How do you build a viable NBA team around Rajon Rondo? I'm asking for a friend.
OK, that's a lie. I'm asking for Danny Ainge. But I'm trying to do the man a favor - I'm really not sure that our fearless leader has a plan here. He's got an elite talent on his hands, and he risks letting an opportunity slip away.
Let me start by qualifying that word "elite." I've never been a big fan of classifying NBA stars into rankings or tiers, because what's the point? This guy might be a top-10 or top-20 player, and that guy might be a superstar or just a mere All-Star, and who cares? Opinions are like farts. But there is one key distinction here: There are some guys you build your team around, and some guys you don't.
LeBron James. Tim Duncan. Kobe Bryant, back when he was young and healthy and, you know, Kobe Bryant. When you have one of those guys, everything else is secondary - you begin with your superstar player and find the rest of your roster later.
Carmelo Anthony. James Harden. Rudy Gay. All excellent players, but you'll notice that all three have recently changed teams in well-publicized trades, and all three of their former squads kept winning games without missing a beat. That's telling.
In short, those guys the former group are cornerstones; the latter are assets.
We don't know yet how to classify Rondo.
This isn't about whether Rondo is top-eight or top-17 or top-oh-my-god-stop-tossing-out-arbitrary-numbers-no-one-cares. It's more complicated than that. It's a question of whether he brings a versatile array of basketball skills, a high level of emotional maturity and perhaps more important than either of the above, a willingness to slog through this. Because no matter what the next few years have in store for the Celtics' organization, we know it won't be easy.
The Celtics have to figure out whether Rondo's the guy to usher in a new era. Ainge has to think about it, Brad Stevens does, Rondo's teammates do, and Rondo himself has to take a long look in the mirror.
This was never an issue before. Rondo had Kevin Garnett, one of the cornerstoniest cornerstones who ever cornerstoned, by his side. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were never too shabby, either. The Big Three had a knack, as great players tend to have, for covering up Rondo's weaknesses. The kid made mistakes, but his big brothers were always there to bail him out.
Rondo gambles on defense, chasing after steals and leaving the rest of the team out of position? That's fine - he's got KG, one of the best help defenders on the friggin' planet, backing him up.
Rondo's 15 feet from the basket with a decently open look, but he's afraid to take it? Probably just as well - he's got Pierce at his side, who's a far better shooter anyway.
Rondo's too frustrated to speak with the media after a tough loss? No biggie. Ray's standing at his locker, ready to entertain a throng of reporters for 10 minutes while Rondo sneaks to the exit.
For a solid six seasons, this was Rajon Rondo's career. He was a fantastic player, with unbelievable athletic ability and keen basketball intelligence, but he got away with a lot of stuff because he had three Hall of Fame teammates flanking him. That's not the case anymore.
We're about to discover a naked Rondo, no backup in sight. For the first time, he's the undisputed leader. If this Celtics team is a pleasant surprise, he's getting a lion's share of the credit; if it fails, he's got to step up and take the blame.
If this is going to work, Rondo will have to change the way he plays. Offensively, he's got to be a solid all-around point guard. No more chickening out of makable shots, shamelessly running up his assist totals with excessive passing. Defensively, he's got to apply ball pressure responsibly, without the gambles. Then there's the off-court stuff. The time is now for Rondo to step up and be a leader. He's got a locker room full of young teammates who will look up to him. If all of this works out, the Celtics might have something here.
Whenever I ponder Rondo's future, I think back to April 2011, when the Celtics were facing the Knicks in the first round of the East playoffs. In his pregame presser before Game 4, then-New York coach Mike D'Antoni took a wee bit of a cheap shot at Rondo when asked about him, telling reporters that "I'd like to see him play in Minnesota and see how he does." The implication was that Rondo could never be Rondo without fantastic teammates.
Later that day, Rondo dropped 21 and 12 on the Knicks, and Boston finished a four-game sweep without breaking a sweat. Rondo was asked about D'Antoni's comment postgame, and he refused to answer.
Two years later, he'll have to respond - with his play. This is your Minnesota, Rajon.
What is Rajon Rondo, a foundation piece or a bargaining chip? I don't think anyone knows. Not Stevens, not Ainge, not even Rondo himself. Certainly not me. But in the years ahead, we should all find out.