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Chew, chew, chew, gulp, swallow. For breakfast, lunch, and dinner this week, I have been eating my words – and man did they go down easy. On Monday night, the Celtics confirmed that Rajon Rondo agreed to a five-year contract extension worth at least $55 million. Rondo got both Celtic and monetary green, and everyone is happy.
The 49th hour paid off, and Rondo will be a Celtic for the next five years. Over the weekend, my negative outlook on the contract negotiations stemmed from my disbelief that Rondo would even consider going elsewhere when he fits the Celtics like a glove. I’m glad that he read my article and reconsidered. Rondo is now $55 million richer, the Celtics are $55 million poorer, and both parties got what they wanted. The Celtics are pleased with Rondo’s leadership thus far this season, which encouraged Ainge’s last-minute decision to pony up $10 million more than his initial proposal. Now Rondo is ready to win another title in Boston without any ulterior contractual motives.
Rondo’s contract is inked and the distractions are over, so it’s time for the Celtics to buckle down and focus on winning the NBA Finals. OK, maybe that’s a bit premature, but it’s certainly on the radar. Was signing Rondo, or any “elite” point guard, necessary to put Boston in a position to win another title? Eleven million dollars per year is a lot to spend on someone who averaged 12 points and eight assists per game last year, especially considering the effectiveness of rest of the Celtics’ starting lineup.
But have you seen the Celtics without Rondo on the floor? It’s not pretty. Bringing the ball up the court, which isn’t a glamorous part of a point guard’s job description, is often taken for granted. The point guard gets the ball from point A (one side of the floor) to point B (the other side) and sets up the offense. Eddie House hasn’t seen much success in that endeavor, and by no means is new acquisition Marquis Daniels point guard material. The Celtics need Rondo to get the ball up the floor, they need to get the ball up the floor to put points on the board, they need points on the board to win games, and they need to win games to be in a position to win a championship. Thus, by the transitive property, the Celtics need Rondo to win a championship.
Rondo’s 2008-09 averages (11.9 ppg, 8.2 apg, 5.3 rpg) are not as impressive as the crème de la crème of NBA point guards like Chris Paul (22.8, 11, 5.6), Brandon Roy (22.6, 5.1, 4.7), and Steve Nash (15.7, 9.7, 3.1). Rondo’s scoring output is noticeably lower than that of his foes, but his assists and rebounds are noteworthy. Rondo is criticized for his lack of a jumper, but he doesn’t need that in his Celtic repertoire. The Celtics rely on Rondo to be a true point guard and create for his teammates, while Paul, Roy, and Nash are depended upon heavily by their respective teams to do, well, almost everything. Rondo fits in Boston because he fulfills the standard point guard duty of putting his teammates into a position to carry the scoring load.
Two years ago, Rondo was essentially a no-name point guard who won an NBA title. Last year’s NBA Finals point guards were the Lakers’ Derek Fisher and the Magic’s Rafer Alston, neither of whom are elite players. Fisher, a 13-year vet, has spent most of his career with the Lakers, while Alston, a ten-year vet, was a mid-season acquisition for the Magic after Jameer Nelson went down with an injury. Despite Alston’s mid-season trade, he put up a consistent 12 points and five assists per game with both the Rockets and the Magic. The Magic were prudent in filling the void at the point, and Alston played his role and helped his new team to the Finals.
Last season, both the Lakers and Magic had guys who could flat out put the ball in the hoop. Fisher had a supporting cast of Kobe, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Lamar Odom, and Trevor Ariza, while Alston had Dwight Howard, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, and Courtney Lee. Fisher and Alston were first responsible for giving those guys the rock, and secondarily responsible for looking to create scoring opportunities for themselves. Rondo is in that same boat with the Celtics, and although he may not overload the stat sheet, his role is integral to the team’s success.
Let’s not jump to the conclusion that point guards can’t score. The aforementioned Paul, Roy, and Nash have no problem scoring points, and Derrick Rose averaged nearly 17 points per game in his rookie campaign. Lately, however, the NBA has seen an influx of quick, agile, athletic two-guards and forwards (Kobe, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Amar’e Staudemire, Danny Granger, et al), and point guards have become pawns in the system. Unlike chess, however, these pawns are certainly not disposable. Notably, John Stockton was a pawn who averaged 13 points and ten assists over his 19-year NBA career. Thirteen points may not sound like a lot, but combined with ten assists, that means that Stockton was, on average, responsible for at least 33 of his team’s points in every game for 19 seasons. Wow.
Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and Jason Kidd fall into a rare category of point guards who can score, pass, and rebound just as well as, if not better than, anyone else on the floor. Most point guards serve as distributors who can easily get lost in NBA highlight reels filled with monstrous dunks, acrobatic and-ones, and high-flying blocks.
Since the inception of the NBA MVP award in the 1955-56 season, only seven guards have claimed it. They are Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson (three times), Jordan (five times), Allen Iverson, Steve Nash (twice) and Kobe. Jordan and Kobe are not point guards, so in 53 years, only five point guards have been crowned league MVP. In those 53 years, however, a myriad of point guards could have been named MIP (Most Invaluable Player) for their respective teams.
Now that the Celtics locked up Rondo, they must keep scorers around him. They have Rondo as a core, and now need to keep, and/or import, elite (or potentially elite) talent around him. The Celtics currently have more talent than most teams, so signing Rondo and allowing him to develop in that environment is ideal. He is not ready to go off on his own yet, but with the help of his already established teammates, he can really come into his own in Boston.
Needless to say, $55 million is a big investment for anything, especially for a guy who will spend the next five years depending on his teammates to make him look good. The Celtics made a good move in signing Rondo, but now they must ensure that he is surrounded by players who will make him better. In the 2009 Playoffs, Rondo showed that he can hold his own (he averaged nearly 17 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds in fourteen games), but his skinny little frame can only carry his team for so long.
Had the Celtics passed on Rondo for an elite big man or swingman, they would have ended up spending more money and been left without a viable point guard to feed the ball to said big man or swingman. Rondo may not be a steal at $55 million, but he has the potential to become worth every penny. If he continues shelling out dimes like he has been this season (10.4 assists per game), this contract will pay off big time in dollars and sense.
By signing Rondo, Boston did not take out a $55 million insurance policy on six consecutive NBA Championships, but it was an initial, and necessary, step to avoid a vacancy at the helm of one of the best offenses in the league. Rondo has established valid NBA credentials in his first three seasons, and both he and the Celtics should be able to expand on that until 2015. For $55 million, the Celtics could not asked for a better point guard, and Rondo could not have asked for a better situation.