WALTHAM, Mass. — In the natural ebb and flow of Boston fans’ opinion of one Rajon Pierre Rondo, this is the time pretty much everybody wants to trade him.
The tilt of popular opinion is predictable. When Rondo records a triple-double in a Game 7 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs, he is the indispensable anchor of a championship-caliber team. When he gets ejected for one of his emotional outbursts, he is the unpredictable hothead who will never be reliable enough to lead a true contender.
Right now, with Rondo suspended two games for his role in an altercation with Brooklyn Nets forward Kris Humphries on Wednesday night, Rondo the hothead is the predominant characterization around town. Celtics fans still love him, naturally, and they say they would never trade him for any point guard in the world, but if the right offer came along …
The reality is that many of the same traits that make Rondo tiresome are also what make him great. There are only two perfect players currently plying their trades in the NBA: LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Every other star player, no matter how good, presents some sort of trade-off. Kobe Bryant cannot defend anybody anymore. Dwight Howard is a late-game liability because of his poor free-throw shooting. Carmelo Anthony is a one-dimensional scorer who is only now beginning to realize his potential.
For Rondo, the trade-off is his disposition. He may not smile for the cameras or always turn the other cheek, but he will fearlessly step up to defend James despite giving up seven inches and 70 pounds. He may bump a referee in a playoff game, but he will deliver a 44-point performance for the ages later in the postseason. He may show horrible judgment by instigating a “pushing war” with an opposing player, but he will also drag his useless arm up and down the court in a crucial playoff game.
“This game’s a contact sport,” Rondo said Thursday, following practice but before the NBA announced his two-game suspension. “It’s an emotional game. I play it with an edge every night. I think that’s what separates me from a lot of guys, so I’m not going to let that take me away from my game.”
Nobody should condone Rondo’s actions against the Nets, but by now Celtics fans should understand them. Perhaps it is time for Rondo, at age 26, to grow up and stop taking offense to what he perceives as unfair treatment from officials or disrespect from opponents. Even Michael Jordan eventually grew up and learned to trust his teammates, and six championships later it is safe to say things worked out pretty well for him. But Jordan never really changed. He refocused his maniacal insecurity on his opponents, rather than on the Bulls’ entitled front office or his lesser-skilled teammates, but his Hall of Fame induction speech proved that his skin never actually thickened.
Similarly, the Rondo we have gotten over the past calendar year is most likely the Rondo we are going to have for the rest of his career in Boston, however long that lasts. He will be alternately amazing and maddening, sort of like Dennis Johnson was in Seattle and Phoenix. Many Bostonians may not recall that Johnson had a reputation with his first two NBA employers as being a petulant brat, even after he seized Most Valuable Player honors for the SuperSonics in the 1979 NBA Finals. After getting run out by the Sonics and Suns, Johnson settled in Boston, where he proceeded to become Larry Bird‘s favorite teammate and won two more rings with the Celtics. By ridding themselves of DJ’s headaches, the Sonics and Suns also robbed themselves of his brilliance.
Rondo presents the same quandary. While Rondo wrestled with Humphries behind the stanchion on Wednesday, more than a few Celtics diehards surely wondered if their team would be better off without this foolishness. Maybe they would. A lot of pretty good point guards manage to show up and put in a day’s work for a day’s pay, from Mike Conley and Goran Dragic to Deron Williams and Tony Parker.
When Rondo is at his worst, any of those guys — not to mention a few point guards nobody would ever classify as being at Rondo’s level — probably are preferable for the Celtics. Yet when Rondo is at his best, very few players are better, including James and Durant. In those cases, Rondo makes up for his inexplicable behavior by being even better than perfect, which is a trade-off the Celtics may simply have to accept.