Rajon Rondo: The Consummate Boston Celtics Star and Face of the Franchise
Leading up to the NBA's trade deadline, Rajon Rondo was subject to fierce trade speculation. The seemingly distant, sometimes stubborn Celtics point guard responded to speculation with force, churning out three triple-doubles in the month before the trade deadline (all of which coming in Celtic victories). While the Celtics' season has been less predictable than a March Madness bracket, Rondo's response to trade speculation and doubt demonstrates that he can be the consummate Boston basketball star.
A Point Guard's League
The NBA is becoming an increasingly point guard centric league, and solid point guard play is important for any successful team.
Here are a few examples of how point guards are important to a team's success from the past:
The Suns of the mid-2000's. While Amar'e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion certainly helped Steve Nash push the Suns deep into the playoffs during the mid-2000s, Steve Nash carried the Suns through Stoudemire's knee injury in 2005 to the Western Conference Finals, garnering his second MVP in two years. Right now, Nash is the primary reason the Suns are in contention for a playoff spot at all.
The 2011 Bulls. In last year's playoffs, the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat faced off in the Eastern Conference Finals. The two powerhouses slugged it out for five games, and the Heat emerged victorious because they shut down the 2011 MVP Derrick Rose. The knock on the Bulls offense last season, and this season to a lesser extent, is their over-reliance on Derrick Rose's ability to control a game. While this demonstrates that there are other facets to a championship team, the Bulls' number one seed demonstrates that point guards can carry a team to great success.
The importance of point guards is even more obvious this season.
Chris Paul left the Hornets, and they have sunk to a top-five lottery team without his guidance. It is true that there was not much other talent on the roster, and that the Hornets have gotten unlucky with injuries, but the Hornets made it to the playoffs last season and pushed the Lakers to six games with Chris Paul.
The Cavaliers were 19-63 last season following the departure of LeBron James, but after drafting Kyrie Irving from Duke last year, they are an improved 17-27 and on course to surpass last year's win total.
The Minnesota Timberwolves did not top 20 wins in the past two seasons with Kevin Love on the roster. Kevin Love is great, but he is not the reason for the Timberwolves' success this season. While Rick Adelman has done a great job with the T'Wolves, Ricky Rubio's arrival from Spain is primarily responsible for the team's success and recent slide. With Rubio, they were challenging for a playoff seed in the strong Western Conference. Without him, they are 2-5 and quickly sinking in the standings.
Perhaps the most notable example of a point guard sparking a team's success this season has been that of Jeremy Lin and the Knicks. In early February, the Knicks were floundering until Mike D'Antoni put Harvard graduate Jeremy Lin in charge of the offense, and the Knicks reeled of seven straight wins behind their blossoming point guard. Not to mention Stoudemire and Anthony did not play several of those games.
Point guard play is crucial to a team's success in today's NBA. I'm not saying it determines success, but there is a strong correlation between point guard play and a team's success.
Many coaches see point guards as their floor generals, imposing the coaches' system on other players and improving teammates' play. This is especially true of the Celtics' coach, Doc Rivers, a former NBA point guard. Despite media reports of tension, Rivers has repeatedly voiced his faith in Rondo's ability to carry the Celtics.
Is Rivers' faith safe in Rondo's oversized hands? This slideshow is meant to show that it could not be safer anywhere else.
While many argue that Rondo cannot be the face of a franchise, few can argue against Rondo's immense talent.
Rondo possesses incredible speed that few in the NBA can match. This gets hidden sometimes because the rest of the Celtics' starting five is a half-court team at this point in their careers—one of the knocks on Rondo and the Celtics is that their offense sometimes grinds to a halt. Of course, Rondo wants to run, but his supporting cast can't keep up at times, forfeiting opportunities for offense and assists for Rondo.
Despite that fact, Rondo's 10.4 assists per game is second only to Steve Nash's 11 per game. Many argue that Rondo's assist numbers are inflated because he plays with three future Hall of Famers who provide him with more opportunities. As true as this may be, one could also argue that Nash plays, and has played, in more briskly paced systems under coaches Alvin Gentry and Mike D'Antoni. Each player has their advantages. I would go as far as to argue that if you switched Nash and Rondo, their assist numbers would both increase.
Many also argue that Rondo's shooting is suspect, however Rondo ranks top ten among NBA point guards in shooting percentage. Granted Rondo does not shoot as much as some other guards, but he makes more of his shots than people credit him for.
Perhaps Rondo's greatest asset is his ability to defend. Rondo made the 2nd All-Defensive team in 2009, and he made the 1st All-Defensive team in 2010 and 2011. His improvement to the first team in the past two seasons is significant because it weakens the argument that Rondo's ability as a defender relies on Kevin Garnett's backup. While Rondo relied on KG's help in earlier seasons, Rondo earned his first distinction in KG's injury plagued season of '08-'09. As KG has aged more, Rondo has only stepped up his game, indicating that Rondo is responsible for much of his own defensive success. Statistically speaking, Rondo is one of the best rebounding point guards in the league, and he has been near the top of the league in steals for the past few years.
This slide is not meant to disguise or omit Rondo's deficiencies, but rather to celebrate his talents and their relevance to success as an NBA franchise point guard.
To sum up Rondo's numbers, thanks to ESPN:
Stat: average per game (rank among point guards)
FG%: 45.5% (9th)
Assists: 10.4 (2nd)
Rebounds: 4.8 (4th)
Steals: 1.8 (6th)
Why would you trade that type of production, especially when Rondo is locked up for the next few years at a reasonable rate?
For those who still doubt Rondo's talent, allow me to add this. According to ESPN statistics, eight players have registered triple-doubles this season.
One player has registered more than one triple-double—Rondo, who has registered four.
Here is a list of some other point guards who have scored triple-doubles over the past three seasons: Jason Kidd, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and last year's MVP Derrick Rose. Not bad company.
Which player has led the league in triple doubles over the past three seasons? If you answered LeBron James, nice try, but the answer is Rajon Rondo, with nine (James has eight).
Rondo's ability to tally triple doubles further demonstrates his immense talent.
Even if Rondo's talent cannot carry a team, he's good for the Celtics' franchise because fans like myself will attend games just to watch Rondo play because his style of play is so exciting.
Comparison to Former Celtics Greats
While many waver on Rondo's ability to lead a franchise, it is interesting to observe some similarities between Rondo and some other Celtics greats.
Before I go into my point for this slide, I must emphasize, this is not about comparing Rondo's skill set to those of Russell, Bird, or any other Celtics great.
However, both Russell and Bird in particular share Rondo's stubbornness and distant nature. Russell buckled down in the face of racial adversity in the 1960s to win 11 championships in 13 seasons.
While the nation fell in love with Magic Johnson's charisma and flashy play, Larry Bird quietly, and stubbornly, pushed the Celtics to three championships.
I was extremely surprised when the Lakers were mentioned several times as a trade partner for Rondo, not only because the Celtics trading Rondo to the Lakers would be like the Red Sox trading Dustin Pedroia to the Yankees, but also because Rondo would not fit the culture in Los Angeles. Most Lakers stars, such as Bryant and Johnson, love the spotlight of LA and thrive in it. Rondo may fit in Mike Brown's system but he prefers to remain detached from the media, which is an impossibility in LA.
In the 2011 playoffs, Rondo dislocated his elbow during game three of the Eastern Conference semi-finals. The gruesome injury would have sidelined most players, but Rondo played the rest of the game, willing the Celtics to victory. While the Celtics did not win the series, Rondo's decision to play through the pain echoes the toughness of other Celtics greats. Larry Bird played through excruciating back pain in the latter part of his career, and Kevin McHale played on a broken foot for a whole season. Rondo's ability to play through pain is something few other NBA players can match.
Rondo is popular in the league despite his loner mentality, not unlike Bird and Russell.
What This Means for the Future
It is generally accepted that the Big Three era in Boston will end after this season. Whether that means retirement or allowing players to leave, Paul Pierce is the only member of the trio under contract after this season.
Rondo's potential to succeed Pierce as the face of the franchise suggests that the Celtics will try to build around Rondo's talents.
Yes, Rondo's name was thrown around in trade rumors, but I think for the most part, Ainge has been trying to build for a Rondo-based future. Here's some evidence:
1) The Celtics drafted Avery Bradley in 2010. Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge reasoned that they picked Bradley because his defensive prowess. Analysts suggested that while Bradley was the best defender in the draft, his inconsistent jump shot was his weakness. That sounds just like someone else on the Celtics roster. Who better to back up Rondo than Bradley, a player of a similar defensive caliber and similar offensive weapons. The Celtics could take some of the load off Rondo and shift it onto Bradley without changing much in the offense.
2) While many will disagree viciously with me on this one, here's a different spin on the Kendrick Perkins trade from a year ago. For those of you who do not remember, the Celtics traded center Kendrick Perkins, Rondo's best friend on the team, and Nate Robinson to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green, Nenad Kristic's expiring contract, and the Clippers' first round pick for the 2012 draft.
While getting rid of Perkins undoubtedly hurt Rondo, Perkins' style of play was that of a bruiser. He used power rather than athleticism on offense. He fit more with the older Celtics better than he did with Rondo, and Robinson was expendable because the front office thought they had Rondo's backup in Avery Bradley. In return, the Celtics got more cap room for the upcoming season in Kristic's contract, an athletic swingman to possibly succeed Paul Pierce and run with Rondo, and a first-round draft pick from the Clippers to add another young player to keep up with Rondo. The draft pick is most indicative of the front office's support of Rondo. The office gave up a key piece of the 2011 championship puzzle in favor of a future young prospect from the Clippers, who were still a bad team at the time of this trade. This trade was not about winning now, but rather about getting ready to pass the baton to Rondo. While Perkins was an integral part of the locker room and many, including myself, hated the Perkins trade, perhaps some of the discord in the Celtics locker room that season can be attributed to the realization that Ainge was building for the future beyond the Big Three and not for the Big Three.
3) Through all the trade speculation over the past few months, Rondo is still a member of the Boston Celtics, which testifies to his value to the franchise. My guess is that, in this upcoming offseason, the Celtics will start to stock up on younger, athletic players to compliment Rondo's abilities.
As a Celtics fan, I can confidently say that the Celtics' future is in good hands.