Here’s a sweeping general statement involving super specific statistics that may or may not mean anything: In the 1423 minutes Rajon Rondo played this season, the Boston Celtics were outscored by 1.3 points per 100 possessions. When he sat (including all contests after he tore his ACL), Boston was better than their opponents by 1.8 points per 100 possessions.
Statistics help satisfy us, and can wonderfully confirm all we think our eyes are seeing. But they can also bend any which way to help support an outrageous argument. In this case, the on/off team point differential figures indicate an infectious train of thought, something about how the Celtics were/are better without Rondo.
As we saw in the playoffs, this is incorrect. Laughably incorrect. Rondo is a brilliant basketball player, capable of on-court magic that draws whispers from the crowd. “What the hell…” while shaking their heads and turning their palms up. Rondo’s ceiling bumps shoulders with the world’s very best; he’s fearless and talented enough to compete with anyone.
He rebounds, he passes, he shoots, he scores, he initiates offense, he’s disruptive on defense. This is him at his absolute best. Unfortunately, his absolute best comes and goes as he sees fit. Rondo’s mercurial play as a major shortcoming is also no longer up for debate, though if you’d like to lob excuses in his defense, have at it.
The inconsistencies have dogged Rondo throughout his career, but the spotlight never shined brighter than right before this season, when smart basketball people expected to see him cure most of his malignant weaknesses and become an everyday, MVP caliber superstar. That never came close to happening.
On Christmas the Celtics were only one game over .500; Rondo’s numbers and play had yet to show any signs of improvement from the previous year. He was making half his total shots, which is wonderful as a vacuum statement. But the volume wasn’t great enough to force any impact. Rondo needed to be aggressive. He needed to attack in transition, push the tempo, or even call the occasional play for himself in the post. Something. Anything.
The Celtics weren’t going fast enough, and their half-court offense looked no different than the past three years—a lot of that was on Rondo.(In 483 minutes with Jeff Green also on the court, Boston’s offense was anemic, scoring 98.7 points per 100 possessions—they finished the season at 101.1.) Nothing was clicking. Nothing looked right, and a lot on offense looked even uglier than Celtics fans have grown accustomed to.
When the going gets tough, Rondo was supposed to take over this year, assume the role of Boston’s dependable star who would whip his body into a mob beneath the basket, take a hit, then get to the line. Lather, soak, rinse, repeat.
He was supposed to be like Tony Parker or Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook or Derrick Rose, able to remove all oxygen from an opponent’s run by wiggling to the basket for a quick layup whenever he wanted. But Rondo didn’t become that guy this season, and it’s created more doubt than ever that he’ll ever make the transformation.
This season he averaged 13.7 points in 37.4 minutes. It was 2.6 more points than his career average in 4.4 more minutes. This is disparaging to the hundredth degree.
On the night he tore his ACL the Celtics lost their sixth straight game. They’d won the previous six before that. This was a rocky ship, and Rondo, the All-Star point guard, couldn’t steer it. Is it unfair to grade a player based on his team’s performance? Well, not when it’s a point guard as talented as Rondo. He’s good enough to have the team’s production reflect on how we view him as an individual piece. It’s the type of responsibility held by only the rarest birds, and for the past couple seasons Rondo has been that elite tier’s most polarizing fledgling.
Speaking of polarizing, let us not forget the almighty assist streak, which was as absurd as the ludicrous discussions it spawned. Was Rondo actually caught up in it? Did he care? Did Magic Johnson care? Would a parade be held on the day he broke it? Would the State of Massachusetts recognize it as a holiday?
One mid-November night it all combusted when Boston went into Detroit and had their jockstraps ripped off, with Rondo on the court in the closing moments for no rational reason other than his attempt to actually keep that damned streak going.
This made more smart basketball people question what an assist even meant, and how significant one player tallying a bunch actually is in the grand scheme of it all. Needless to say, Rondo didn’t look good.
I just spent nearly 800 words nitpicking a player whose absolute 48-minute best is better than everyone else in the world’s not named LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, or Jarrett Jack (glad to see you’re paying attention!). Rondo’s special because he makes the game easier for those around him, an attribute often overlooked despite basketball’s existence as a team sport, last I checked.
But even though that’s true, it’s unclear—leaning on not likely— if a team can be built around him as its best player and legitimately, consistently contend for a championship. Those aforementioned players take over when a game is tied at 95 with four minutes to go. They lead. They score. They get to the line.
Rondo is capable of doing those things but for whatever reason he doesn’t do them enough. If we learned one thing about him this year, it’s that when his current deal runs out in 2015, he won’t be worth the max-contract some general manager will seriously consider lobbing in his direction. And so, at this point, it’s increasingly exhausting to picture a scenario in which Rondo spends his entire career with the Boston Celtics. That’s the reality when your franchise star is so temperamental, and unwilling or unable to improve.
CelticsHub Grade: B-