Somebody was bound to say it. Why not a Hall of Famer and Celtics champion who respects the franchise’s history as much as anyone?
“I’m going to get in trouble for this,’’ said Nate “Tiny’’ Archibald, who helped a young Larry Bird win his first NBA title in 1981, “but if you look at all the great point guards who have worn the Celtics uniform, Rajon Rondo does more than any of us put together.’’
More than you?
More than Hall of Famers K.C. Jones and Dennis Johnson?
More than seven-time All-Star Jo Jo White?
More than the greatest of them all, Hall of Famer Bob Cousy?
The five of you won a combined 19 championship rings. And Rondo (one lone band of emeralds and diamonds) outranks you all?
“He’s in a different category from the rest of us,’’ Archibald said after witnessing Rondo’s breakout performance last season. “He’s amazing.’’
As the Celtics open the 2012-13 schedule Tuesday night in Miami against the title-defending Heat, the enigmatic Rondo — a fussy fashionista with a basketball assassin’s soul — reigns as their undisputed floor leader, a hoop savant who has come to exert more control over a championship-caliber team than any guard in franchise history since Cousy himself.
For all the swagger and experience of The Big Ticket and The Truth — his colleagues in The New Big Three — Rondo is the steward of their destiny, the keeper of the championship flame. The franchise, for better or worse, has placed its trust in a playmaker who ranks — well, somebody was bound to say it — among the greatest Celtics point guards.
The 84-year-old Cousy has never been in the business of ranking Celtics greats. But Cousy, the former NBA and Boston College coach, has tracked Rondo’s evolution from a rookie curiosity to one of the sport’s most dominant floor generals.
“I think you’re probably seeing him at the top of his game,’’ Cousy said as Rondo guided the Celtics against the Heat in last season’s Eastern Conference finals. “The experience factor has kicked in and his confidence is so high that he has everything under control in terms of running the team and handling himself.’’
The kid from Louisville, Ky., is no Muhammad Ali, who rose from the same city’s streets to capture global acclaim. But Rondo has flashed glints of Ali’s flamboyance, his speed and athleticism, his visceral belief in his own greatness and a hunger to prove it that strikes some as audaciously defiant and others as the stuff that breeds success.
At 26, Rondo has hit his stride.
“No doubt about it, we’re at the point where as Rondo goes, the Celtics go,’’ said Sam Cassell, a former All-Star point guard who won rings with Rondo and the Celtics in 2008 and Hakeem Olajuwon’s Rockets in 1994 and ’95. “Rondo’s the man, and his teammates don’t mind that as long as he respects the game. And he has learned to respect the game.’’
No one is happier about it than Doc Rivers, who last season risked crossing his other stars by granting Rondo command of the Celtics’ floor plans. Rivers declared Rondo the most intelligent player he has ever coached, and has made no secret of how highly he values the skills that distinguish Rondo from many of his Hall of Fame predecessors.
Rebounding? No great Celtics point guard has done it better.
Defense? With his quickness and 6-foot-9-inch wingspan, Rondo can defend nearly as well as Johnson, the best defender of them all.
As a facilitator, Rondo’s court sense, creativity, and peripheral vision rival Cousy’s.
And despite his mysterious weaknesses as a shooter, none more glaring than his 62 percent career free throw mark, Rondo can score as prolifically as White, who averaged more than 20 points a game from 1970-77, and Archibald, who led the NBA in scoring (34 points a game) in 1972-73 when he played for Cousy and the Kansas City-Omaha Kings.
Toughness? Few players in Celtics history have played through physical trauma more gamely than Rondo, as he demonstrated during the conference finals when he slammed to the floor in the third quarter, dislocating his elbow, only to return in the fourth quarter, his injured arm hanging at his side.
Yet Rondo’s greatest blessing might be his mastery of advanced hoopology.
“His basketball IQ is off the charts,’’ said Archibald, who generally is ranked among the top 10 point guards in NBA history.
In an unusual convergence of opinion among rival NBA greats, both Celtics star Paul Pierce and Miami’s Dwyane Wade last season separately described Rondo as “the head of the snake’’ on Causeway Street. They got no argument from several Hall of Famers who closely follow the game.
“Rondo has a special gift, and you can see it in his court awareness and his ability to make one play after another,’’ said Lenny Wilkens, a three-time inductee in the Hall of Fame as a player, a coach, and an assistant on the gold medal Olympic Dream Team in 1992. “Everybody is starting to see what an outstanding young guard he is.’’
For all his sparkle, though, Rondo remains a flawed jewel. He is prone to mental lapses, as he showed in last season’s playoffs with an inexplicable backcourt violation and an array of unforced turnovers. He can be emotionally reckless, as he reminded his teammates last season by bumping one official, flipping a ball into another’s stomach, trying to kick Miami’s Shane Battier, and later shoving Battier after the whistle, among other acts of petulance. Nor does he shy from engaging in a little bulletin-board, playground trash-talk, as he did during the Miami series when he ridiculed the Heat during a nationally televised halftime interview for “crying to the referees.’’
By turns headstrong and aloof, surly and distracted, Rondo at times has caused his employers to consider trading him, as they reportedly did last season when they eyed the more polished All-Star point guard Chris Paul. For reasons not all his own, Rondo also failed as the team’s new leader to salvage a productive relationship with shooting star Ray Allen. A bitter Allen bolted in free agency to the Heat over the summer, leaving Rondo to supplant him in the Big Three.
That worked for Danny Ainge, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations, who has left no doubt that he considers Rondo the team’s “best player.’’
Rondo, in fact, flashed such brilliance in the playoffs that he not only proved to be the best Celtics player at times, but often outshined the reigning league MVP, LeBron James, and his celebrated running mate, Wade. By all accounts, Rondo seethes to conquer the league’s best.
“Rondo has that ego and macho in him that says, ‘I’m going to take on the tough guys,’ ’’ Archibald said. “He is not giving up squat. He will kill a mosquito with a sledgehammer because of the meanness he has in him, and I like that.”
So do teammates. They also like the artist in him, his ability to create a scoring opportunity — like Cousy and the other all-time greats — by anticipating angles and movements earlier than anyone else in the arena. A pinpoint entry pass from the wing, a finely threaded bounce pass from the top of the key, a perfect lob: Rondo can find his targets, confound his defenders, and put teammates in position to easily do the rest.
“He has that magnificent knack of seeing things two or three plays ahead,’’ said Cassell, an assistant coach for the Washington Wizards. “It doesn’t mean making a spectacular play. It means making the right play.’’
If necessary, Rondo scores himself, often by penetrating the lane with his extraordinary quickness. Time and again, he has frozen opponents for easy layups with one of his signature drives, the most consistently effective one distinguished by his cupping the ball in his oversized right hand and faking a pass behind his back.
He does it all with a sense of authority that Cousy finds familiar.
“I can’t remember when I reached the level when I no longer was concerned that everything I tried, no matter how creative it was, was going to work,’’ Cousy said. “But when you’re a skilled athlete and you begin playing with supreme confidence, you’re going to be even more effective. It makes such a difference with a point guard. That’s what you’re seeing with Rondo. He is throwing the ball away less frequently and has a far greater chance of his creative moves working than he did a couple of years ago because of his confidence level.’’
By Rondo’s own admission, his performance has improved since he went from thinking about “me’’ as a rookie to “we’’ as a team leader. Since he helped the previous Big Three win a ring in 2008, he has been a three-time All-Star. In 2009-10, he set the franchise records for assists (794) and steals (189) in a season, and last year he led the league in the regular season with a franchise-record 11.7 assists per game as well as six triple-doubles.
He was the first Celtic to lead the league in assists since Cousy in 1959-60. And he easily could have improved his scoring average (11.9 points a game) if he committed to it. Even when he scored 44 points against the Heat in a virtuoso performance in the conference finals, he passed up a number of open shots.
“He should have had 54 that night,’’ Cassell said. “I’ve told him he doesn’t shoot enough, but that’s just him. He has a unique style of play.’’
Archibald is 64, running basketball camps, and happily retired in New York. But when he watches Rondo, he imagines things he never thought he would imagine again.
“I wish I could play now,’’ Archibald said, “because all I would need to do is get open and Rondo would get me the ball and I could score, even with these old legs.’’
That’s how fine Rondo can be.
“They broke the mold when they made him,’’ Archibald said. “You won’t see another one like him in a long time.’’