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Changing of the guard: why Rondo matters most.

September 12, 2009

CelticsBlog had a great write-up on KG the other day. Jeff kept it incredibly clear and simple: it all comes down to KG. As Jeff indicates, all news that’s coming out of the Celtics’ corner is good news gearing up for training camp… but who knows what’s really going on inside that right knee. KG’s the only person who might have a clue, and who knows what that’s worth. The guy might play in a wheelchair this year if he has to…

So we know KG is more of a wildcard for this upcoming season. I think it’s safe to say that we know what we are getting with Pierce and Ray Ray. With additional rest of these aging stars, it can be expected that they’ll be stronger, more effective, and more consistent in the playoffs. We know that Perk has truly established himself as one of the premier low-post defenders who can give you terrific defense, rebounding, and consistency. Although it may take the big fella 17 seconds to set up a post move on the low block, we still have undeniable love for him. Perk’s getting paid to stop centers and box the crap out of opposing rebounders– and he’s earning his paycheck. He deserves a huge kudos and should have been a serious contender last year for the Most Improved Player (but his stats didn’t tell the story of his play).

That almost rounds out the starting 5: this of course brings us back to #9. For you loyal readers, you know that we at Hardwood Houdini have a big non-sexual crush on Rajon Rondo in a strictly sporty sense.

During the 2008-2009 season, a phrase became popularized during the mid-season ups and downs of Rondo: “As Rondo goes, so go the Celtics.” When Rondo played well, the Celtics played well. When Rondo stunk, the Celtics stunk. When teams were switching it up on defense and playing bigger positions against Rondo (the 3s and 4s) and giving him ample room to shoot (and thus clogging the lane against his ability to get into the paint), we saw problems. But this problem became less of an issue as the season continued. His shooting improved (slightly). He was able to penetrate through into the paint anyway. Part of Rondo’s maturing process this past year was shown in his ability to throw the Celtics on his back during important times in the season, particularly in the opening round of the playoffs against CHI.

Take a look at his statistical averages in the 2008 playoffs and the 2009 playoffs (see more here http://www.82games.com/0809/08BOS1.HTM), courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com:

Granted, no KG meant more shots and opportunities for Rondo to score. With Perk boxing guys out, that left the roaming free-safety Rondo to snag boards. With guys like Ray Ray and Pierce on fire, it allowed Rondo to rack up the assists. We can come up with plenty of ways to justify Rondo’s inflated numbers like I just did above because stats are often a product of the system and surrounding players… but the simple fact of the matter is the Celts would have fallen to the young/hungry Bulls led by their own PG Derrick “SATs” Rose if it weren’t for Rondo’s productivity.

Our point guard has changed. Our point guard has evolved. There’s only room to grow. What’s in store for Rondo in this contract year?

Here are 9 things that #9 must do in order for the Celtics to rally behind him and be an actual contender:

#9. Improve that outside shooting. We’ve talked over and over about this: his shooting must improve if he wants to be in the conversation for top 3 point guards in the NBA. Parker can shoot. CP3 can shoot. Rose can shoot. D-Will can shoot. Many have attributed the poor shooting to the fact that he has freakishly large hands and an unusually long wing-span: it’s difficult to hold the ball and have a fluid follow through. That may be true, but this gentleman also gets paid a fair amount of money to just play basketball. He better be living at the gym this off-season and taking hundreds of shots from the same paint every day. He needs to develop that knock-down 17-footer from both elbows. If Rondo can even become a 35% shooter from these places, then teams really won’t know how/where to guard him.

#8. Stop bitching if he’s bitching. The attitude needs to be adjusted. In a contract year, this is a big decision for Danny/Wyc/Doc to make: is Rondo worth big money? Is he worth the 5 years/$55 million? The Celts are afraid if they offer the money, his head will only get bigger. I think the media has completely inflated the attitude problem… but that just means there is all the more reason to fix up how he acts.

#7. Be picky/choosy when you gamble. Yes Rondo was a second team all-defensive selection in 2009, but he still gambles too much… which means he also gets burned too much. For a guy with one of the quickest first steps in the league, he shouldn’t be getting burned by anyone. He’s close to becoming a lockdown perimeter defender, but needs to realize that stopping a player means more than stealing the ball. But damn he’s good at leaving guys open and anticipating the return pass, huh?

#6. Toughen up. Sam Cassell’s biggest advice to Rondo in the 2008 campaign is that he’s got too much English football in him: upon getting hit, he’s on the ground for eons. Cassell advised him to always pick himself up, shake it off, and cry about it later. Don’t sit on the ground and let the other team know that you’re hurt. I like this advice a lot: how many times did you see John Stockton flailing on the ground? As many times as you’ve seen elephants on the moon, son: ZERO.

#5. Get rid of the floater. Because of the quickness that he can get into the paint and the fact that his jumper is not pretty or even effective, he often puts up one-handed floaters while on the move. Tear-droppers that look like Tony Parker’s patented shot. The problem is that this shot is pretty hot/cold. It’s on or it isn’t. It’s a great shot when it’s falling because it’s can be difficult to block… but learn to pull up that shot off a jump-stop. Get the shot off with 2 hands.

#4. Get faster. At some point, many athletes hit a ceiling with how QUICK they are. The quickness in movement of hands and feet can only get better in small increments that may not even be noticeable… but Rondo still has the track legs in him. Rondo can get faster. This will only add to the repertoire of skills that make him deadlier on fast breaks.

#3. Continue to mix up the half-court ball with up-tempo ball. Doc has said before that he can’t yell out to Rondo every time the Celts gain possession: “Half-court set!” or “Push push push!” This is something Rondo needs to keep learning: when is a good time to push, and when is a good time to back-off and set up? The only issue with this: the players surrounding him are old. They won’t be running as much. Imagine if in 4 years the team rebuilds and Rondo becomes their #2 guy and he’s next to a Kevin Durant or a Brandon Roy type? It’s scary to think how good Rondo could be on a team with a pure scorer that can just create athletic and craft shots… Or even scarier to think if Rondo heads to a team like New York or Phoenix.

#2. Be smarter. In reality, he’s a pretty damn good point guard… but he still makes some silly decisions. A big area of improvement since his rookie days is the ball-handling. Rondo’s getting better at protecting the ball… but not as well as he could be. That ball is freakin’ gold: silly turnovers give opposing team points. He’s got to stop giving the other team points.

#1. Consistency. One game he looks to be a premier point guard, and then another he looks to be enjoying the best seat in the house. One game he is dominant, and another he is happy to be giving high-fives to players that he admired while in his teens (KG, Pierce, Ray). But seriously, Danny and Doc have pointed out the “FOCUS FACTOR” in young Rajon for a while. They are just preaching to the choir. This might be the biggest thing Rondo has to deal with this season: finding ways to stay fired up and carry this team through 82 games.

The road to the finals go through Orlando and Cleveland on our half of the tracks. Rondo’s the one, for better or worse, that holds the map to navigate through these patchy roads to get to their destination: Finals rematch against the Lakers.

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