BY MICHAEL FLANAGAN
The end of 2014 marks the end of the brief and controversial Rajon Rondo Era in Boston. CSN promos and ticket stubs will try to sell us on the Jeff Green Era, the Brad Stevens Age…the Pre-Olynyk Period? But make no mistake, the “rebuilding phase” of the past season-plus just became the second full-on Dark Age in the sprawling history of the Boston Celtics.
Most obviously, the new-look C’s utterly lack a go-to guy. If star players grow on trees, Jeff Green grew on a potted asparagus fern. Rondo might have been less than the ideal first option on offense, but his status as an elite point guard is undisputed (at least outside New England). Marcus Smart will likely take over the 1-spot in the starting lineup, but don’t expect him to adequately fill Rondo’s Antas. Smart has the same deficiencies that drove Rondo detractors mad–namely, poor shooting–and none of the championship experience, Oscar-like stats, or stonehearted killer instinct Rondo brought to the table.
Still, the franchise is in drastically better shape than it was the last time it faced an uncertain future. Danny Ainge deserves a nod for bringing in Brad Stevens and a medal for creating a workable atmosphere for the young coach in a media market known for its irrational impatience (alternately known as “passion”). The last time the Celtics brass lured a high-profile college coach from the top of the NCAA world, he promised, among other things, the “best backcourt in the NBA” and a quick turnaround back to NBA glory. He did this to the resounding adulation of a packed Fleet Center crowd that resembled a mob of North Koreans (the 1997 draft special often runs late-night on CSN during the offseason and is well worth watching for twisted nostalgia’s sake). Ron Mercer and Chauncey Billups, that year’s prized lottery picks, became a hack and a Finals MVP, respectively–both for different teams.
Unlike Rick Pitino, Stevens is a totem of humility and has maintained reasonable (that is to say, low) expectations. Despite his complete lack of pro experience, Ainge gave the 38-year-old coach a blank slate of a roster and six years of job security–a luxury usually reserved for the Kevin Garnetts of the world–in a gesture of total faith in the arduous rebuilding process.
By adding Rondo to the list of players who “aren’t walking through that door,” Ainge bought Stevens even more time and flexibility to flesh out their collective vision of the Celtics’ future. It gives the young pieces that may or may not be part of the future a chance to develop out from under the dark cloud of Rondo-related trade hysteria, and it gives the indistinguishable mush of media/bloggers/fans a chance to cover something else. It also gives Rondo a new lease on his NBA prime, a real chance to win a second ring while he’s relevant enough to make a significant contribution.
Ainge deserves still more credit for shipping Rondo out to a great situation in Dallas rather than to another bottom-feeder stuck in NBA purgatory, where elite point guards are wasted on porous rosters. NBA trades are complex and more about balancing assets than talent. Still, I’d be shocked if a desperate team couldn’t have offered more than Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson’s corpse, a Euroleague lifer’s son, and conditional picks for an electrifying all-star with championship pedigree.
If Ainge did, in fact, wait for a Rondo-friendly deal to come along, it wouldn’t be the first time he reciprocated loyalty in parting ways with a star. He traded Pierce and Garnett to what then appeared to be a winning situation in Brooklyn when the Big Three Era ended two seasons ago. He traded star coach Doc Rivers, at his request, to a Clippers team that finally looks like a perennial contender. Ray Allen could not be reached for comment.
All this flies in the face of the pervasive Rondo myth, which paints him as a petulant prima donna who refuses to practice free-throw shooting out of sheer spite. He’s more concerned about his assist records than his team’s record. He’s cocky, uncoachable, incapable of holding his wild, bottle-throwing temper. He doesn’t respect authority. He wears his headband upside-down. He’s a lousy leader (despite his teammates’ testimonials), a remorseless thug (despite absolutely no criminal record). He’s unapologetically cold and contemptuous of the media. That last is not a myth.
Rondo showed his true character–the reason why he deserved his former boss’s respect and loyalty on the way out–during the past season-and-a-half, while no one was watching. He maintained a positive attitude in the media and, from all we can see, on the court with his young teammates. He was a consummate leader, helping the likes of Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynyk become useful offensive tools, providing a semblance of consistency for the few holdovers–the Avery Bradelys, the Jared Sullingers–from the Big Three days. He groomed Marcus Smart, the Celtics’ lotto pick with a strikingly redundant skillset, knowing well he would inevitably be replaced.
He did this without one peep of a public trade demand, one single outburst unbecoming of a team captain. This is in stark contrast to the typical drama of high-profile NBA transactions–think Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, LeBron James. Celtics fans older than James Young will even remember a defiant Paul Pierce absorbing boos from his home Boston crowd during the dismal seasons preceding the New Big Three Era, chafed at the prospect of squandering his huge upside playing for a franchise that was terminally screwed.
Fast-forward a decade or so, and the only thing keeping Pierce’s #34 out of the rafters is his refusal to call it quits. If Rondo’s career pans out the way it’s poised to–if he continues to rack up assist records, triple-doubles, and classic playoff performances–his green #9 should be thrown up there as well. He singlehandedly kept the Celtics in contention during the final Big Three years, amassed some of the greatest postseason performances in NBA history, and outplayed the best players in the world in a heroic series of last-ditch efforts to scrape one more championship out of the old, dried-up well. More impressively, he helped soften the blow of his own departure, ensuring the integrity of the dismantled team’s foundation as Ainge decides what to do with all the picks coming his way, contracts coming off the books, young assets developing into valuable pieces.
On Friday, we’ll see how the TD Garden A/V staff treats Rondo, compared to the heartrending tributes Pierce, Garnett, and Rivers received upon their first trips back to Boston. We’ll see Rondo sprint full-court, crash to the floor and swipe the ball from Jason Williams. We’ll see him take a hard foul from Mario Chalmers, turn himself over and bust a few KG-style knuckle-pushups. We’ll see him raise the Larry O’Brien trophy as a wide-eyed runt among future first-ballot Hall of Famers, making his first of many marks on the most storied franchise in basketball.
But when we take our eyes off the JumboTron, in contrast to the returns of Pierce, KG, and Doc, we’re unlikely to see tears. The fanbase on both sides of the Rondo fence is ready to plunge into the depths of a major rebuild. Rondo is in the midst of a tight playoff bid out West, doing what he does best: holding open a creaky championship window with that gigantic wingspan on his, guiding aging legends back toward the promised land.