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Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo was cleared by doctors to return to full practice over the weekend, nearly 11 months after a torn ACL knocked him out of the 2012-13 season. While this is clearly terrific news for Boston, team president Danny Ainge was cautious when asked about a timetable for Rondo’s return to game action.
“I don’t know a timetable,” Ainge said, adding, “I don’t anticipate him playing in any games this month, for sure. I also don’t know if there’s a time in January or a time in February. I really don’t know the answer. A lot of it is going to depend on how he responds to this next phase.”
The first reports are positive, with head coach Brad Stevens saying Rondo “fit right in” during his first full session, which took place on Saturday. When Rondo does return to games, hopefully in early 2014, Stevens will have to make significant changes to his backcourt rotation.
There’s a chance that Rondo may come off the bench should the Celtics choose to ease him into the lineup early on but, barring any setbacks, he should be starting at the point sooner rather than later. In his absence, Jordan Crawford has been filling in at the starting PG position, and he’s been playing much better than many anticipated, including Bill Simmons, who wrote of Stevens that “anyone who can turn Jordan Crawford into a competent point guard has to be a Coach of the Year candidate”, prompting a Twitter response from Crawford following Boston’s 41-point beatdown of the Knicks on Dec. 8:
@BillSimmons you mad? Lol
— Jordan Crawford (@jcraw55) December 8, 2013
The fact is that Crawford is averaging career highs with 5.5 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game to go along with 13.7 points on 44.5% field goal shooting, including 37.5% from downtown, both also career highs. While those numbers are a far cry from Rondo’s 11.1 assists and 5.6 boards from last year, Crawford has to be credited for adjusting admirably to a position that isn’t his natural one.
Ideally, a healthy Rondo would start in the backcourt alongside Avery Bradley, who is also posting career highs in points (13.2) and rebounds (3.9) thus far this season, proving he’s much more than a defensive specialist. This could be bad news for current backup shooting guard Courtney Lee, who’s already playing a career-low 16.8 minutes per game. In his defense, Lee’s reduced shooting opportunities have resulted in spectacular percentages of 51.9 from the field and an even 50% from three-point land.
One enticing possibility would be to keep Crawford at PG as Rondo’s backup, taking minutes away from undrafted rookie Phil Pressey, who has shown flashes of solid play (1.9 ppg, 1.9 apg in just 11.7 mpg) but is shooting a brutal 24.1% from the floor. The fact is that Rondo isn’t going to be playing 37.4 minutes per game like he did last season, at least not immediately after his return, so keeping Crawford as his backup rather than Pressey, to play alongside Lee on the second unit, looks like the best option.
There’s also always the possibility of a trade involving one of the Celtics’ guards. Both Bradley and Crawford will be restricted free agents after this season and, while Bradley definitely appears to be a part of Ainge’s long-term plans, Crawford’s run of solid play and impending free agency could make him prime trade bait, allowing the rebuilding Celtics to get more building blocks for the future in return.
As for the fact that Boston, at 11-14, currently leads the Atlantic Division, this is unlikely to change Ainge’s outlook. There are only four games between first and last place in the NBA’s weakest division, so a losing streak of any length could knock the Celtics right out of playoff position. Even if they do end up making the postseason, they’re hardly championship material, so it would make little sense to switch to win-now mode when every move since the end of last season has been geared towards making the team a true contender three years down the road.