Three years ago, the Celtics' core group of guards was threadbare and desperate for an overhaul. Now it's booming. Call it the House that Rajon Rondo Built — and this fall, with the C's convened in Newport, R.I., for training camp and with the C's running 20 deep, that house is crowded as ever.
Delonte West, Nate Robinson, Von Wafer, Avery Bradley if he gets healthy, Mario West if he makes the team — it's a jam-packed group of role players on the Celtics' bench, none of whom were here when the C's arrived in Newport last September. This is a deeper group than we've seen in Boston in a long time, but Rondo remains the focal point of it all, and he knows it.
"It's going to make me better," Rondo said of the Celtics' guard depth. "Simple as that. I won't play as many minutes this year, probably, but as long as we win, I'm fine with that. We've got a lot of guys that can play different roles — Nate's a scorer, so he can move to the two, Delonte can play the one. I don't know who's actually on the team right now, but for the most part, we did a great job this summer of bringing guys in."
All the pieces around Rondo continue to change, but the Celtics' unflappable point guard enters his fifth NBA season exactly the same. He's still laser-focused, he's still hyper-competitive, and he's still the most important member of a C's team that's setting out this season in search of Banner 18.
It's a wonder that Rondo's still so committed to the Celtic cause. It takes a special kid not to get carried away when he's showered with too many accolades at too young an age. Rondo was an NBA champion at age 22, and at 23, he had a guaranteed $55 million contract coming his way. He's now considered the leader of a loaded Celtics team that should contend to win a championship.
With most guys, all the hoopla would get to their heads. Rondo doesn't blink at it.
"It changes some," coach Doc Rivers said. "But it doesn't change the great ones. [Michael] Jordan had a lot of paydays, but he still played hard, and he was still pretty good. So was [Larry] Bird. I think the great ones — Dwyane Wade plays pretty hard, Kobe [Bryant] has had his paydays and he plays pretty hard. So I think it depends on who you are. But with the great ones, and the guys who want to be great, it never changes."
The question now, though, is whether Rondo makes another leap this season. He's already crossed that threshold into NBA stardom, but he's still only 24 and still has plenty of potential. The Celtics would love nothing more than for their leader to keep growing, to keep evolving. It's easier said than done.
"Every great player has to find something to motivate themselves, to get themselves to the next level," Paul Pierce said. "Rondo still has some ways to go to get to where I think he can go. That's why he'll continue to work. But he's going to have to find something to motivate himself. Yeah, he got the contract. Yeah, he got a ring. Yeah, he made the All-Star team. But there's still a lot of things for him to accomplish. And that's up to him, to find the motivation each and every day to improve himself."
If you've watched Rondo's career to this point, if you've witnessed his rise from raw 20-year-old kid out Kentucky to budding NBA superstar, you know how he got here. Everything Rondo's achieved in his career has been born out of playing with a chip on his shoulder.
When he first arrived in Boston, as the No. 21 overall pick in the 2006 draft, people doubted he'd be able to play right away. When he was joined by Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen the following summer and the Celtics built toward a championship, people doubted he could be the point guard of a title-winning team. When he won that title and threatened to take the next step toward stardom, people doubted him once more.
But at every stop on his journey, he's disproved the doubters. And if he wants to keep improving, he'd best keep his mind focused and his shoulder chipped.
"I think he'll always have the chip," Rivers said. "People still want to see him make shots. He didn't make the Olympic team last time, and he probably wants to do that. He's still young. Rondo's still got a lot of things to prove."
Rondo's development has been bolstered, no doubt, by having Rivers by his side every step of the way. He's played all four years of his career with the same head coach, and it can't hurt that said coach is a former All-Star point guard himself.
"It's very important to me," Rondo said of his bond with Rivers. "We might have the most important relationship on the court, point guard and coach, because I'm an extension of him out there on the court and I've got to know what he expects and wants out of us."
Rivers has never stopped pushing Rondo to get better. And Rondo, to his credit, has never stopped working.
"We worked on the elbow jump shot this summer," Rivers said. "I could care less if he makes the 3. But he has to get that elbow shot down, so guys have to guard him better on the pick and roll."
It's remarkable that the Celtics are still pushing to improve upon a guy who shattered their all-time season assists and steals records last season. A guy who singlehandedly carried his team on nights when the veteran Big Three around him wasn't feeling it. A guy who threw down an absurd 29-18-13 stat line against the Cavaliers in a crucial playoff game last spring.
"How much better do you want him to get?" laughed Pierce.
"He's not going to get the MVP, because of our team. But you know, he's going to be an All-Star, he's going to improve. But you're looking a team that makes it hard to say. Because we've got so many great players, it's hard to say who's going to put up certain types of numbers. I mean, a lot of us, we're judged by the numbers we put up. So if Rondo's numbers are not the same as last year, does that mean he improves or doesn't improve? Not necessarily, because we've added pieces. I expect him to get better, but maybe his numbers won't show it.
"Then, maybe they will."
Pierce is right — with this team, nothing is certain. There are too many moving pieces involved for the Celtics to have a clear vision of their future. But amid all that movement, Rajon Rondo stands in the middle of it all, unwavering, the cornerstone of the C's quest for another championship.
And he's ready to go.
"This the most talented group I've played with," Rondo said. "I'm just looking forward to it. Let's see what we can do on the court."
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