Was Rajon Rondo’s ACL injury in 2013 not marketable enough to impact his legacy? Why does he get left out of the “what if he never got hurt” narrative?
I’m not saying he should get the Derrick Rose treatment. Rose was a hometown hero who won an MVP award in Chicago. Rondo may lack that narrative and hardware, but he was the starting point guard on a championship ring and was on his way to stardom in the twilight of The Big Three.
No matter how good Rondo was, the 2008-13 Celtics are still remembered as “The Big Three and Rondo” (my condolences to Kendrick Perkins). They still haven’t lost a playoff series when healthy. In other words, he’s Knuckles in Sonic 3 & Knuckles. He’s important enough to be mentioned on the title screen, but not enough to have his face on it:
However, in their waning years, Rondo flourished as perhaps the best player on the roster in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals against Miami where he bested Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett in points, assists, field goal percentage, steals, and was second in rebounding only to KG. This was going to be Rondo’s team eventually.
Rondo would play only 38 games the following year before tearing his ACL in 2013. The following summer, Danny Ainge would trade Pierce and KG to Brooklyn, effectively handing Rondo the keys to the team. He’d play thirty games in Brad Stevens’ first year as head coach before another Danny dealt him to Dallas.
Was Rondo’s injury narrative hurt by his career “surviving” the injury? Some would say he was good for years to come after his brief stint in Dallas when he led the league in assists with Sacramento, gave the Celtics fits playing for the Bulls, and helped lead an inspiring charge in the playoffs with the Pelicans after reuniting with DeMarcus Cousins in New Orleans.
I asked Kings fan and friend @NBAJohnson for input on Rondo’s time in Sacramento:
“Oh, man. I certainly have thoughts on Rondo’s tenure in Sacramento.
For one strange season, Rajon Rondo led the league in assists for the Sacramento Kings. His defensive abilities had all but disappeared and those assist numbers were padded by quite a few passes out of open layups. However, for a few moments in every game you could think that you were seeing the same player who was such a cornerstone for the Celtics.
It left you wondering how many more of those moments you could have seen if Rondo had stayed healthy.”
Flashes of brilliance while hampered by injury is pretty strong “what if” material if you ask me. Perhaps the best example in recent memory is Brandon Roy’s last dance with the Trail Blazers:
Roy’s peak is comparable to Rondo’s. He made three All-Star teams to Rondo’s four and two All-NBA nods to Rondo’s singular selection. They were both on the All-Rookie team in 2007.
However, Roy’s career would tragically end in his fifth season (save for a brief comeback bid in Minnesota) due to knee issues. Not unlike Rondo, he was a star on the rise, but for whatever reason, his abrupt departure from the game has created a paradigm for what a player could have been had he stayed health and Roy will never get a chance to live up his legend. Rondo, on the other hand, returned from his career-threatening injury and spent the back nine of his prime as an NBA journeyman with his perceived potential playing out in real time.
However, I’d argue leading the league in assists three times and making four All-Defense teams gives Rondo an edge. It’s hardly a fair comparison to Roy, who only played two truly healthy seasons, but the reality is that Rondo’s career peak was higher. And depending on how you feel about championships and MVP awards, you could argue that his peak is higher than Rose, too. Personally, I think Rose has a much higher peak but today’s “championship or bust” culture and Rondo’s ring probably means most of you disagree with me.
Each of Rondo’s career stops piled on a layer of baggage that likely took away from the nostalgia of his early playing days, too. After being dealt to Dallas for Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder, and two draft picks, Rondo’s relationship with the Mavericks deteriorated to the point of the team reporting a fake injury as cover to not use him for the remainder of the playoffs.
Rondo never really fit with the Mavs, as the concerns about the impact of his poor shooting in coach Rick Carlisle’s flow offense quickly manifested and were never solved. The hope of a “Playoff Rondo” sighting was crushed after his poor Game 1 performance and the appearance he gave up in Game 2.
The Mavs and Rondo made a mutual decision to part ways the next day, sources told ESPNDallas.com, framing the reasoning as a back injury as a favor to try to help the four-time All-Star point guard save face.
This is a courteous gesture, but I’m not sure it’ll be remembered given how much trouble Rondo caused:
Story I forgot to tell yesterday: Rick Carlisle got heated when someone parked in his AAC spot last year. Wanted car towed. It was Rondo.— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) December 1, 2015
It’s objectively hilarious that he went so far out of his way to anger his head coach, but it didn’t come without consequences. His one-year deal with Sacramento was for $10 million when it certainly could have been higher had the previous season’s splits with Boston and Dallas been spent rebuilding his image instead of destroying it.
In Chicago, Rondo joined Dwyane Wade as the team desperately cobbled together a roster to appease Jimmy Butler. It went poorly.
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My vets would never go to the media. They would come to the team. My vets didn't pick and choose when they wanted to bring it. They brought it every time they stepped in the gym whether it was practice or a game. They didn't take days off. My vets didn't care about their numbers. My vets played for the team. When we lost, they wouldn't blame us. They took responsibility and got in the gym. They showed the young guys what it meant to work. Even in Boston when we had the best record in the league, if we lost a game, you could hear a pin drop on the bus. They showed us the seriousness of the game. My vets didn't have an influence on the coaching staff. They couldn't change the plan because it didn't work for them. I played under one of the greatest coaches, and he held everyone accountable. It takes 1-15 to win. When you isolate everyone, you can't win consistently. I may be a lot of things, but I'm not a bad teammate. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don't deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it's the leadership.
Holding teammates accountable? Good! Airing out the dirty laundry on Instagram? Less good! Whether or not he made some good points is unimportant. Doing it on social media and airing out the team’s dirty laundry is the polar opposite of what leadership looks like, which is ironic given the last sentence.
If anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.
Technically correct, although not in the way he intended.
Boston fans aren’t usually ones to gloss over the “what if’s” of history. I still remember when NESN brought up data from a simulation to see the odds of the Red Sox winning the 2003 ALCS if Pedro Martinez was pulled in the 8th inning.
We simulated the ending of this game 100 times. In each case, Alan Embree was brought into the game to face Hideki Matsui with a 5-3 lead and a runner on first.
Boston held on to win 82% of the time.
The perfect storm of odd circumstances ultimately resulted in Rondo’s silent demotion from All-Star to role player. He was never the face of a franchise or the poster child of a dramatic injury. The lesson here might be that fans have their limits. They can only overlook so much before they stop defending the image of an athlete. The events of Rondo’s career make his injury feel like ancient history, which it might as well be.