The reasons I’d give myself are the same ones you’d probably give, assuming you agree with me: you don’t build around players who can be left completely unguarded in the biggest moments of the biggest games, you don’t build around players who work best at a tempo that’s tough to maintain during playoff baskeball, you don’t build around a guy whose effort and impact comes and goes, it seems, based on his mood.
You build around superstars. And Rondo is not a superstar.
At least I don’t think he is.
A few years ago, the common wisdom, as articulated in whiny cadence by analysts like Tony Parker, was that Rondo’s output was buttressed by his three Hall of Fame teammates. This was true, to the extent that any point guard who creates a lot of shots relies on teammates who make a lot of shots. But the fact that Rondo was not a dominant scorer, but rather a limited one, carried almost too much weight in the conversation around his value.
He was too strange to be immediately appreciated.
Over the last couple of years, our understanding has changed as Rondo has piled up some enormous games, like the 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists he used to bury Cleveland in the 2010 playoffs, and the 32, 10 and 15 he put up yesterday. On certain nights, Rondo does things almost no one else in the league can do on offense, and his defense, for the all the gambling he does, remains strong.
But he doesn’t play well every night, much less brilliantly. And playing well every single game is a hallmark of the best players in the league. When Rondo fails to attack or the game morphs into a serious of slow, brutal half-court possessions, he can be a liability on offense.
The best point guards in the league cannot be rendered inert by a slow pace. Rondo can.
And yet — that’s my hesitation at writing him off as a cornerstone piece. It seems entirely possible that Rondo’s game is being seriously hampered by all the court time he spends with the Big Three.
It sometimes seems cruel to hear Doc Rivers imploring Rondo to push tempo, when he often takes three steps only to find himself alone on the break. The Celtics are old, so they rarely run. They Celtics are old, so they run slow. The Celtics are old, so they get tired. The Celtics are old, so they don’t rebound. The Celtics are old, but Rondo is not.
JaJuan Johnson is nowhere near Garnett’s level as a player in every conceivable way but one: his ability to streak up and down the court in transition. But he might be a better fit to maximize what Rondo can do.
We saw flashes of that potential yesterday. With Johnson and Chris Wilcox flying up and down the court, Rondo was deadly. The series of dunks and layups and open three pointers generated by the Boston offense reinforced that there probably aren’t ten better guys in the league charging up-court against a scrambling defense than Rondo. He has that incredible ability to see passing lanes before they exist, create angles where they shouldn’t be and then wire the ball to guys so they can finish in stride. And he’s become a credible finisher himself, with all sorts of darting, wrong-footed flip layups, particularly going to his left. He’s taking 5.4 shots at the rim every game, which ties his career high.
Ultimately, I think we criticize Rondo fairly. But we do so without ever having seen him with the weapons necessary to optimize his skills. He is, in a weird way, much like the 2002 version of Pierce. Or the 2002 version of KG. An incredible talent playing with imperfect supporting parts and someone whose position in the league hierarchy comes into question as a result.
We can’t honestly say we’re certain about his ceiling as a player. I think there’s a legitimate possibility that Rondo could spearhead a 7 Seconds Or Less-style Boston team that could be a legitimate contender. I think in 2012-13, given a team built around his talents, he could cast aside any concerns about his capabilities and claim a spot at the head of the point guard table. I don’t think that’s a fantastical suggestion. It could happen.
But I don’t think it will happen. I think Danny Ainge may well decide to deal Rondo before we ever see what an uptempo team could really do. I think that decision may have been made months ago.
And if was, and if we see Rondo shipped out of town in the next month, or this summer, I’ll be 80% comfortable with that decision.
But I’m not sure I’ll be happy about it.