Rondo’s time is now

Rondo’s time is now
August 15, 2014, 1:45 pm
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(AP Photo)

The NBA released its schedule on Wednesday night and that means only one thing — 11 more weeks until basketball season!

Granted that’s a long time, but I promise it will fly by. Before you know it, faster than you can say Vitaly Potapenko, it will be Aug. 23 and Kevin Love will be a Cavalier and LeBron will post a carefully crafted Instagram pic that leaves the league buzzing. On Aug. 30, Team USA will kick off the FIBA World Cup in Spain and as long as they have enough players, will hopefully stay in contention until the gold medal game on Sept. 14. At that point, it will almost be time for Media Day and then training camp and then preseason and then MORE PRESEASON OH PLEASE MAKE IT STOP and then —

Opening Night.

The Celtics kick off their new season on Oct. 29, at home against the Brooklyn Nets, and right now it looks like Rajon Rondo will still be wearing green. Of course, nothing’s guaranteed. The phone lines are still open. Two years ago, the Thunder traded James Harden four days before Opening Night. Things happen. Players get injured. Opinions and priorities change. But at this moment, smart money’s on Rondo playing for the Celtics this fall. And as long as Rondo plays for the Celtics, people will argue over whether Rondo should still play for the Celtics.

He’s as polarizing as they come. He’s immigration. He’s Israel. He’s Hobby Lobby. He’s a genius. He’s an a-hole. He’s so unselfish and so unselfish that he’s actually selfish. He’s misunderstood. He’s maniacal. He’s many things to many people and there’s very little middle ground. But as usual, that’s where the truth lies. And in the never-ending fight to win the Rondo debate, the truth is often ignored or just drowned out by all the yelling. So here in the dog days of summer, I wanted to take a second and reset the Rondo story. Just a quick reminder of how we got here. And for the sake of space and time and Stephen Hawking, we’ll start with the 2012 playoffs:

***
What happened in the 2012 playoffs?

Derrick Rose’s first major injury opened the door for the so-so Celtics to sneak into the Eastern Conference Finals for one more shot against the heavily favored Heat. Heavily-heavily favored. So much so that Dan Shaughnessy slapped Boston with his patented Tomato Can Troll Treatment. And he only writes that column 15 times a year. This was serious stuff.

Five games later, the Celtics were up 3-2 and at home with a chance to claim their third Eastern Conference crown in five years. Then Lebron exorcised his demons and Miami won back-to-back titles, but in Boston, that series was about Rondo. He was the reason the Celtics almost stole it. He led the team in scoring (20.9), steals (1.9) and assists (11.3) a game. He was second in rebounding (6.9).

This wasn’t Rondo’s first impressive playoff performance — he’d made a young career out of rising to the occasion — but this was different. For the first five games, before LeBron’s awakening, Rondo was the best player in a series that included six future Hall of Famers. He dominated games for long stretches, and because he’s Rondo, he did so in a way that we’d never seen before.

People talked about 2012 Playoff Rondo the way they do 2014 Playoff Kawhi Leonard. He was a transcendent talent who was finally ready to shine and bridge the gap to another glorious era.

The Celtics were convinced. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, with the blessing of Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge, willfully stepped aside and handed Rondo the keys. And Rondo gratefully accepted.

“It's not easy to let a young guy take charge,” he said in September 2012: “I earned their respect. I think it was time for me to accept the role and step up.”

***
As it turned out, it wasn’t time. Or Rondo wasn’t ready.

The first few months of that 2012 season were a disaster, and it all started with Rondo. His play and effort were uneven. He wasn’t scoring as much or rebounding as much. He once went four straight games without taking a foul shot. Of course, his assists were off the charts, tops in the league, but the offense was four points per possession worse when he was on the floor. That player from the Heat series only showed up in spurts even though his teammates needed so much more.

It looked like Rondo was coasting; doing the same thing he’d done in prior years despite promising that this year would be different. He looked to be pacing himself for a time and place that was worthy of his full effort. You know, just getting ready for the playoffs because as far as he knew, that’s what always happens after the regular season: You make the playoffs, turn on the jets and show the world what you’ve really got.

Anyway, on Jan. 25, 2013, only 43 games into the season, Rondo tore his ACL in Atlanta and that was that. He never played another game with Pierce and Garnett. He hasn’t played a postseason game since that almost legendary series in Miami. Back when he was 26, just entering his prime and ready to carry the torch for a team that still had championship aspirations.

One day at practice before that 2012 season, Rondo spoke with reporters about taking over the team and his relationship with Kevin Garnett and said: “Kevin's my closest friend on the team. From Day 1 my second year on the team, he told me he would be disappointed if I wasn't MVP of the league one day, if I wasn't the best point guard in the league.”

Today, Rondo’s six months shy of his 29th birthday, on the other side of potentially career-altering injury and in a contract year for team with absolutely no shot to win it all.

Today, he’s probably a Top 10 point guard. Probably. And don’t get me wrong, Rondo at his best is one of the best point guards in the league. I’d take that guy from the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals over almost anyone. But that was more than two years ago. And at this point, if Rondo keeps waiting for the playoffs to turn on his real charm, we may never see it again.

Which is my way of saying that we need to see it now.

At this very moment, the truth about Rondo lies somewhere between the player his fans fondly remember and the one his detractors have watched since. He’s done things to fuel both sides of the debate and also suffered an injury that throws a devastating curveball into the equation. Which is just crazy. The guy was mysterious enough as he was. Now, 11 weeks before the start of the season, no one’s sure who he is or what he’ll be, and in the meantime, the debate rages on.

But the answer will come on Oct. 29, when Rondo (barring a trade) takes the court against his old buddy KG (barring retirement and falling off the face of the Earth). Game 1 — Opening Night — and then every night until Rondo’s either traded or re-signs. As far as I’m concerned, after all he’s been through, and where the team stands today, there’s no more debate after that. When the season begins, Rondo is who he is. Either a great player or just a great talent.

And don’t cut him any slack for playing on a bad team because guess what? That’s life.

When Kevin Garnett was 29 years old, the Timberwolves went 33-49; his best teammates were Ricky Davis and Wally Szczerbiak; he started games alongside Marcus Banks and Mark Blount — KG played 76 games, averaged 39 minutes, 21.8 points, a league-leading 12.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.4 steals a night.

When Paul Pierce was 28, the Celtics went 33-49, his best teammates were Ricky Davis and Wally Szczerbiak; he started games alongside Marcus Banks and Mark Blount — and wow, he and KG must’ve shared some stories. Anyway, Pierce played 79 games, averaged 39 minutes, a career-high 26.8 points, plus 6.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.4 steals a game.

They were stars that played like stars.

And if that’s what Rondo is, that’s who Rondo will be.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine