In the weeks and months leading up to this NBA season, we spent a ridiculous amount of time talking about the Celtics' "torch." Who should carry it? Is it time to pass it? Where do they even keep this thing, and is it gas or something more medieval?
After hours of discussion, we settled on the following:
1. The torch was Rajon Rondos for the taking. It was finally time for him to assume ownership of this team, and hit the ground the running as the next great leader in Boston Celtics history.
From Cousy to Russell to Havlicek to Cowens to Bird to the Big 3 to Reggie to . . . Dino Radja? . . . to Antoine to Pierce to the Big 3 (vol. 2) and now . . . to Rondo. It was his turn.
2. Of equal importance, it was time for Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to willingly step aside and allow Rondo to grab the spotlight. (Instead of letting things materialize into an awkward Ray Allen-type tug-o-war.)
Thats it. That was the plan. And while this kind of narrative is often nothing but a pile of media-generated garbage, in this case, there was more. Like Seinfelds mnage-a-trois roommates, the Celtics were "into it." And none of them were remotely shy about declaring support for a shift in the hierarchy.
We had a meeting to start the season and they said this is my team, Rondo said in September. To allow me to lead the way speaks a lot to their character. Obviously, its not easy to let a young guy take charge. I earned their respect. I think its time for me to accept the role and step up.
So, has he?
Were barely a month into the season, but I dont think its too early to ask that question. Or at least, to investigate how the face and identity of this team has evolved since Rondo grabbed the proverbial torch and hopped into the proverbial drivers seat. Has anything really changed? And if so, how? And why? And does it even matter?
Lets take a look.
First of all, theres no question that Rondos transformation is most glaring on the surface. In a broader, more basic and traditional sense, he easily stands alone in the Celtics superstar spotlight. Hes the most galvanizing player. Hes the most dominant player. Hes the most ridiculed player. Hes the most complicated player. Hes the player most likely to land a new commercial deal, to represent Boston in the All-Star game, to appear on SportsCenters Top 10 andor be at the center of any national NBA campaign. He is the guy. He is the franchise.
These days, in the hours leading up to a big game or for that matter, any game theres barely any buzz surrounding Pierce and Garnett. Theyre secondary players in the hype. When you think about: Who are Pierce and Garnetts biggest rivals in todays NBA? Who are you dying to see them face-off against?
Pierce-LeBron isnt what it used to be. Pierce-World Peace barely exists. Pierce-Melo is nice, but never quite registered with the others. As for Garnett, yeah, it was fun watching him and Tim Duncan last week, but more than anything, that was nostalgia. In terms of real, top-notch, marquee-drawing rivalries, its all nostalgia for Pierce and KG.
On the other hand, we cant get enough of the point guards. The rivalries between Rondo and PaulParkerWestbrookWilliamsHolidayJenningsetc. are at the center of every NBA discussion, on a local and national level. In fact, at this point, Rondos place among the leagues elite PGs pretty much makes up the bulk of Bostons national identity. In other words, they are defined by Rondos success.
But thats all perception. To this point, everything Ive mentioned is perception; how others see and react to whats going on with the Celtics as opposed to how things are actually playing out on the inside or in plain sight out on the court. And in that sense, the passing of the torch has been pretty overrated. I dont say that as a criticism of Rondo as much as of the people who overrated it to begin with, but either way, heres the reality.
Possession of the torch hasnt had a profound effect on Rondos game, or on the way that he approaches it. There are still nights when hes one of the best players on the planet, but there are still nights when hes not ready to give the Celtics what they need. When theres a reluctance to defend the perimeter, attack the hoop and get to the foul line as much as he should. There are still times when you wonder if he might care about his assist total just a little too much.
Of course, I'm splitting hairs here. There's no question that Rondo is one of the best point guards in the league, and there are few guys I'd rather have running my team. But coming into this season, the expectations both mentally and physically were off the charts, and to this point Rondo's not quite there.
But on the bright side, even though theyve forfeited the spotlight, Pierce and Garnett are still shining in the background, and supporting Rondo in ways that may now go overlooked, but are as essential as ever.
So far, Pierce is the only Celtic to hit double-figures in every game this season. And while hes struggled some from the field shooting a career-low .438 percent hes shooting a career-high 43 percent from three-point land and 87 percent from the foul line. Hes also averaging 20 points a night for only the second time since KG's arrival, and still gets to the line more than six times a game, while averaging nearly 5.5 rebounds. Sure, there a times when it's very clear that hes 35 years old, but thats nothing new. This isnt the first season that Pierce has shown signs of age. More importantly, he shows just as many signs of still being able to hang with the best like he did on Friday night, when he put the C's on his back against OKC.
Like Pierce, Garnetts scoring is up this season. In fact, his 15.9 points per game would be his best since 2008. Like Pierce, he also can't bring it every night (which is why they need Rondo so much in the first), but he still picks his moments, and carries the Celtics in his own way. The passing of the torch seems to have been good to Garnett in that it alleviates some of the pressure that he's dealt with over his legendary career. I think it's made for a looser KG. Not in terms of his intensity, but in his willingness to take big shots. And while's he's maybe lost a half a step on defense, his presence within the Celtics framework is just as defined, and still affects the Green in ways that Rondo never will.
But that won't matter as much to the rest of the league. In their eyes, the Celtics are Rondo's team now. Regardless of what actually happens, he's the guy who will get the credit. He's the guy who will end up in the MVP discussion and find his way to All-Star Weekend. And you know what? He should. He deserves it. Pierce and KG have already been there, done that, and don't need that kind of attention anymore. However, with a month now in the books, they probably deserve some.