Even Rajon Rondo admits he’s no coach’s dream, but all this business that began with some variation of, “He drove Doc Rivers out of town,” is getting out of hand.
Rondo isn’t a coach-killer, and he certainly isn’t the problem. In fact, he just might be the solution. Ask yourself this: Has the Celtics point guard publicly questioned the organization at any point throughout the two most tumultuous weeks of his tenure?
No? So, let’s stop putting words in Rondo’s mouth.
Just last month, he said: “It’s not that I’m hard to coach; it’s just that I may challenge what you say. I know the game myself. I’m out there playing, so I may have seen something different versus what you saw from the sidelines. I’m going to be respectable.”
Those aren’t exactly fighting words. Actually, speaking of fighting words, let’s review where this whole garbage about Rondo’s destructive demeanor started.
Erstwhile Kentucky coach Tubby Smith had Rondo on a short leash for two seasons, often benching him for attempting brilliance over boring and playing him out of position at shooting guard -- both of which seem ridiculous knowing Rondo’s strengths now.
Still, after two unspectacular seasons in Lexington, this was the DraftExpress scouting report on Rondo prior to his selection at No. 21 in the 2006 NBA draft.
“In terms of intangibles, it’s hard to get a great read because of all the chaos surrounding Kentucky’s program this year, but it appears that Rondo will test out just fine. He by all accounts has a good attitude towards the game and a strong character, being a bit on the quiet side (particularly with the Kentucky media, who he never seemed very fond of), highly unselfish, and probably not a trouble-making type. His work ethic is reportedly very strong, and, as we saw all season long, he does exactly what he’s told by his coaching staff.”
OK, then. We also didn’t hear much about Rondo’s stubbornness during his rookie season, when Rivers started Sebastian Telfair in more games, and Rondo didn’t seem much of a problem when he started all 26 games of the C’s run to the 2008 NBA championship.
Perhaps it was June 2009, when Celtics GM Danny Ainge openly ripped Rondo during an interview with Dennis & Callahan. “He’s got to grow up in some cases,” Ainge said, blasting Rondo for showing up late on occasion, coasting in cruise control on too many possessions and lacking sufficient leadership skills.
That’s the harshest public criticism Rondo has faced and likely the root of these rumors. Some of it surely was a negotiating ploy, since their 23-year-old point guard had just averaged a 17-10-10 for an entire postseason and had only one year left on his rookie deal.
In reality, Rondo was such a problem that the Celtics rewarded him with a five-year, $55 million contract, and he has reciprocated by becoming one of the league's best bargains. When you re-listen to that June 2009 interview, it’s actually the following comment from Ainge that stands out above all the criticism.
“Rondo certainly is not a disruptive force on our team. He’s a dynamic player, and we love the kid. So, we’re not looking to trade Rondo because he was late for a playoff game or because he has some growing up to do. Some of our 30-year-old players have growing up to do as well, so I think that there’s just a lot of speculation because Rondo’s expecting a contract, he was late for a playoff game and he didn’t play well in the Orlando series.
"And I think a lot of people are making more to do about something that’s not there.”
Was anyone complaining when Rondo averaged a 16-9-6 in leading the Celtics to Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals? How about when he dropped a 17-12-7 on their way to Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals? Everyone seemed to be singing a different tune then. It went something like this, which came during an August 2010 interview with Rivers on ESPN Radio, “He’s the smartest player that I’ve ever coached. His basketball IQ is off the charts.”
A real coach-killer, huh? This Rebellious Rondo idea popped up last summer, when his rift with Ray Allen was revealed. Although, that apparently came to a head when Allen wanted more touches and Rondo preferred Avery Bradley as his starting backcourt mate. Considering Bradley took Allen’s job and the Heat utilized Allen in a similarly diminished role, it's hard to pin that one on Rondo.
The bashing continued this past winter when the C’s won seven straight and 16-of-22 following Rondo's ACL injury. Many asked, “Are the Celtics better without Rondo?” And some even answered in the affirmative. Then, the C's finished 7-15, including their only first-round exit since Rondo joined the starting lineup.
Finally, this report surfaced just prior to Doc joining the Clippers last month: “Rondo dropped an F-bomb on Rivers in the locker room during a team meeting, and Rivers went after Rondo and tried to fight him before the fracas was broken up.”
Of course, Ainge confirmed the report, only it happened in 2011. During a film session between Games 2 and 3 of an Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Heat, Rondo responded to his coach’s criticism by throwing a water bottle through the video screen.
“I stood up and I did what I did,” Rondo told the Boston Herald in December 2011. “Doc stood up and said something, and that was it. I stormed out and left. That was it. I went home that night and thought about my actions. I talked to KG, and I came back the next day and apologized to the team.” The horror!
All Rondo did the following night was submit one of the most memorable performances of his Celtics career. When Dwyane Wade dislocated Rondo’s left elbow in Game 3, the 2011 playoffs were all but over for the Celtics, save for his 11 assists in a valiant one-armed return that inspired their only win of that series.
If being a coach-killer means you’re the starting point guard throughout a seven-year transformation of a sub-.500 coach into a revered title-winning leader of men worthy of an unprotected first-round pick in compensation, then I guess Rajon Rondo is a coach-killer.
Throughout his career, Kevin Garnett has notoriously shunned guys who don’t respect the game, and he never seemed to mind Rondo, forming a bond with “Shorty” that transcended a decade in age difference. Likewise, did you see Paul Pierce’s reaction upon learning of Rondo’s ACL tear? It’s not easy to grow in the shade of two Hall of Famers, let alone flourish. Yet, even as questions about his jump shot subsided, those Rebellious Rondo rumors persisted.
Don’t get me wrong. Rondo isn’t all roses and sunshine. We all know Bad Rondo. He’s the guy who chest bumps the occasional referee, shoved Kris Humphries into the front row of the Garden (now that tandem should be fun) and still struggles with consistency.
But Good Rondo is spectacular. He’s the guy who once stole the spotlight from LeBron James, dropped an 18-20-17 on the Knicks and warranted this praise from Kobe Bryant: “I love everything about him. Everything. I love his attitude, I love his chippy-ness, his edge, his intellect, his know-it-all-ness. All of it. That’s what makes championship players.”
So it goes with Rondo, though. Without a peep from the point guard, entire media panels discussed: How will Rondo react to the hiring of Brad Stevens? Said Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy: “How's he going to listen to this little kid coaching him, this 36-year-old guy?”
Then, Stevens announced, “There is no bigger Rajon Rondo fan than me,” citing his point guard’s reputation as an extraordinary talent and intellectual in trusted basketball circles. Suddenly, Stevens, who embraced analytics almost from birth, and Rondo, who once taught an Algebra class and often credits his success to an understanding of angles, don’t seem such a strange pair.
Remember, Pierce was once petulant and Rivers untested, too. Now, one’s a Celtics legend in a conversation that includes Bill Russell, Larry Bird and John Havlicek, and the other sits behind only Red Auerbach in franchise playoff victories. Perceptions change.