 22.0

NBA.com

There has been some movement outside 15 feet. Between 5 and 14 feet, he has been mostly disastrous. We see the same thing at the free-throw line, where he is shooting just over 62 percent for his career. And he still can't shoot threes.

Point guards should have three-point range. If Rondo plans on staying in Boston, coasting by while clanging long-range bricks off the rim is no longer an option. For him to even have a puncher's chance at coexisting alongside the newly signed Avery Bradley and recently drafted Marcus Smart, he needs to expand his offensive game.

For him to even have hope of landing a max contract in free agency next summer, he needs to do the same—become a more consistent scorer and shooter, rounding out his game to include more than copious amounts of crafty dimes and the occasional stretch of pesky perimeter defense. 

 

Taking Control

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Max superstars are franchise cornerstones. 

Is Rondo a franchise cornerstone?

Three All-Star appearances, two assists titles and one championship later, we still don't know. The Celtics don't even know. 

Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were his safety nets for years. So was Doc Rivers. The Celtics were never his team. When he was considered the best player on the team, they still weren't his. They were Pierce's. They were Garnett's. Rondo, in so many ways, was a star point guard along for the ride.

All of that changed when team president Danny Ainge broke up the band and started hoarding assets ahead of an intricate rebuilding process. Suddenly the Celtics were Rondo's team. Everyone would finally see what he could do as the organizational mainspring. The actual cornerstone. The big cheese.

Eventually.

Last season's performance comes with an asterisk. Boston was neither built to win nor was Rondo capable of making the impact franchise lifelines must.

If 2013-14 was any indication of the impact Rondo can have as the lone star, it didn't portend anything good. Both the Celtics' offensive and defensive ratings were worse with him on the floor, per NBA.com.

Limited time demands he be given a pass. What kind of effect could he have in 30 games? Should the Celtics have gone better than 6-24 when he was in the lineup

One would hope so, but there were too many tainting variables—from forging chemistry with his teammates to regaining his game legs. 

Brian Babineau/Getty Images
As the leader, Rondo should render the Celtics more competitive.

Next season is Rondo's ultimate barometer.

The Celtics are, once again, tracking toward a lottery finish—unless they pull off a miracle trade for a second star. But in the wide-open, off-the-wall, crackpot Eastern Conference, any team has the opportunity to make noise when it houses one legitimate superstar.

With Rondo, the Celtics should, at the very least, be interesting. There should be noticeable improvements. There should be an opportunity for them to win far more than 25 games. They should rank higher than 27th in offensive efficiency. 

“I think he’s ready now,” Pierce said in January, per The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn. “Rondo is mature, he understood what was coming. Before he had me and Kevin to lean on, and now he’s the guy. He’s the captain, he is who everybody looks to for leadership and I think he’s ready."

Ready or not, next season is coming, bringing with it expectations he has never faced, stakes he has never met, career-defining stereotypes he has parenthetically eschewed.

 

Playing For Status

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

This is it for Rondo. The 2014-15 crusade is it. If there was ever a time for him to validate himself as a superstar worthy of a max contract, it's the upcoming season.

It's now.

His task is admittedly tough. No matter what he does, no matter how well he plays, no matter how much he elevates Boston's ceiling, there may be no max contracts out there.

Injuries will forever hang over his head. It doesn't help that he mans an incredibly deep position, either. You have to like his chances of being handsomely paid after the $48 million contract Kyle Lowry received from the Toronto Raptors, but there is still so much Rondo has to do before he's head-and-shoulders ahead of the pack.

Any team that offers him a max deal must have reasons to overlook all the baggage he comes with—age and health being the two most substantial factors.

“I’d say no," Sports On Earth's Michael Pina told Adam Kaufman of 98.5 The Sports Hub (via CBS Boston), "he’s 29-years-old and will be on the wrong side of 30 at the end of the contract.”

When Rondo signs his next deal, he'll be months removed from turning 29. He'll be 33 or 34 by the end of his new pact, something suitors will be very much aware of and hesitant to gloss over.

Overcoming age-related stigmas may prove impossible. And it most certainly won't be close to plausible if he fails to use 2014-15 as crystalline proof he's a star—that his game is something more than perpetually developing and his leadership skills and abilities more than promising.

Is Rajon Rondo worth a max contract?

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“I think Rondo’s going to have a great year next year,” Ainge said in April, via Washburn. “I think he’s going to have the best year of his career."

He better.

Wherever he is, whomever he's playing for, he better. 

There won't be a single max contract in sight—not from the Celtics, not from a desperate admirer looking to make a free-agency splash—if he doesn't.

 

*Salary information via ShamSports


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