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WALTHAM, Mass. -- From the moment the Boston Celtics announced on Wednesday that Brad Stevens would be the 17th head coach in franchise history, the immediate (over)reaction was: What does this mean for Rajon Rondo?
You see, in the six months since he tore his ACL, Rondo's reputation has grown from merely petulant to pernicious. Somehow, the point guard's attitude has become a bigger story than his All-Star talents.
|Rajon Rondo will ostensibly have a clean slate with new coach Brad Stevens.|
So when the Celtics hired a 36-year-old head coach with no NBA experience, many jumped to the conclusion that the two couldn't possibly coexist and that Rondo would undoubtedly follow Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce and be shipped away soon.
Truth be told, no one has any idea if the two can coexist. But the Celtics are absolutely committed to finding out if they can. They believe that the Rondo-Stevens relationship could be the foundation upon which the next chapter of this franchise could be built.
Is Rondo difficult to coach? By his own admission, yes. When asked that question in late May, he offered, "It's not that I'm hard to coach, it's just that I may challenge what you say. I know the game myself, I'm out there playing the game. So I may have saw something different versus what you saw from the sideline."
Is Rondo stubborn? Sure. Selfish? Sometimes. But much of Rondo's transgressions are born out of fierce competitiveness. Before his injury last season, he was suspended for shoving soon-to-be teammate Kris Humphries into the crowd beyond the Garden baseline while sticking up for Garnett.
For most athletes in this city, that'd be cause for celebration, the ultimate teammate move by getting a buddy's back. But this is Rondo, so the spin is it was the act of a hot-headed guard who can't control his emotions.
No doubt, Rondo has brought much of this on himself. Two incidents with referees, including one in the postseason, led to a pair of suspensions during the 2011-12 season. It also put him on the league's radar and, when he rather harmlessly brushed an official in January, it led to his fourth suspension in a year's time.
What's more, Rondo had some much-publicized flare-ups with Rivers, one of which drifted back into the headlines last month amid Doc's departure to Los Angeles, convincing some that he fled 3,000 miles to get away from Rondo. But even on his way out the door, Rivers noted that his relationship with Rondo had grown in recent years and had never been stronger than at the end.
Now Stevens takes over and, on Friday, both he and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge were inundated with questions about the mercurial point guard.
Showing some of his cool sideline demeanor, Stevens noted, "I'm not worried about reputations. I've heard a lot of things about a lot of people over the course of time, and then you sit down with them, and everything clicks. I can't wait to meet [Rondo]."
It might be Stevens' top priority moving forward. Well, first he's headed back to Indianapolis to honor a commitment as part of Saturday's Connersville parade, but then he's intent on using the offseason to foster a relationship with Rondo -- and the rest of his Celtics players.
"I can't wait to sit down with him," said Stevens. "Because he's not only a really good basketball player, he's really intelligent, and you can see that in his game. And I think he's got that, not only an intelligence about the way he plays, but also an instinctive ability to see the next play coming. You can see that on both ends of the floor.
"Combine that with a good competitive spirit, and you've really got what he's been, and that's a really, really good player, one of the best players in this league. I can't wait to meet him. I can't wait to spend time with him. I hope that he can feel like, at the end of the day, he's learned a thing or two from me, but I'm guessing I'll learn a lot more from him."
While Rondo hasn't spoken publicly, all indications are he's just as intrigued to meet Stevens and wants to spearhead Boston's rebuild. Ainge phoned Rondo after the team hired Stevens and told him the news. Rondo's response?
"[Rondo said,] 'Oh, Is that the guy that coached Gordon Hayward and Shelvin Mack?'" recounted Ainge. "I go, 'Yeah, yeah, that's the guy.' [Rondo said,] 'Oh, yeah. That sounds great.'"
Stevens reached out to all of the players on Boston's roster on Thursday and had conversations with most of them, including Rondo.
|New Celtics coach Brad Stevens says he can't wait to work with Rajon Rondo.|
"It sounded like their talk went really well and they want to get together and see if they can develop a relationship before the season starts," said Ainge, who maintains he has no desire to move his star point guard this offseason.
And why would he? Coming off surgery, Rondo's trade value is about as low as it can get, especially with everyone fixated on his attitude. He needs to get back on the floor and remind the NBA world what he is capable of before that will fade.
Ainge said the team is sticking with the goal of having Rondo back on the floor by opening night and admitted Rondo will likely have maintenance days during training camp while ramping up to that point. But as for the optimistic Game 1 outlook, Ainge noted, "I haven't heard anything that would suggest otherwise."
The Celtics have an opportunity this season to gauge if Rondo can be a true leader, a building block for the future. No longer is there a Big Three safety net behind him; he'll be the 27-year-old leader of a fresh-faced team.
If the Rondo-Stevens relationship somehow fizzles, or the team simply believes it cannot rebuild around Rondo, the Celtics can move him in February (or after the season, when he'd be entering the final year of his contract). Remember that Rondo is still playing out a very friendly five-year, $55 million contract extension inked in October of 2009.
The ideal route for Boston here would be having Rondo emerge as a leader, showing greater maturity after the injury that forced him off the floor this past season. Maybe watching his coach chase a championship out west and his best friend KG shuffle off to Brooklyn will leave Rondo with a chip on his shoulder. He plays his best basketball in those situations.
And after his attitude has been routinely scrutinized this offseason, Rondo has plenty of doubters he'll want to prove wrong next season.