Are the Celtics better without Rondo?


Are the Celtics better without Rondo?

I dont receive a ton of reader feedback here at CSNNE, and truth be told, thats fine. I get it.

As a reader myself, its very rare that Im ever compelled to click ye olde E-mail the Author tab. So rare, that I can still vividly remember the last time it happened, despite the fact that its been more than five years.

It was May of 2007, and randomly enough, my e-mail was in response to a column by Jackie MacMullan about the now-legendary NBA playoff series between the Golden State Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks. You know the one Im talking about. Its one of the most captivating first round bouts of all time. That brief moment in history when Baron Davis and Stephen Jackson morphed into Americas Sweethearts. Anyway, after watching the Warriors emerge in Game 5 and take an unfathomable 3-1 series lead, MacMullan filed a column entitled An exciting game, and she wants in.

I have basketball envy, MacMullan wrote. Can't help it. I was watching Dallas implode against Golden State the other night and was transfixed by the energy pulsating from Oracle Arena, where the Warriors play. Golden State fans hadn't witnessed a playoff game in 13 years, and the place was positively trembling with excitement.

"You know, the way this town used to be."

As someone who watched and loved every second of that series, and who had also just lived through the most depressing Celtics season in a long, long time, these words struck a chord, leading (according to my gmail archives) to the following response:

Jackie: Thank you so much for writing about this series. Its truly amazing whats happening in Golden State. What Id give for even an ounce of that drama and excitement to return to Boston. Its been so long.

Naturally, she wrote back immediately to praise my unique perspective and offer me a job at the Globe. Of course, I respectively declined. But thats beside the point. In fact, the only reason I brought this up was to say that while my inbox isnt necessarily flooded with reader e-mails, theres a healthy helping, and of those, some of the best come from a reader named Dennis.

He lives in New York, is an enormous Celtics fan, and sent me the following note in the wake of Rajon Rondos torn ACL:

Now Danny and Doc will be able to see if Rondo is a big part of the problem, or if he's a big part of the future.

I thought that summed everything up nicely. Everything being the current mindset of folks here in Boston, and the foundation of a narrative thats set to explode as early as tonight, when the Cs host the Kings at TD Garden.

To take it a step further, its an issue that really boils down to one basic question:

Are the Celtics better without Rajon Rondo?

But in the media, you know that it will be simplified even more. The stars are aligned for all sorts of lazy assumptions. If the Celtics play well regardless of any other mitigating factors it will serve as undeniable proof that Boston is better without Rondo and should trade him immediately for anything they can get. An addition by subtraction kind of deal.

If the Celtics struggle? There will be nothing to say, but Im sure it will still end up being Rondos fault. Thats just the way it goes around here.

You know, Rondo might be the only player in NBA history to never have an off night.

Seriously, can you remember the last time you walked away from a Celtics game feeling indifferent about Rondos performance? When you shrugged your shoulders and just said, Eh, whatever. Everyones entitled to a bad game. I cant. With Rondo, its always and only one of two things. Either he played well or he wasnt trying. Theres very little in between.

In many ways, this mentalitys insanely unfair. After all, questioning a players effort is just about the lowest form of insult in professional sports. At the very least, its a close second behind telling your opponent that his wife tastes like an above average breakfast cereal. Yet thats the criticism thats dropped on Rondo after every subpar performance.

He just wasnt trying.

On the other hand, a lot of that criticism is justified. Even Rondos biggest supporters have to concede that hes earned this reputation and that at this very moment, the reputation and that negative vibe is stronger than ever.

Lets face it: This was supposed to be Rondos year. The year that he made the leap, grabbed the torch and every other clich. And thanks to his performance in last years playoffs, combined with all the hype that surrounded him this offseason, many folks in Boston gave him the benefit of the doubt. They ignored years of evidence that suggested that he was perhaps unfit to lead an NBA contender, and suspended belief in the name of positive thinking.

And Rondo let them down. Thats the truth. As the shock and emotion of his injury starts to fade, thats the reality were left with. That Rondos first season in spotlight, something that was built up and fawned for countless hours, days and weeks this offseason, was a train wreck. A failure. He just wasnt ready.

Now, is it possible that he would have turned it on down the stretch, and won back all of his detractors?

Forget possible, I say it was likely. I wouldnt be surprised if in the back of his mind, Rondo was always thinking, Nah, were cool. Once the real season starts, Ill takeover. But now hell never get that chance.

And anyway, he was supposed to be passed that. That was certainly the expectation in the Celtics locker room, and he was more than happy to run with it. The way it was presented to the fans and media, Rondo was done riding the regular season coattails of his Hall of Fame teammates. It was time for them to ride his. But in the end, he just wasnt there. Not as much as he needed to be.

If youre going to build around Rajon Rondo, he needs to show up every night, carry the load and set the tone, as opposed to only strutting his stuff when the rest of the countrys watching.

Are the Celtics better without Rajon Rondo?

It depends on which Rajon Rondo youre talking about.

It depends on who Rajon Rondo is.

Are they better without the guy who spent the last three months going through the motions? Looking at the record, its hard to imagine they could be much worse. In fact, all things considered, I think the Celtics will be better over the next few months without Rondo than they were over the last few months with him.

I think this team finally has something to rally around. I think a lot of the pseudo-championship expectations and pressure have been lifted and will lead to greater clarity and a fresh approach. I think two of the most disappointing and inconsistent players over the first half of the season Courtney Lee and Jason Terry will obviously pick up additional playing time, and in the process get comfortable and start looking more like the players everyone expected them to be.

Above all else, I think Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are about to reach down as deep as they possibly can. How much do they have left? Thats obviously the question, but once again, its their time. This is their team. They wont let this season go down the tubes without giving it the fight of their lives.

Will they compete for a title? Very, very, verrrrrry unlikely. And of course, if the team is further decimated by injuries, or just goes belly up, then this whole conversation is moot. But looking at this roster, my moneys on the Celtics finishing above .500 without Rondo. I can even see them winning a first round series. At the very least, I can see them recapturing some of the spirit and character that was lost over the last few months; I think theyll be a more fun team to cheer for. And a lot of that will come down on Rondos head.

At that point, the underlying question will turn into definitive statement.

It wont be, Are the Celtics better without Rondo?

But instead: The Celtics are better without Rondo. Period. Point blank.

Of course in saying that, and believe me, people will, well be ignoring the potential andor existence of Rondos other identity. He used to go by Good Rondo. These days, Id say its more like Great Rondo. For now, hes the guy who only shows up for games that the point guard deems worthy. But when he does show up, theres no denying his dominance. There are few players that anyone rookie, veteran, future Hall of Famer would rather share the court with. As a fan, there are few players who make the game more fun. Is this team better without the Rondo from last years playoffs? Is this Celtics team, without Rondo, good enough to push Miami to the brink?

We still dont know what it will take for Great Rondo to kill Bad Rondo and assume total control of the Rondo persona. And just to be fair, its worth asking if the Celtics have done all they can to put Great Rondo in the best position to succeed.

Its hard to erase the gory memory of that stretch earlier this season when Rondo was starting alongside Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, Kevin Garnett and Jason Collins. Thats pretty good for 2005, but in reality, hows Rondo young, athletic, one of the quickest guards in the league and a master in the open floor supposed to excel alongside four guys who struggle to run up-and-down the court? He's not that kind of guy. Not that kind of player. For better or worse.

If the Celtics manage to re-discover themselves over the next few months, the worse aspects of Rondo will most definitely win out. Hell get more criticism for the teams success than the team will get praise. It will be so difficult to ignore the positive changes brought on by his absence, and leave Danny Ainge in company to do some serious soul searching.

Is Rondo a big part of the problem, or a big part of the future?

As with most things Rondo-related, theres not an easy answer, but you have to assume that it will be at least a little clearer by the time the dust settles on the 2013 season. And you better believe that the answer or more, whatever Danny and Doc ultimately decide will go a long way in shaping the short and long-term future of this franchise.

It could make the difference between another string of inspiring playoff appearances and a return to where we were before that. Which is stuck watching the playoffs every year without a rooting interest, and just dying for that long lost excitement.

Rich can be reached at Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrich_levine