At times last season, Rajon Rondo was the best point guard in the league, a threat to break the NBA single-season record for assists, a brooding disappointment whose best friend’s trade may or may not have been partially to blame, a nightly triple-double who destroyed the Knicks, and the one-armed criminal from The Fugitive, if the one-armed criminal from The Fugitive played valiantly in a playoff basketball series after losing movement in his arm. Rondo was alternately brilliant and disinterested, wonderfully creative and oddly hesitant, the piece that drove the Celtics and the piece that held them back.
As the careers of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen fade to black, the Celtics will become Rondo’s team, more so than they already are. Though Celtics fans resented it when Mike D’Antoni remarked, “I’d like to see him play in Minnesota and see how he does,” there’s still an unknown factor surrounding all of Rondo’s accomplishments to date. He undoubtedly benefits from playing with a number of sure-fire Hall of Famers — their threat gives him space to create, their high-percentage shooting boosts his assist totals, their mere presence loans camouflage to the nights when Rondo just doesn’t show up. With that in mind, we wonder how Rondo will evolve when the Big Three aren’t there as his crutch, when the team is his, when he is flanked by players who need him to lead nightly rather than just whenever he feels like it, when his occasional lapses in effort and focus are no longer hidden by the play of his fellow starters.
Really, the Celtics needed Rondo to lead them nightly last season. You cannot say his second-half struggles caused the team’s demise because there were far too many debilitating factors — among them a bench that couldn’t hold 15-point leads, a midseason trade that never panned out, and two centers who could barely walk never mind run — but Rondo became a decidedly worse player in the second half of the season, and that was precisely when the Celtics began to resemble the old, slowed team they spent the first half pretending not to be. When the Celtics were at their best last season, Rondo was setting the NBA world ablaze with nightly assist totals you couldn’t count with two hands. He was flitting in and out of passing lanes, snatching rebounds with either hand, and leading his teammates, even his more celebrated ones, both by example and with his words. The Celtics were Rondo’s team, but in the end, whether because of injuries, heartache or both, he could not sustain his record pace.
When Rondo did not deliver — in the Heat series, mostly because of his arm, and in the second half of the season, mostly for reasons we’re unsure of — the Celtics fell. The correlation between Rondo’s play and Boston’s play was clearly evident — before the All-Star break, Rondo averaged 10.9 points and 12.2 assists on 50.2% shooting while the Celtics compiled a 40-14 record. After the All-Star break, Rondo’s averages fell to 10.2 points and 9.4 assists on 43.1% shooting and the Celtics limped to a 16-12 finish.
But the Big Three were still there to serve as a parachute that made the fall less devastating. What will happen in 2014 if Rondo starts to mail in games? What will happen if the Celtics fail to reload, Rondo is their only star, and he still fails to deliver consistently? What happens if he needs to take on a bigger scoring role? Could he do that? Is he capable of adjusting to life beyond the Big Three? Does he need them?
It’s safe to say that Rajon Rondo will still succeed when the Big Three retire. With his speed, basketball IQ, creativity and grit, he’s clearly a talent capable of surviving without them. But to what extent will he thrive? To what extent will he miss his running mates? To what extent will Rondo’s game change when Ray Allen isn’t spotted up on the perimeter, Kevin Garnett isn’t running the pick-and-pop, and Paul Pierce isn’t lined up on the wing, a threat to score from anywhere? Will losing the Big Three hold Rondo back, or will losing them force him to focus more on his own game, without any more parachutes to decelerate his falls?
There are holes to Rondo’s game, and his biggest flaw remains as evident as the sun on a cloudless day. His broken jumper allows teams to defend him unconventionally — especially in a playoff series, when coaches are afforded more time to leverage game plans, good defensive teams can use Rondo’s horrific outside shooting to their advantage. Yes, Rondo’s playoff stats are normally comfortably above his regular season averages. But as the rounds progress and the Celtics face stiffer competition, Rondo shoots poorer percentages and his teammates get fewer open looks as opponents seek to exploit Rondo’s reluctance to shoot.
The lack of any semblance of a jumper limits Rondo’s progression. Without serious improvements to his shooting, Rondo could not, for example, become Derrick Rose, a point guard who is relied on to score, nor could Rondo become Chris Paul, who has become a deadly shooter in the past few seasons. He could not become Steve Nash, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, or John Stockton, who knocked down jumpers at an impressive rate.
No, Rajon Rondo is Rajon Rondo, not to be confused with anyone else, a fiercely unique player whose closest comparison is probably a young Ason Kidd (before he learned a “J”), a gifted defender who gambles too often, an aggressive rebounder in a 6’1 frame, a young point guard who has improved drastically each season, the weak link of the 2008 title team, the leader of a current (quasi-) contender, an emotional, surly, fun-loving, head-strong character who loves the child’s game Connect Four and has not yet had the chance to prove himself without the Big Three by his side. The time for that proof will inevitably come, and when it does Rondo will surely succeed, but to what extent we are not yet certain.