The ceiling: Rondo and the Core Four

Jonathan Daniel

Imagine this.

Kevin Love draws a charge on a quick defensive rotation. The entire team rushes to pick him up. Love inbounds to Rondo. Rondo calmly looks over to the sideline. Brad Stevens twirls his finger in the air and signals the motion offense. Rondo initiates with a high pick-and-roll with Love. As Dumars comes off a back screen and flashes for a corner three, Pippen cuts back door. Rondo hits him with a perfect bounce pass. The defense collapses at the rim. Pippen alertly finds Nowitzki wide open at the elbow for a 15-footer. Dirk calmly rises over his defender and launches a 15-footer.

The shot leaves his hand. He goose necks the wrist. This is Celtics' basketball. Swish.

Timeout, Heat. The Garden erupts. It's been three long years since that fateful summer back in 2013, but the rebuild has finally paid off. The Celtics are up 15 in Game 6 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Finals.

This may sound like Celtics' fan fiction, delusions of grandeur of a team on the outside looking in at a championship window. Joe Dumars is Detroit's GM and has finally got all Pistons firing in unison after a messy rebuild of his own. Scottie Pippen is enjoying his courtside celebrity at Bulls' games. Dirk Nowitzki will retire a Mav if Mark Cuban has his way. The Timberwolves are now competently run by Flip Saunders and he'll move mountains in the next two years in order to keep Kevin Love.

But fear not, Celtics fans. Danny doesn't need to build a DeLorean time machine to bring these Hall of Famers back to Boston or work GM magic to assemble another Big Three. For the last three years, he's been quietly stocking his cupboards for the long winter of a rebuild.

If everything breaks right and the current roster plays to its potential, it could be a reality in the near future. After ownership, Doc, Pierce, and Garnett agreed on the mutual destruction of this version of the Celtics, Danny put his hard hat on and pushed the button. Ka-boom. Doc landed in Los Angeles and the over-30 vets found a new home in Brooklyn. Although Danny is getting a lot of well deserved credit for amassing draft picks and acquiring valuable expiring contracts, his biggest coup was keeping Rondo and his core four intact and finding the right foreman to oversee the rebuild.

It was more important for the team to grow together, make mistakes together, and win together rather than being led by a coach who had been there and done that.

Forget for a minute Brad Stevens' success at Butler and his wunderkind status as one of basketball's best young talents. Knowing that the team was heading into a rebuild, Ainge was smart enough to tab a guy with no NBA baggage as his next head coach. Initially, I was a little apprehensive with the hire because it seemed counter-intuitive. Why not get a guy like George Karl or Lionel Hollins who have years of experience and enough gravitas in the league that players would listen to them without question?

But Ainge knew better. He knew that young players (re: Rajon Rondo) were more apt to respond to a younger voice. He had the foresight to know that it was more important for the team to grow together, make mistakes together, and win together rather than being led by a coach who had been there and done that.

It's a process. (via Dustin Morrow)

Since becoming head coach, Stevens has preached patience with the process and I can't help but think that that patient approach is player personified in Kelly Olynyk. Think about this: this is a kid who after his sophomore season at Gonzaga said to himself, "I've got two years of eligibility left to prove I can play this game and I'm just not cutting it. I'm going to red shirt a year, work hard, and come back stronger." And he did. Today, you can see that hard work and more so, that patience he exhibited off the floor on the floor. He doesn't seem to get frazzled in the face of a defender that might be stronger, quicker, or more athletic than him.

As brutal as last season was to watch, finishing where we did and eventually landing Kelly was a godsend. After turning in a great summer league performance in Orlando, critics have called him the steal of the draft and ranked him the best rookie to date. He comes to Boston with a perimeter jumper and a polished post game and he'll be ready to play on Day #1. He's got a long way to fulfill the critics' comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki, but the skills are there. Both are listed at 7'0, both wear #41, and both (once) sported the flowing locks of Thor. If only identical numbers and hairstyles guaranteed success, right? As the Celtics most skilled seven footer, Stevens will give him every opportunity to succeed, but we'll have to remind ourselves that this is a "process." For what it's worth, Dirk averaged 8 and 3 as a rookie.

Olynyk Summer League Highlights (via bostonceltics)

Olynyk was modestly drafted at #13, four spots and fifteen years behind Nowitzki at #9 in 1998. He was a non-lottery pick in a draft widely regarded as not very deep. If he doesn't reach Dirk status, it won't be the end of the world. Developing a solid role player from the middle of the draft wouldn't be a complete failure, but for Jeff Green, this may be the tipping point.

Outside of Rondo, there may not be a more polarizing figure than Jeff Green. On one end, there's the feel good story of his comeback from heart surgery. And after getting into game shape last season, he played well down the stretch and showed up in the playoffs. On the other end, there's his pedigree. He was a member of a draft class that included Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Mike Conley, and Joakim Noah, all players with years of consistent play under their belt.

With PP gone now, there's going to be a lot of pressure on him to build on that success and be The Man. He'll have to prove all over again that he's worth the $36 million contract that had the entire league shaking their heads. It's going to mean upping his minutes from the 27 he averaged last year to closer to 35-37, all the while putting up 18 and 7 consistently. He'll have to shut down the other team's best player in a conference chockful of high caliber small forwards like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George, and Paul Pierce. That's a lot to put on someone's plate and that kind of responsibility usually goes to a franchise player, but he'll have to do this as the team's #2.

That's what Jeff Green is: a #2. Even after taking a back seat to Durant, Westbrook, and Harden in OKC and spending time as Pierce's apprentice in Boston, you would think that Green would have graduated to first chair entering his sixth season as a pro. I think a lot of fans want #1 things out of Green next year because he's shown that kind of potential and it would make me the happiest person in the world if he did, but I see a lot of Scottie Pippen in him and that's not a bad thing.

Jeff Green Throws Down on the Heat (via NBA)

Pippen spent his entire career as a Robin and he's a Hall of Famer. Jordan was a #1. Rondo is a #1. Pierce is a #1. Green could be a great #2 in the mold of Scottie Pippen and that's hardly an indictment of Green. Frankly, KG was a #2. #1's need #2's. Stevens strikes me as the kind of equal opportunity coach that won't buy into the hierarchical nature of NBA rosters, but it's a reality that both player and coach will have to accept.

Honestly, this is a point more directed to the fans rather than at Green and Stevens, I guess. All things considered--Green's contract, his draft position, the appearance as heir apparent to Pierce's legendary status in New England--we need to understand who Jeff Green is. His breakout moments last season came in total ninja mode when you least expected it. Nobody thought he'd drop 43 points on LeBron's head, nearly ending the Heat's epic win streak. A lot of his thunderous dunks strike like lighting because of his quick speed and unmatched athleticism. I don't want to play Twitter psychologist here, but as ridiculous as he can be in a highlight, Green comes off as a pretty chill dude. KG, he's not. And that's OK. The grit and balls guy leading our team into a bar fight will be Sullinger anyways.

The team hasn't formerly named a captain yet with the odds on favorite as Rondo. He's the longest tenured Celtic and the quarterback of the team on the court and on the flag football field, but don't be surprised if Sullinger gets a co-cap nod from Stevens and Ainge. He exhibited leadership qualities with the summer league team that he didn't even play for and understands the Celtics Way (h/t Kevin Garnett). However, saying that the Celtics don't have "tanking" in their vocabulary and actually winning games in the Garden are two very different things.

Sullinger Mic'd Up (via bostonceltics)

For Jared to become Boston's version of Kevin Love (a Sully-proclaimed comparison), he'll have to keep doing what he's been doing: rebounding the ball and rebounding the ball. Whether you consider next year a mulligan of Sullinger's rookie year or a chance at redemption in what will officially be his sophomore season, matching Love's 11 and 9 or 14 and 11 averages of his first two years respectively seems reasonable, but what I'd love to see in Sully's development is more responsibility on defense.

KG's absence will surely and sorely be felt on the floor as Boston's defensive anchor, but the abrupt end to Sully's mentorship could have a more lasting effect. Sully's already become a vocal leader in the locker room and has been saying all the right things in the press, but he'll have to walk the walk, too. KG was a quote machine, but those one-liners only rang true because he delivered in the crunch. Sullinger will never be a shut down one-on-one defender or a feared shot blocker, but his communication skills could translate into that middle linebacker position that Garnett held down while he was in green. Holding D-Leaguers and undrafted rookies accountable in Orlando is one thing; holding himself accountable for the future of the Celtics D is another. Thankfully, he'll have a lot of help from Avery Bradley.

Avery's first three seasons have been frustrating to say the least and probably more so for him than for us. His rookie year was derailed by an ankle injury (and a vet-laden roster), his breakout second season ended in double shoulder surgery (but the departure of Ray Allen), and last year, he plodded through an inconsistent campaign as a part-time point guard. Circumstances beyond his control have certainly plagued his young career, circumstances that most young players with his promise frankly don't have to deal with. As Jeff wrote about last week, odds are, AB will enter next summer as a restricted free agent unless the team can lock him into an affordable extension by October 31st. Danny, do it. Avery, re-sign.

As exciting as it would be to grab Andrew Wiggins next summer, it would make me even happier if Bradley became an Andrew Wiggins stopper. There are few players in this league with Bradley's ability to wreak havoc on the opposing team's backcourt and fewer still with the tenacity and will to do it day in and day out. People will harp on AB's inconsistencies on offense, but let's remember that alongside Rondo, he was great. If the behind-the-scenes rumors are true, Rondo picked Avery over Ray. Ray freakin' Allen. And Rondo was right. Together, they led an underdog Celtics team to the Eastern Conference Finals before Bradley bowed out with the bum shoulders.

Classic Confrontations: Michael Jordan vs Joe Dumars (via ginoongkamote)

Why I think the Dumars comparison is so appropriate for Bradley is because they share the same symbiotic relationship with their backcourt partners, Isiah and Rondo respectively. It's just not how their games complement each other; it's how their personalities gel. Dumars, like Bradley, was a mind-mannered, silent killer. They're hard hat guys that won't blow you away with bravado and showmanship. Rondo and Thomas, on the other hand, are different animals. It shouldn't come as a surprise that it was Rondo that unlocked Bradley's potential. He's the key to this whole thing. The idea that Danny would even entertain the thought of trading him is preposterous.

When next year gets tough--and yes, when January and February roll around and the team has a three game homestand against Milwaukee, Sacramento, and Charlotte and they go a disappointing 1-2, it's going to be tough--the boo birds are going to come out in droves, calling for Danny to trade Rondo. You'll hear words like "mercurial" and "stubborn" and "Detroit Pistons." Impatient fans will want him to score more and SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT the ball when he's open. They'll yell at their TV's when Rajon passes out of an open lay-up in favor of getting one of his teammates going.

But understand this, haters: this whole thing won't come together unless Rondo is a Celtic. What was effective with Rondo's role in the original Big Three is exactly what will make this core four fantastic. There is no point guard better at filling in the gaps of what a team needs to win on any given night. Distractors like Mike Felger and Gary Tanguay will bring up his attitude, even though none of those guys have ever stepped on the floor with Rondo or been in the locker room with him. I love this take from Ben Rohrbach of WEEI from a month ago:

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.

He'll grab the rebounds that Sullinger can't corral. He'll hit Bradley on a back cut. He'll take it to the rack if teams start shading Olynyk for the jumper. He'll defer to Green when Green is having his way. Not Love. Not Dumars. Not Nowitzi. Not Pippen.

Sullinger, Bradley, Olynyk, Green, and Rondo.

The tankers' union will say that this is just an earnest start to a rebuild and the real work won't start until Danny hits the lottery with his nine first round draft picks over the next five years and starts trading away expiring contracts. Fans will wonder if he'll flip this young talent for proven vets just like he did in 2007 for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen or if the nucleus of today will stay together and develop a la OKC or Chicago. If it isn't obvious, I'm a sucker for keeping teams together and developing from within. Win or lose, I'd love to see these guys play together for the next ten years.

What really gets me about our roster right now is not only are they a talented bunch, but there's an underdog mentality that radiates from their core. Paul Pierce is in Brooklyn now but I'm sure his story resonates with them. After slipping in the draft, Pierce had to wait an entire summer before he went on a league-wide tour torching teams that passed on him.  Fifteen years later, he solidified his reputation as one of the greatest Celtics ever. Not unlike Pierce, a lot of these guys have been waiting a long time (if not longer) to prove themselves and I'm excited that their time is now.

Forget the ceiling, fellas. Shoot for the stars.  Let's go, Celtics!

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