Last night, the Boston Celtics traded Rajon Rondo and Dwight Powell to the Dallas Mavericks for a pair of draft picks, Brendan Wright, Jae Crowder, and Jameer Nelson.
But let’s pause and go back a few years.
It was April 2009. The NBA postseason was in full swing and the second seed Boston Celtics were struggling against the up-and-coming seventh seed Chicago Bulls.
The defending champion Celtics had been dominant in the regular season, at one point winning 19 straight games, but they entered the playoffs without their defensive rock, Kevin Garnett, who was lost for the season when he injured his knee in February.
The Bulls, led by dynamo rookie Derrick Rose, were showing a lot of spunk. Celtics stars Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were doing their best to keep the C’s afloat, each averaging 23 points per game over the series. But it was the play of Rajon Rondo that put Boston over the top in a seven game series that spawned seven overtime periods.
At that moment, Rajon Rondo looked like the Celtics’ future. He was dominant, filling up every category in the stat sheet. In Game 1 he poured in 29 points. In Game 2 he put up 19 points, 16 assists, and 11 boards. In Game 4 he notched another triple double and scored 25 along the way. He finished Game 6 with 19 assists.
The media was billing the Rondo-Rose matchup as a battle between the NBA’s top two point guards of the future. Rondo, who a year previous had been little more than a fourth leg on the Celtics’ championship team, seemed to be blossoming into a bona fide star.
Celtics fans were dreaming big for Rondo. But he never reached the elite level we saw in him that series. At least not for an entire season.
Which is not to say there haven’t been glimpses. Or even prolonged stretches of tremendous play from the lightning quick point man. But Rondo, now 28, has never fully realized the potential once seen in him.
The glimpses have usually come in nationally televised games. Often in the postseason. If there’s been a consistent criticism of Rajon over the years, outside of the fact that he can’t shoot the dadgum ball, it’s that he’s always had a propensity for turning it on with a national audience watching–and off the rest of the time.
Among the highlights that came post-’09: a tremendous series against Cleveland in 2010 in the Conference Finals, as the Celtics blasted their way past LeBron and into the NBA Finals; a 20 assist performance in Game 3 of the Celtics’ four game sweep of the Knicks the next year, as his passing wizardry helped lead to a 38 point performance for Paul Pierce and a 32 point outing for Ray Allen; an unbelievable series in the Conference Finals in 2012 against a LeBron-led Heat team during which Rondo was unquestionably the Celtics’ best player and looking the part of the league’s best point guard; and more jaw dropping dimes than could be accounted for in any blog post.
Rondo has had to share the spotlight for most of his time in Boston with future Hall of Famers. Since the departures of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett before last season, that has changed. And the results have been ugly. Rondo stumbled his way through an injury-filled season last year and was lifeless when he did see the floor. This year has been worse. No starting point guard in the Association has scored less, and Rondo rarely looks even interested in trying to score. He defers. He searches for assists. Post-Pierce Rondo has been largely devoid of fun.
So what is Rondo’s legacy in Boston?
I’m certainly not the one to answer that question. I’ve never been Rondo’s biggest fan. His tendency to hold the ball deep into the shot clock has always driven me bananas. In fact, when Rondo missed much of the 2012-13 campaign (and playoffs) due to injury, I thought the Celtics became a more cohesive offensive unit. (When a post-prime Paul Pierce proved unable to carry the C’s past New York in the playoffs’ opening round, I questioned this assertion.)
Nonetheless, it is indisputable that Rondo was an irreplaceable cog in some great Celtics teams. He grew up faster than expected on the way to the ’08 title. Then he kept getting better. Eventually, he became the best and most exciting Celtics’ player, eclipsing an aging Pierce.
At this point, the happy Rondo days are merely memories. There’s little doubt that he wore out his welcome in Boston in the eyes of many. It feels like the Celtics have been trying to trade him since the dawn of the dinosaurs. And, as my brother noted to me last night, his departure draws easy parallels to that of Manny Ramirez. Perhaps a more apt comparison, though, would be Nomar Garciappara.
Like Nomar, Boston got really excited about Rondo. Like Nomar, Rondo had some fantastic moments. Like Nomar, he could be beyond frustrating to watch (cue memories of Nomar whiffing on first pitch balls in the dirt). And, Like Nomar (circa ’04), Rondo’s not the player he once was. Maybe he’ll rekindle the magic in Dallas.
As with Nomar, not many Bostonians are devastated to see Rondo go.
The trade will allow the Celtics to continue building for the future. And I assure you, there will be some outstanding players in next year’s draft.
Ultimately, Rondo will be remembered for what he brought to Boston. He helped bring a title. He brought a swashbuckling (some might say careless) style to the defensive end. There were the passes too. Oh, the passes. Beautiful passes that seemed impossible. Passes he wrapped around defenders while he floated in the air, locating an open target 25 feet away.
And then the other passes. The kickouts to Courtney Lee for a three when Rondo had an uncontested layup right in front of him. The sloppy, lazy passes that he lofted into the second row. Rondo, after all, turned the ball over 1,488 times in a Celtics uniform.
Rajon Rondo delivered excitement, energy, and wins to Boston Celtics fans. And an awful lot of headaches.