By Bill Burt
BOSTON — Talk about a risky investment.
You trade the farm and bring in two pro basketball behemoths with Hall of Fame credentials, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Mind you, there is another behemoth, Paul Pierce, with similar credentials, already in-house.
You do nothing with the point guard position. In fact you eliminate one candidate in the "farm" trade, which was universally termed the worst point guard group in the National Basketball Association last winter.
And you hand the reins of this new, star-driven team to an unproven, sometimes obstinate point guard, Rajon Rondo, who averaged just 6.4 points and 3.8 assists as a part-time starter as a rookie the year before.
That's akin to buying 2008 Mercedes and asking a 15-year-old to be the chauffeur.
"Yes, that's pretty much what happened," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "Sounds a little risky? From the outside, I guess, I could see it from that perspective."
Rivers is not crazy. His perspective is just much different than yours and mine.
He was a life-long point guard, averaging 10.9 points per game over his 13-year NBA career. He knows a thing or two about feeding a Hall-of-Famer as he started eight years in Atlanta with Dominique Wilkins.
"There are a few ways of looking at it," says Rivers, of the hand-off this summer to Rondo, who turned 22 in February.
"The way I look at it is, as a point guard, you don't have to do as much with Kevin, Ray and Paul," says Rivers. "It's a good place to learn about the game."
Point guard has pretty much been a minor-league position on the Celtics since Dennis Johnson retired in 1990. With all due respect to Brian Shaw, Sherman Douglas and Kenny Anderson, since DJ, the point-guard play has been forgettable.
"I've been saying for a long time that you have to take care of the point guard position if you want to win in this league," says ex-Celtics great Bob Cousy.
"Frankly, it hasn't been a position of strength with the Celtics. I like that they drafted a player they wanted to develop. He's got a long way to go, but you can see he's got ability. He sees the floor pretty well. It's a good sign."
The cross-over dribble versus two-time MVP Steve Nash on Wednesday night was the stuff of legends. Nash literally tripped over his own feet as Rondo feigned a hard move to his right before opening up a wide open lane up the middle for an easy layup.
That flair for the spectacular is nothing new.
It couldn't touch the thunderous dunk against the Detroit Pistons, which saw him decide at half-court that something special was going to happen. He blew by Richard Hamilton and threw down a vicious slam on 6-7, 260-pound leaper Jason Maxiell, who flattened the slight 6-1, 171-pounder on the play.
The game in Denver on Feb. 19 was a personal highlight reel for Rondo.
Among the several memorable moves was a one-handed runner near the 3-point line over two Nuggets forwards at the halftime buzzer, his classic fake behind-the-back pass and layin over a legs-tangled Anthony Carter, and, best of all, a flying dunk off an offensive rebound.
"Rajon is an incredible athlete," says C's shooting guard Ray Allen. "We see that stuff every day, in practice. I'm not surprised by anything he does."
That has been part of the problem. Rondo's moves flaunt his incredible athleticism. But according to those who know him best, Rondo's basketball IQ might even trump his flashy moves.
"He's by far the smartest kid I've ever coached," says Doug Bibby, Rondo's high school coach from ninth to 11th grade at Louisville's Eastern High.
"People see the athlete. And he's one of the best athletes I've ever coached," said Bibby, who should know a thing or two about point guards as his uncle is long-time NBA point guard and coach Henry Bibby and he's also related to Atlanta Hawks point guard Mike Bibby. "But nobody has a mind like his. He knows the game better than most. And I'm referring to the NBA, too. He knows the game."
Rondo admits he is not a just a player, but a student, too.
"I look at films almost every night. In fact, I do look at them every night during the season," says Rondo. "I have a collection on every point guard. I have (Steve) Nash, (Chauncey) Billups, (Andre) Miller ... all of them. I like to see their tendencies."
He also likes to see their boxscores.
"Yeah, I do look at how they have played and their numbers," says Rondo. "It's just doing my homework. This is a tough position. It seems like every night it's somebody else."
Draft day. That was a day that still stings.
While there was talk he could go in the top 10, a panel of ESPN analysts pooh-poohed that notion right away.
"The problem is he can't shoot it all," said ESPN's Jay Bilas.
That hurt. But it was the truth. In fact, if he could have shot a lick he probably would have been a top-5 pick and probably never a Celtic.
After shooting .418 from the floor including a miserable .207 on 3-pointers as a rookie, Rondo spent most of his offseason in Waltham at the team's practice facility. It has paid off as he's currently shooting a fine .485 from the floor and is much improved from 3-point land (.294).
"I would get up in the morning and immediately come over here," says Rondo. "I would work on my shot first and then ball-handling. I would do that for a couple of hours. Then I would lift a little, and then go home. Then I usually would come back after dinner and work on free throws."
Rondo wasn't alone for most of his morning workouts. Ray Allen was a regular with Rondo.
"I credit Ray Allen a lot for talking to Rajon and working with him this summer," says Bibby. "Ray is just what they say he is, a pro. I think that's one of the reasons they work so well together. Rajon knows where Ray is going to be and where he wants the ball. That goes back to their work in the summer."
Rondo says there is always advice among ex-Celtics who seem to make their way to HealthPoint or the Garden. One guy who seems to always throw his two cents in is JoJo White.
"He is always talking about being aggressive on offense," says Rondo. "If the shot is there, take it. If the lane is open, drive, he says. That means a lot to have a legend like him supporting me. It feels good."
It was during a first quarter timeout against the Phoenix Suns and Rivers was talking about a potential play.
"Rajon (Rondo) says, 'We're all set. We know what to do,' " recalls Rivers.
While Rivers has gone out of his way this winter to give him bonus points for leadership and bravado among a bevy of accomplished veterans, this was not one of those times.
"So I said, 'What if they change their defense?' " says Rivers. "And he just looks at me, saying nothing. He got my point."
One of Rondo's biggest faults, besides his mediocre jump shot, is that he can be pig-headed. He and ex-Kentucky coach Tubby Smith often butted heads.
"He has a very high basketball IQ," says Rivers. "That's part of the problem. He knows a lot for a kid his age. But there's a lot he doesn't know, too. Sometimes he has a problem understanding the second part."
Rivers says one of Rondo's faults is committing to something and never wavering, even when something else develops.
"It's common with young players," says Rivers. "Instead of allowing for the possibility, like the defense changing, he sometimes makes a decision and isn't ready. But he's getting better in that area."
While Rondo's numbers — 10.7 points, 5.0 assists, 4.1 rebounds — aren't going to put him the MVP category, they are picking up each month.
He has scored 20 or more points in five games over the last two months, but more importantly he has played a key role in several recent wins over some of the NBA's elite. He had 20 points and six rebounds against San Antonio, 14 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists against Phoenix and 17 points (8-of-10 shooting) and four assists Friday against New Orleans.
"My job is to run this team. It's not to score," says Rondo. "I feel very fortunate. I realize that this is a big job and there is a lot of responsibility.
"The fact that we have some superstars here makes my job a little easier. They are always talking to me and they've been very supportive. That means a lot."
There is a reason "they" (Garnett, Pierce and Allen) are supportive.
The Celtics, best record or not, will be playing in May and possibly June if Rondo is on his game.
"The better he is," says Ray Allen, "the better we all are."
You can e-mail Bill Burt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What a difference a year makes
The Celtics' dramatic improvement is closely tied to Rajon Rondo's improvement:
2007-08 (57-15 record)
2006-07 (24-58 record)
Danny Ainge has received ample praise for the Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen deals, but he seems to have swindled Phoenix on draft night 2006.
Boston acquired Rajon Rondo, who the Suns had picked at No. 21, along with Brian Grant for Cleveland's 2007 first-round pick and cash considerations. The Suns took 6-6 guard Rudy Fernandez this year with the pick (24th overall). He's not expected to suit up until next year.