As an avid Celtics fan since 2009, Rajon Rondo was (and will continue to be) my favourite player to wear that green jersey. I could write a book about why I like this guy – but we’ll keep it down to a few highlights for the time being.
From that dive for the ball against Jason Williams in Game Three of 2010 Eastern Conference Finals to that poster dunk on Chris Bosh that sent Kevin Harlan on video game mode back in 2011, Rondo had given us plenty of moments worth remembering.
But nothing is more precious to me than the times he stood up for Kevin Garnett. Three occasions come to my mind when I think about moments that defined the brotherly relationship between these two great competitors.
This season had always felt surreal, somehow.
I remember watching the season opener, and being so pumped by the video. It felt like, oh yeah the Celtics are back! It was finally game time.
And then, I realised Rondo wasn’t in that video. At all.
Why wasn’t the captain inside? Rondo, maestro of the amazing and unpredictable? Surely he would have gotten more time on the video than any other player on the team?
‘Playoff Rondo’ is a magical individual. Basketball magic in its purest form.
That is what I will miss the most. With the news coming through yesterday that Rajon Rondo would be traded to Dallas my first thought was that I will never get to see ‘Playoff Rondo’ take over games in green again. This sad realisation was heartbreaking for a self-confessed Rondo lover and defender.
The rumours never end. Ever. Rajon Rondo has been the point guard of the Boston Celtics since 2006, and has repeatedly attracted trade speculation over the bulk of his career. And yet, here he is, a rarity in the league as a player who has remained with the same team since his rookie year, eight years on.
Then you realise why the rumours have been around for so long. To put it simply, he has immense talent, an NBA championship, and plays the game to make his teammates better by sharing the ball – an uncommon trait for point guards in the NBA. Then when you dig even further, you are reminded of his ability to step up his game in the postseason, of his drive to win at all costs, to sacrifice life and limb (literally) for his team. Of course other teams would be interested, there’s no doubt about that.
When you put all of this together, you really wonder why ‘experts’ are so keen to offload a player of this calibre. Allow me to analyse exactly why the captain of the most storied franchise in the game will remain in Boston not only for this season, but long enough to see that number 9 hanging in the rafters next to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
With our first proper look at the roster after an impressive season opener, what is to follow for the Celtics in 2014-2015?
In a preseason where fans expected fireworks and a top 3 pick, there was disappointment as the off-season brought the Celtics the 6th pick and low-key opportunistic moves. This wasn’t from lack of trying by Danny Ainge and management as the Celtics were one of the most active, trying to land a big fish to pair with Rondo to turbo-charge the rebuild. Once it became apparent that our assets were not as highly valued as we thought, the Celtics held steady – finding bargains wherever they could. By doing this, Ainge has been able to put forth a roster that is more balanced than last year, while not sacrificing anymore cap space beyond this season. Let’s take a look at what to expect from the Celtics in season #2 of the rebuild:
With the roster looking more rounded, Danny is still a fair way away from the finished product. What he has done so far is just collect assets, and flipping them for more valuable assets. The hope here is that these young assets turn out to be legitimate players and once this occurs, he can then decide on whether or not he builds around the young core, or sells the farm in hope of landing other stars. All options are currently still open – much like Houston before they landed James Harden, which is where the Celtics are at right now. Houston had a young, gritty team that remained competitive, but, because they kept their options open, they were able to swing for the fences and land James Harden, followed by Dwight Howard.
Although the roster makes more sense this year, look for Danny to trade away a veteran or two throughout the season, with Bass/Thornton being the prime candidates due to their expiring contracts. There is also the small fact that our star point guard, Rajon Rondo is in the final year of his contract too, so brace yourself for another season full of Rondo trade rumours – it is difficult to see any team offering enough to Danny Ainge to pull the trigger on any Rondo trade, ultimately keeping him in green.
Besides Rondo, the biggest drawcard for potential future free agent signings could very well be Brad Stevens. He has managed to turn discards such as Jordan Crawford and Kris Humphries into players that other teams wanted and he already looks to be doing the same with Evan Turner this year. He seems to have the full trust of his squad and enjoys a great relationship with Rondo, who has been reported as ‘difficult’ time and time again.
With his first year now in the rear-view mirror, Coach Stevens now knows how the NBA games go, he knows exactly he wants and what buttons to push with certain players. His players have spoken about the difference between Coach Stevens this season compared to last and show full confidence in his ability to lead the team as he tries to get this team running like the Spurs “Lite”.
Though starved of top-end talent, the Celtics do boast a legitimately deep squad where we see a minimal drop off between the 4th to 10th player in the squad. Here are the players to watch out for during the season:
Rajon Rondo: With more time removed from his ACL injury in early 2013, Rondo looks to get back to his All-Star best. Although he suffered a minor setback breaking his hand, he is ready to prove his doubters wrong and be the leader and star that this team needs. Being in his contract year, he will be desperate to remind everybody in the league that he is still one of the best point guards in the NBA. Questions were asked on whether or not he can play in Brad Stevens’ offense and after the season opener yesterday, it is safe to say that he will have no problems in that system. Rondo’s biggest question mark is injuries – once thought of as durable player, he has missed 29, 44 & 52 games respectively in the previous three seasons, will he be able to stay relatively healthy this year?
Avery Bradley: Can Bradley live up to the 4 year, $32m extension he signed over the off-season? That will be the question people will ask of him throughout the duration of his contract. Avery has looked to re-dedicate himself back to his bread and butter, his defence whilst further working on his 3 point shot which is not to be ignored by other defences. At the young age of 23, Bradley is already one of the leaders of the team as he is entering his 5th season, being the 2nd longest tenured Celtic (behind Rondo). With Bradley playing exclusively at the shooting guard role, he should further flourish under Brad Stevens – and wreak havoc defensively with Rondo and Smart to play next to.
Jared Sullinger: After his first fully healthy summer as a pro, Sully worked tirelessly on both his fitness base, and his 3 point shooting during the off-season, it showed in the pre-season, as he was the best on the team averaging a double-double in under 28 minutes per game. Fairly or not, Sully was judged critically last season mainly due to his lack of conditioning after missing a large part of the off-season due to back surgery. Fans can only hope that he takes the next leap to a double-double machine in the regular season, and even pushes for a potential all-star selection. He is one of the most important players on the roster due to his leadership and natural feel of the game – he is the team’s best rebounder and is also an underrated passer. If his conditioning will allow him to play at a high level for 30+ minutes per game, he could very well be in the running for most improved player, as some experts have predicted.
Kelly Olynyk: Olynyk will be looking to build on the end of last season, where we saw him string together an impressive set of performances averaging 25.7 points (on 53.4% shooting), 9.3 Rebounds and 3.7 assists in just under 35 minutes in his final 3 games to close the season out. While Olynyk has always been sound offensively, coming into his rookie season, criticism has come from the defensive end of the floor – where people question whether he was quick enough to guard fours, or strong enough to guard fives. His rookie season did nothing to silence the critics defensively – although he wasn’t as bad as advertised, he clearly needed to work on that end of the ball. Coming into this season, we can see that Olynyk has worked on his body as he trimmed some fat and added muscle, making him better equipped to handle the defensive duties. Due to his range of skill, including his shooting/driving and passing ability, look for Olynyk to be a big part of the Celtics revamped offense as he has locked up the starting Centre spot.
Marcus Smart: The Celtics prized rookie has been just as good on defence as advertised, with some experts even picking him as a potential Rookie of the year candidate. Smart has the tools to be able to contribute straight away on the defensive end, but, his offense has looked shaky at times. As Smart plays more games, he looks to be getting more and more comfortable with his role and what he is supposed to be doing out on the court. Will he be able to offensively impact a game and run the team? If Smart can continue to develop his shot and show steady improvement, the sky is the limit for this prized rookie. With a healthy squad, Smart looks to be the 6th man for this team.
Evan Turner: There was no real excitement in the air when the Celtics made the low key signing of Evan Turner for 2 years, $3m per. This was looked at as a low risk/high reward signing after Turner’s value plummeted to an all-time low following his season/playoffs in Indiana. In pre-season, coach Stevens had Turner playing all positions from 1-3 with great success, can this equate to the regular season, and will Turner be able to run the point as good as he did in college, where he was 2010 NCAA Big 10 top scorer and National Player of the Year en route to being the #2 pick in 2010? For the relatively low salary he is on, Turner can turn out to be a bargain as he now has a coach/system where his potential could actually be fulfilled.
Marcus Thornton: Marcus Thornton has been a pleasant surprise for the Celtics, being the spark plug off the bench with lights out shooting and deserves a special mention, but given the logjam at the guard spots, and his expiring contract, is he playing his way out of Boston, or will he be a major part of the team for the whole season?
Every player on the Celtics roster has questions against their names. Can Zeller be the centre that the Celtics so desperately need? Will Thornton/Bass be on the team after the trade deadline? Will Jeff Green be more aggressive and average 20+ ppg? Will James Young show enough to get regular minutes? Can Vitor come back and excite everyone like he did early last season?
At times this season, this young Celtics team will be fun to watch with high energy D, fast paced action, and 3 point barrages. Given the average age of the team, there will be games that we would like to forget, but, expect a more competitive team compared to last year. For this season, the Celtics have a near 100% Rondo, an extra year experience for Coach Stevens, and extra year for our young veterans, and 2 rookies who have tremendous upside. The Celtics may not be contenders, nor they likely may not make the playoffs (I hope I’m wrong), but there is enough talent there to be cautiously optimistic about this team for the upcoming season.
I predict that the Celtics record for the upcoming season will be: 35-47.
What about you? How do you think the Celtics will go this season?