Yes, the Celtics are going to miss Rajon Rondo. But count me as a contrarian here. I just don’t think it’s going to be as big a blow as most. I think the Celtics will figure it out. I think they’ll make the playoffs. I think they could be a tough out once they get there.
Rondo, the team’s catalyst and arguably its most valuable player, is out for the year after tearing an ACL in his right knee. Almost immediately upon hearing the news, there were calls for GM Danny Ainge to blow up the team.
Rubbish. All of it, pure rubbish. None more so than a patently ludicrous piece on ESPN suggesting six trades the Celtics might or should pursue with Rondo gone. None of those is likely to even be considered. (Yeah, the Lakers will trade Dwight Howard and the Celtics will send them Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. Really.)
All of the hand-wringing over Rondo’s injury and the accompanying gloom and doom ignores one, important statistic: 18-20. That was the Celtics record this year when Rondo was on the floor. That is not the mark of a difference maker, which is what he is alleged to be. The record is now 4-3 without him (and three of those seven games were due to league-imposed suspensions).
Here’s what one, unnamed NBA scout recently told Marc Stein, one of the lead basketball writers for ESPN.com:
“Rondo can change the game when he’s engaged, but … let’s just say he’s always very aware of his stats. And it’s very evident from where I sit that he’s playing for steals and assists sometimes instead of making the winning play or the easier play or defending his guy like he should.”
There’s a grain of truth to that.
Rondo spent the first 15 games trying to keep alive his streak of 10-plus assists-per-game. That ended when he got into an altercation with the Brooklyn Nets’ Kris Humphries, drawing a two-game suspension. There were times when Rondo clearly was going for an assist when he could have made the basket himself. The Celtics even enabled him at the end of one of their games, the outcome of which had long been decided.
That has always been the Rondo conundrum. Why can’t he be totally engaged the way Kevin Garnett is? Why does he disappear, only to re-appear in a huge way when the lights are the brightest (usually the network TV games)? Why didn’t he defend like a maniac? He can when he so chooses.
But that’s Life With Rondo. Always has been. Always will be. He has that “can’t live with him, can’t live without him” reputation.
And let’s face it, whatever problems bedeviled the Celtics over the first 43 games — and coach Doc Rivers is still trying to figure them out — went well beyond Rondo. There were injuries (Avery Bradley didn’t play until Jan. 2). There were nine newcomers to integrate and some of them are still, as they used to say in the days of the Cold War, getting “re-educated.”
Most of the players that Ainge either acquired by trade or re-signed made the roster look deep and strong. Most of the players that Ainge either acquired by trade or re-signed have been unmitigated disasters to date. If you were handing out first-half grades to individual Celtics, there would be a slew of D’s and even F’s given to the likes of Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass and Jeff Green.
None of them made any kind of mark for more than a nanosecond. All were expected to be key contributors on, you know, some kind of pattern or basis that doesn’t approximate the appearance of the equinoxes.
Well, guess what happened Wednesday night, the first game that the team played knowing they’d not have Rondo for the rest of the year? Green, Bass and Terry all came off the bench and scored 12 points apiece in a 99-81 thumping of the Sacramento Kings. And before you say, “well, it’s the Kings,” this is the same team that beat the Celtics by 22 points on Dec. 30 in Sacramento.
The Celtics passed the ball well. They shot the ball well. They defended well. Yes, they can and did do all of those things with Rondo, although not on any kind of regular basis this year. What made Wednesday’s game so eye-opening was the level of commitment across the board. Lee started with Bradley and the two showed they can be a tough defensive backcourt.
Can they keep it going? After the Kings game, Pierce said, “it has to come from a number of people. You have a lot of other people who have opportunities to step up. That’s the way we need to play.”
Rondo may be valuable. He may be an All-Star and a unique talent. But he is not indispensable. Every night won’t be like Wednesday, both in terms of who the Celtics play or how the Celtics play. But they have the talent. They have the desire. In the end, they may surprise a lot of people.