Rajon Rondo: The Celtics’ sudden unknown

rondo inbound

I am, for the sake of the next thousand words or so, going to take Danny Ainge at his word and assume Rajon Rondo will be back next season.There’s no way, though, to know exactly what Rajon Rondo we’ll see whenever he does return.

We can have whatever debates we want about Rondo.  To some, he is an enigmatic genius whose on-court prescience and mastery of angles make him a uniquely talented star capable of the un-explainable.  To others, he is a moody, short-tempered, and self-centered malcontent who rises to only the most-watched occasions.

To some degree, he has earned both reputations.  Neither side can outright deny the other has at least some basis for its argument, they simply believe their particular view of him overrides the other’s. But none of that could matter in a few months.

All of our beliefs, even the most steadfast, staunch cornerstones of each of our arguments for and against him, are at risk of being rendered null and void because Rajon Rondo will be entering a season unlike any other.  After seven years in the league, a 27-year-old Rondo will face three significant firsts that could re-shape his entire career.

1:  He’s coming off his first major injury

I know his elbow injury could be considered major, but a torn ACL is major.  And while comparisons to Derrick Rose’s injury aren’t entirely fair (Rondo didn’t have nearly the extent of damage Rose suffered, and Rondo’s injury came much earlier in the season), but what Rose did show us all is how a significant physical injury could take a significant mental toll.

The health of Rondo’s knee is pivotal to any future success (or trade value, if you choose to view it that way). We can take our own educated guesses about how Rondo’s head will handle how his knee feels, but we really don’t know how his recovery will affect his aggressiveness.  Speed and agility are obviously the building blocks of Rondo’s game.  His passes are often set up by his ability to create the chaos within a defense that opens up the slightest sliver of daylight through which he can bend a pass.  If either is affected by the injury, physically or mentally, then things might change.

2:  He’s not being coached by Doc Rivers

The only NBA coach Rondo’s ever known is now coaching the point guard the Celtics had once tried to use Rondo to acquire.

Think about how loaded that sentence is for a second.

A new coach, who has yet to be named, will be tasked with coaching a guy who’s admittedly not the easiest to coach.  And while it’s safe to say that anyone who rises to the level of NBA head coach has a good knowledge of the game, Doc Rivers was (a) a point guard in the NBA, and thus could relate to the pressures of the job and (b) an NBA coach when Rondo was 13, and coach of the Celtics when Rondo was 18.

As tough as Rondo might be coach, and as much grief as he allegedly gave Doc, Doc had both the experience as a player and as a coach to come back strong at Rondo and maintain a steady ship.  Doc had the full backing of a veteran-laden squad and of ownership, along a massive coaching contract to prove it.

That’s not to say the new guy won’t have the full backing of ownership, but he won’t have Doc’s cachet.  Will that mean Rondo will test the new guy’s limits to see how much he can get away with?  Or will he see a need to help the new guy along (much like KG helped cement Doc as the man in charge back in 2007), and unconditionally have his new coach’s back?

As for the other part of that sentence…

Doc’s now coaching Chris Paul.  Rondo could easily twist that into Doc coaching the guy he’s always wanted to coach, and jumping at the chance to do it.  That can easily be taken as a personal affront;  a signal that Doc was merely biding his time in Boston until he could jump at the chance to coach the guy he could never quite trade for.

To put it another way:  the chip on Rondo’s shoulder will be the size of a Redwood.

But what does that mean?  Rondo could certainly react by raising his game to those awesome playoff levels.  Every day could be a “nationally televised game” for him.   Or he could go too far, try to do too much, and alienate teammates as he goes off on a mission for personal glory in an effort to “prove everyone wrong.”

3:  He doesn’t have to keep any Hall of Famers happy anymore

Once upon a time, Rondo’s job on the floor was to make sure that Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett were happy with the touches they got, when they got those touches, and how those touches materialized.   He kept running tallies in his head and made sure that each guy was getting the ball at the right time, in the right place.  Even last season, with Allen gone, he still had to try to find Pierce and Garnett while working the new guys into the offense.

Now, Rondo is the longest-tenured Celtic.   He’s the only guy on the roster right now that is on a path to someday, maybe, be called a Hall of Famer.  There’s no more Ray Allen coming off picks.  There’s no more handing it off to Pierce to run late-game pick-and-rolls.  There’s no more Kevin Garnett on the pick-and-pop to nail 20-footers.

This is totally Rondo’s team, and we’ve never seen that before.

Suddenly, the guys out there are guys that have to compliment his offense.  His drives to the hoop aren’t aimed at making sure Allen, Pierce, and Garnett have enough space to score when it counts.  He can’t drive and pass up lay-ups because he spotted a Hall of Fame shooter standing in the corner.

Rondo’s going to have to make those layups.  He’s going to have to make the jumpers when guys back off.  He doesn’t have a choice anymore in this offense.  He’s got to be the main scorer, and only then will that threat of his offense open things up for guys like Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, or anyone else out there with him.

Is Rondo ready to thrive in that role?  Is he ready to carry a bad team, as the main guy, with a brand new coach?

This is all brand new for him, and us.  We’ve seen Rondo under Doc Rivers, surrounded by superstars, constantly contending for titles.  We’ve never seen Rondo, fresh off a major injury, run a team of his very own where he’s the most senior Celtic on the roster, and without much offensive help.

Some of you are excited for what he might do in this situation.  Some of you are dreading it.  Most of us think this season will prove our points about him.

But we don’t know.  No one does.  When the Celtics traded away their aging stars and exhausted coach, they not only traded for draft picks and some financial relief.  They traded for a mysterious new version of the guy wearing number 9.  And despite his history, and however you interpret it, what happens next is anyone’s guess.