Counting down the seconds to Rajon Rondo’s return

Counting down the seconds to Rajon Rondo’s return
January 16, 2014, 2:45 pm
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(AP Photo)

If you’re reading this at three o’clock on Thursday, it’s been 226,908 seconds since Rajon Rondo tweeted “29,233,380 secs” and announced his return to the court in the most Rondo way possible. With a math-based riddle that was eventually determined to mark the exact time between his February 13th ACL surgery and this Friday’s home game against the Lakers.
 
Of course Rondo did it like that. As it turns out, you can learn a lot about an athlete by the way he announces his return after a prolonged absence.
 
Back in October, Rob Gronkowski marked his comeback with a two-minute long, dramatic, inspirational, professionally produced, edited and sponsored YouTube video. In December, Kobe Bryant basically released a full-length motion picture.
 
On Monday night, Rondo sent out a mysterious two-word tweet and then kicked back (laughing his ass off, I’m sure) as the Internet scrambled to make sense of it.
 
But the Internet was up to the task, and this morning, Danny Ainge confirmed what had long-since been assumed:
 
“Barring any unforeseen setbacks,” he told reporters, “we're anticipating Rondo playing tomorrow.”
 
5,544,000 seconds
 
That’s the count since opening night of this Celtics season. That’s exactly 40 games, which means we’re now 40 games into Brad Stevens NBA coaching career and 40 games into Danny Ainge’s second Celtics rebuild. As of today, Boston is tied for the third fewest wins in the league (13), they have the fourth most losses (27) and the fifth worst overall record. If the season ended today, they’d have a 29.7% chance of landing a Top 3 pick.
 
In other words, it’s been a smashing success. Despite the record, Stevens has already proven himself worthy of the multi-year/multi-million dollar investment. The guy can coach. And his presence lowers the ceiling on Ainge’s championship project. On one hand, this can’t be easy for Stevens. The Celtics are on pace to lose 55 games, which is four more than he lost his entire six years at Butler. On the other hand, he understands and respects that this is a process. More importantly, he knows that his bosses understand and respect that this is a process. They’re collectively consumed by it.
 
Meanwhile, Ainge has made two trades since the season began. Of the 15 players who broke camp with the team, three have been sent packing — and more are sure to follow.
 
So far, Ainge ditched Courtney Lee’s three-year contract for a Jerryd Bayless’ expiring deal. He flipped Jordan Crawford, who wasn’t part of the future anyway, for a couple more assets. Neither deal was monumental, but again, it’s a process. There’s no easy fix. It’s all about chipping away and putting the team in the best position to strike when the opportunity presents itself.
 
The Celtics aren’t there yet, and to be honest, I don’t think the specifics of Ainge’s plan are necessarily set in stone. But the direction is clear. Every trade he makes is made with only one thing in mind — the future. And there’s no doubt that the Celtics future looks brighter right now than it did 5,544,000 seconds ago, even if it’s not by much.
 
79,500 seconds
 
That’s how many seconds Jeff Green has played this season, and as usual, that time has been sprinkled with flashes of an effortlessly dominant brand of basketball unlike anything Boston’s ever seen. And that’s not an exaggeration. Tell me: When’s the last time the Celtics had a player with the ability to grab a rebound in traffic, confidently and comfortably dribble the length of the floor and then dunk over two defenders from one giant step inside the foul line? So big. So strong. So athletic. So versatile. So coordinated. At his best, Green can do things that only a few NBA players could ever dream of.
 
But he still doesn’t do it enough. And when he’s not “doing it” it’s not a matter of a cold jump shot, a tough match-up or a few bad bounces, it’s a disappearing act. It’s the same old story.
 
To put it another way, nearly 80,000 seconds into what was supposed to be Green’s breakout season, he’s largely the same underachieving player he was last year and has been for most of his career. The reputation that preceded his arrival in Boston has been reinforced many times over.
 
Who knows? Maybe he needs a point guard. Maybe Jordan Crawford didn’t cut it, and finding a rhythm with Rondo will propel Green to the next level. Then again, how are we possibly still making excuses for this guy? He’s 27. He’s only six months younger than Rondo. And over his one and a half healthy seasons in Boston, this is what Green was constantly pining for, and at times, even moping about. First, a chance to start. Second, the opportunity to break out of Paul Pierce’s shadow and become the focal point of this offense.
 
This year, the Celtics finally gave him that chance, and Green’s fallen flat. He might lead the team with 17.1 points a game, but so many of those points are empty. Stat-fillers. He still can’t be counted on. Through 40 games, he’s scored in single digits (seven times) almost as often as he’s scored 20 points or more (eight).
 
Above all else, it’s overwhelmingly clear (and not a huge surprise) that Green isn’t the No. 1 option on a contender. He’s probably best suited as the third option. The Celtics certainly realize that, but you have to wonder if Green ever will. If he’ll ever unconditionally submit to every aspect of what it takes to win at this level. If he can’t, there’s no point in him being here. And Ainge is better off trying to convince another GM that Green’s potential can still be salvaged.
 
And for the low, low price of $9M a year!
 
That’s only 900,000,000 cents.
 
2,320 seconds
 
That’s how long it took Jared Sullinger to post 25 points and 20 rebounds in last night’s win over the Raptors. In the process, he became the first Celtic since Mark Blount in 2004 to have a 25/20 game, although that comparison somehow feels dirty, so let’s go with this one —
 
Last night, Sullinger became the first Celtic since Kevin Garnett in 2007 to have a 20/20 game.
 
(Yeah, that sounds better.)
 
But you know what the craziest part is? Sullinger didn’t do anything extraordinary against Toronto. It wasn’t the game of his life. He wasn’t playing out of his mind. He was just Jared Sullinger, and you get the sense that this won’t be the last time we see a performance like that.
 
First of all, his back is fixed. That’s not to say he’s immune from developing additional back problems, which is why he should probably shed a few pounds, but the back injury that ended last season? The “back issues” that made it possible for him to land in Boston? That was a one-time fix, and the Celtics fixed it. And now they’re left with a guy who, based on talent alone, should have never made it out of the lottery.
 
An incredibly young guy, too. There are only 35 players in the NBA younger than Jared Sullinger. He’s the same age as rookies Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke, and (terrifyingly) Kyrie Irving. And he’s playing out of position. Sullinger is currently a 6-9 center with a 6.9-inch vertical (roughly), and that’s usually a bad combination. But he’s made it work, and if Ainge can ever find a center (of the non-Joel Anthony variety) look for Sullinger’s production to only increase.
 
In general, his emergence has been the most significant story of the Celtics young season. In so many ways, Sullinger is the antithesis of Jeff Green. He’s insanely competitive. Sometimes to a fault. After a bad game, he’s on Twitter, apologizing and taking blame for what happened, and promising to improve. He speaks up in the media, for himself and on behalf of the team.
 
He’s all-in every day. Every second.
 
Basically, you look at Sullinger, and you think: Now there’s a guy that they can win with. That doesn’t mean he’s a superstar, or necessarily even a future All-Star. But he’s a winner, and the strides he’s made these last few months have opened up a few different portholes for Ainge to explore.
 
There’s the option to keep Sullinger in Boston. Just knowing that guys like that — with the right mental and physical makeup — don’t come around very often. But for the same reason, Sullinger also becomes an interesting trade chip, and a big one at that. He could very well become the Al Jefferson of rebuild 2.0.
 
Two seconds
 
That’s what the Celtics will likely (ultimately) receive in return for Jordan Crawford and Marshon Brooks. Two second round picks. Another sign that Ainge’s focus is well beyond 2014, and firmly planted on cap flexibility and assets, regardless of the form. And looking ahead, there are two guys who will likely/hopefully experience the same fate, as their recently departed teammates.
 
Brandon Bass: He’s owed $6.9M next season, and he’s worth it. Just not to the Celtics. Bass has had an admirable career in Boston, but Ainge is now dead set on moving him.
 
Gerald Wallace: This won’t be as easy, and might take sweetening the deal with one of Boston’s potential 10 future first round picks, but ditching the two years and more than $20M left on Wallace’s contract is a priority. You know it must have killed Wallace to see Jordan Crawford get traded to a contender. He can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and he desperately wants out. Let’s hope he and the Celtics can both find a reasonable way to get there.
 
In the meantime, it’s nice to know that Crash will be such a breathe of fresh air any time there’s a microphone in front of his face.
 
One second
 
And that’s how long it will take for everything to change.
 
That is, the moment Rondo takes the floor tomorrow night.
 
On the court, Stevens has said that he’ll initially limit Rondo to about 18-20 minutes a game. In that case, it will be 18-20 minutes unlike anything this team has experienced. Unlike anything most of these players have ever experienced.
 
Only four active Celtics have played with Rondo. He and Sullinger were together for half a season. Between the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012-13, Rondo and Green have played together for basically one. Brandon Bass and Avery Bradley have both played with Rondo for about a year and a half. But never in this capacity. Not without Pierce or Garnett or Doc Rivers. And certainly not in the aftermath of a potentially career altering injury, the reality of which everyone — including Rondo — is still in the dark.
 
That darkness has hovered like an evil cloud over this franchise from the moment Rondo went down. Nothing could really happen with this rebuild until Rondo was back. And even now, his return is only the next step in the long comeback process.
 
No one’s expecting Rondo to look like himself right away. It could take weeks or months or the rest of the year. But every time he plays, it will be showcase, for both Danny Ainge and every GM around the league who might be in the market for an All Star point guard. Believe me, it won’t be long after Friday night before the rumors start again. Everyone will be watching and talking and wondering what happens next.
 
Until now, they’ve been handcuffed, as well as intrigued by the potential of a Stevens/Rondo connection. And moving forward, who knows?
 
Maybe he looks like his old self. Maybe after having a full year to do nothing but work on his jump shot, he comes back a vastly improved shooter. Maybe he does click with Stevens. Maybe everything just clicks in general. Maybe all the questions are finally answered and Ainge is finally convinced:
 
“This is our guy. He’s ready to lead. Let’s work out an extension and get him a permanent parking space right next to me and Brad.”
 
Or maybe nothing’s changed. Blind optimism aside, there’s no tangible reason to assume that Rondo is a new man or that he’s long for the ups and downs that lie ahead in Boston. Seeing how he had final say on when he’d return to the line-up, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he chose to come back more than a month before the trade deadline. And I doubt the Celtics mind that he did. It keeps everyone’s option, and that’s what this is all about.
 
In the meantime, and this goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway, it’s great to have Rondo back in the mix. I know a lot people can’t stand him and want him out of town and believe, in the fictional words of KG, that he’s cancerous to his team and the league. And at times that might be true, but maybe it’s not any more. And either way, there’s no debating this:
 
He’s one of the most unique, exciting and entertaining players in the league. The NBA, the city of Boston and Celtics basketball is better with him on the court. It’s been a long 29,233,380 seconds, but Rondo’s almost back.
 
In 100,800 . . . 100,799 . . .100,798 . . .

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