Editor’s note: From Dec. 12-23, we’ll count down to the Celtics’ Christmas matchup with the Knicks (Dec. 25 at 12 p.m. ET) by hitting on 12 big topics facing the Green this season.
WALTHAM, Mass. -- The question seemed to take Rajon Rondo a bit by surprise -- kinda like one of the crazy-angled passes his unsuspecting new teammates watched clang off their hands during Sunday's exhibition opener in Toronto.
Is this your team?
Since the Big Three was cobbled together during the summer of 2007, it's always been their team. Rondo was just the spunky point guard who set up Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett while quarterbacking the offense. Everyone seemed more in a rush to point out his flaws than his contributions. Even since elevating to All-Star status in recent seasons, Rondo remains on the periphery, only occasionally getting lumped into a “Big Four”, but never quite sharing the same spotlight.
Now, in what's likely the last rodeo for the Big Three together, Rondo was asked at the start of Celtics training camp if this was his team -- if this was the year he took the baton from the veterans and became the focal point of Boston's roster.
"I don’t think it’s any one person’s team," shrugged Rondo. "I’m still learning. I’m so young. I have a lot of great vets in front of me -- not just the Big Three, but Chris Wilcox has been in the league a long time, Jermaine O'Neal, and Keyon Dooling."
True, Rondo would probably still find himself at the kids' table at Celtics holiday gatherings. Of the returning players, only last year's first-round pick Avery Bradley is younger. Heck, undrafted rookie Gilbert Brown, vying for a final spot on this year's team, is only 18 months younger than Rondo.
The 25-year-old Rondo is entering his sixth year in the league. He's a two-time All-Star, a one-time world champion. The start of this offseason saw him featured in trade rumors for Chris Paul, which his general manager told him was a monster compliment, showing that he's worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as his position's most elite players.
Try as he might to state that he's still one of the young guys on this squad, make no mistake, Rondo is the most important player on the Celtics this year.
Cap-strapped this offseason, Boston made a series of minor moves (trading for Dooling and Brandon Bass; signing Chris Wilcox). In the grand scheme of things, it's a roster very similar to last year’s, which got bounced in the second round of the playoffs.
If the Celtics are hoping to avoid playing golf in May again, someone's gotta step up. Sure, the bench could provide an additional boost and maybe one of the younger players will blossom. But, at the end of the day, it's on Rondo. Celtics coach Doc Rivers is fond of noting that, "As Rondo goes, so go the Celtics." That's especially true this year.
Rondo is coming off a hurdle-filled 2010-11 season in which he battled a cocktail of ailments (including his feet, hands, and back) and mental challenges (President Obama's shooting diss and the trade of his best friend Kendrick Perkins). After gutting through it all, he landed awkwardly in the playoffs against the Heat and dislocated his elbow.
Yup, it was that kind of year.
A fully recuperated Rondo said he had the best summer of his life, maximizing the lockout by spending increased time with his family and friends, all while working toward his degree back at the University of Kentucky. The trade rumors earlier this month were a friendly reminder that business is back, but you get the feeling that everything he's endured over the past 12 months has only made him stronger. (At least that’s what the Celtics are banking on.)
Rondo swears he doesn't need anything else to motivate him, the quest for another championship is enough.
"I’m already pretty fueled up, man," he said. "Honestly. I’m running over, actually. I’m just anxious to play. It’s a short season, we’re going to take advantage of this opportunity with this great team we have. We have great chemistry. I’m just ready to go. I’m really excited about our team and the main goal for me and the team is to win a championship."
Rondo said he'll be more mature. He admitted the Big Three were the hardest workers on the team and said he wants to steal that title away from them this season. Asked who the best point guard in the league is, he playfully (half-)joked, "Besides myself?"
If Rondo wants another title, he'll have to prove he's truly one of the elite. The Celtics absolutely need him to be at his best in order to have a chance at accomplishing their goal this season. If you're waiting to see the Big Three pass the baton, you've already missed it.
Yes, Rondo, this is your team.