“Just tremendous heart. I mean, you’ve got to love this team. You really do. This group of guys, we just talk about [how] we choose to live. We’re not going to just roll over. And it’s very important for our guys to understand.”– Doc Rivers
The Celtics are exhausted. I know this. You know this. And we all agree that this team will go as far as intangibles like grit, heart, and effort can take them. Veteran team rallies for one more run after losing its best player. A gripping story you’d see in a Disney movie. And the general consensus Out There is that it’s going to be fun to watch just how far Boston can go.
Yet going into the second half of the season, it appears the conversation about the Celtics has shifted around the following question: Is Boston better off without Rajon Rondo on the court?
Look, as always, the expectation around these parts is winning a championship. And despite their recent success, Rajon Rondo donning a suit instead of a uniform does not put the Celtics in a better position to meet that expectation. Simply put, while Boston is playing better without Rondo, removing him from the equation decreases the Celtics chances of winning a title. This is an important distinction. It’s great that Boston is 8-1 since losing its starting point guard; but Rondo is still the proverbial “puncher” in Boston’s puncher’s chance to upset the Heat this spring.
Consider the following: Rajon Rondo led all players in the playoffs during last year’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals, registering 227 assists (almost a hundred more than the next player, LeBron James, who dished out 129). He averaged 17 points, 6.7 boards, and 11.9 assists a game in the postseason. A sublime run. For some historical perspective, only Magic Johnson has matched those playoff averages, doing so five separate times. (Side note: While watching him blather on ESPN, it’s easy to forget how dominant Earvin was in his prime. His numbers in the 1985-86 playoffs: 21.6 ppg, seven rebounds, and 15 assists. Yikes.)
Naturally, that performance spawned Rondo’s coronation as the sole leader of the Celtics. But after a disappointing 18-20 start to the season, Rondo was victim to the same lingering questions that have haunted him throughout his entire career: Is he really a leader? Does he have maturity issues? How much does he care about his numbers? Why isn’t he more assertive?
A few of these questions are fair. Rondo doesn’t exactly do himself any favors with his demeanor on the court (he’s been suspended four times in the last 11 months, for arguing with officials and for a skirmish with Mr. Kardashian himself, Kris Humphries), or the way he deals with the media (Rondo is notoriously classified as a recluse and aloof; which is a nice way of saying the truth – he’s generally unpleasant to deal with). But that doesn’t mean we should ignore that, prior to his injury, Rondo was leading the league in assists per game, was more assertive (attempting a career-high 12 shots a game, almost two more than last season), and clearly spent time on working on his game this offseason (specifically improving his maligned mid-range jumper. Before tearing his ACL, Rondo shot 48 percent from 16-23 feet this season. His career average was 36.8 percent).
Rondo detractors discard the good, and point to the bottom line: The Celtics were underachieving and (miraculously) are a Kemba Walker jumper away from being a perfect 9-0 since losing their floor general.
And maybe there is credence to the anti-Rondo argument. After all, nine games is a fair sample size to start labeling results as trends. But looking strictly at the Celtics record in a vacuum is unfair to Rondo. For instance, a common narrative from the anti-Rondo camp is that the Celtics offense, which averaged a paltry 99.8 points per 1o0 possessions, is much more fluid now that Rondo isn’t dominating the ball. But the offense isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire post-injury, only averaging 101.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s good for middle of the pack. Moreover, is it Rondo’s fault that Brandon Bass’ production plummeted? How about Jason Terry’s offensive struggles?
Forget those unforeseen circumstances – how about the evaluating the obvious disclaimers many in the media have struck from the record book because it doesn’t fit neatly into the narrative. For instance, everyone preached patience with Avery Bradley and Jeff Green’s progress, because both were coming off serious injuries the prior season. In his 21 games of action, Bradley has made an immediate impact. And that’s great, but Rondo only enjoyed sharing the backcourt with Bradley for 12 of those games. Meanwhile, Green’s game has improved immensely of late, averaging 13.8 points per game while shooting 51 percent since Rondo went down. In the first 42 games of action, however, Green was averaged just 9.6 points on 42 percent shooting.
We’ve conveniently repurposed pre-requisite growing pains as part of the F.O.R. (Failures of Rondo) Act passed in February of 2013. This is par for the course though, isn’t it? Everything about the Rondo narrative is repackaged.
Rondo isn’t clutch, he’s inconsistent.
We incessantly shower athletes with adulation for coming through in big games, yet question why Rondo doesn’t put up the epic performances he produces during nationally broadcast games on a consistent basis.
Rondo doesn’t get others involved, he pads his stats.
Never has superior court vision and a pension for dolling out assists been considered a bad thing. Well, at least, not until Rondo. The most selfless statistic in the history of statistics, has somehow morphed into a source of “a misguided determination to pad his own stats at the expense of the team;” instead of his willingness to distribute the ball and get others involved.
The question of whether Rondo hurts the Celtics chances of raising the Larry O’Brien trophy is obtuse at best and agenda-fueled sensationalism at worst. Alas, “Embrace the debate,” we’re told … even if the topic doesn’t warrant a discussion.
Ryan Hadfield is a columnist for Metro Boston. Follow him on Twitter @Hadfield__