He’s back. Rajon Rondo played in his first NBA game in about a year on Friday in the Boston Celtics’ home loss to their age old nemesis, Los Angeles Lakers. Before the game Rondo was announced as the team captain, just the fifteenth in franchise history and taking over after Paul Pierce, who had been at least co-captain since 2000, was traded to the Brooklyn Nets in June of 2013. With this great responsibility will come great expectations. The list of Celtics captains includes Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Dominique Wilkins (though The Human Highlight Film only played one season in Boston and is in the Hall mostly for what he did as a member of the Atlanta Hawks), as well as a future Hall of Famer and the most popular Celtic since I’ve been following the basketball in Pierce. Rondo has some big shoes to fill, a lot of people to prove wrong, and a legacy of winning to uphold.
I would imagine that naming him captain takes him off the trade block, but the last two Celtics captains, Pierce and Antoine Walker both had their Celtics tenures end by getting traded (in fact, Walker was traded away twice). This shows that the Celtics are committed to building around Rondo, but it’s up to Rondo to be a foundation worth building around. Rondo’s strength as a player is his ability to get the ball to the open man, and make the guys around him better if he has his head in the game. With Pierce and Kevin Garnett down in Brooklyn, Rondo is the longest tenured Celtic and the last holdover from the 2008 team that took the basketball world by storm and beat the Lakers in six games to clinch the franchises 17th championship banner. His intensity can rub people the wrong way, including former Celtics head coach Doc Rivers and veteran superstar teammates like Ray Allen (and Pierce and KG to a lesser extent). By all accounts, he has bought into Brad Stevens’ system and admires his cerebral young coach. Perhaps they are a perfect match. Perhaps they “get” each other in a way that can transform Rondo from the guy I wanted out of town last year before he hurt his knee to the kind of guy who can lead a championship team. Stranger things have happened. Kobe Bryant is every but as abrasive as Rondo, but he’s also the kind of guy who will stand by his teammates as long as they’re giving it an honest effort, and he has five championship rings and two Finals MVPs to show for it. Kobe even offered up the comparison to himself when asked about Rondo having to weather a franchise rebuild. I’ve been hard on Rondo in the past, but the Celtics owe it to him and they owe it to Stevens to give their collaboration a chance.
Rondo only played 19 minutes and 25 seconds in his return to NBA action, but his presence was felt. He finished the game with eight points and four assists as he tried to shake the rust off. The other bright spot of the night for the Celtics was rookie center Kelly Olynyk. The 22 year old 13th overall pic scored a career high 25 points to go along with 8 assists in the game, and played 32 minutes and 49 seconds. I would love to see Rondo’s presence help Olynyk grow as a player and help him reach his full potential. It would be a great step in the right direction if Rondo develops chemistry with Olynyk, Sullinger, and Bradley, and Phil Pressey becomes a solid point guard off the bench.
Rondo’s presence is not enough to make the C’s a championship contender this season, and might not even be enough to make them a playoff team, either. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. The Celtics currently find themselves out of the playoff picture heading into the deepest NBA Draft in a decade. There’s Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins at Kansas (Paul Pierce’s alma mater), Jabari Parker at Duke, Julius Randle at Kentucky (Rajon Rondo’s alma mater), and the list goes on. The Celtics have a chance to add one of these blue chip prospects to a young core that is learning from one of the best teaching coaches in the business. Danny Ainge has plenty of options for making moves. Former Butler Bulldog Gordon Hayward is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, and reuniting with his old college coach seems appealing to all parties involved. The point is that the Celtics are well on their way to the future, and the next great Celtics team could arrive sooner than we thought when the C’s came up short against the New York Knicks last April. At least for now, Rondo is the man at the helm, and he and Coach Stevens are ready to steer this storied green ship.