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Sometime in the coming months, likely in October, the Boston Celtics will almost certainly announce that Rajon Rondo has been named the 15th captain of the storied franchise.
Taking the torch from Paul Pierce, who brought much-needed stability to the captain's role in 2000, Rondo will formally be tasked with being the veteran voice and anointed leader of a Celtics team entering a murky transition phase.
In the NBA, the captain's role is largely superficial. Each team can designate up to two and the rulebook states that the captain(s) is the only one who can ask an official about a rule interpretation during timeouts.
Around the league, players typically get their invisible C for two reasons: They've been around the longest and/or offer leadership qualities. The first part is a slam dunk for Rondo as he's easily Boston's longest-tenured player (seven seasons; Avery Bradley is next closest at three). During that time, Rondo has hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy, but also endured the rigors of the Celtics' last rebuilding process during his rookie season.
The second half of the equation is slightly more roily, but indications are that Rondo has quietly ascended to a leadership post over the last three seasons (he simply had a veteran safety net). Even at age 27, Rondo has the ear of his teammates, particularly the remaining young core, and even Pierce and Kevin Garnett suggested in recent seasons that the figurative torch had been passed.
His teammates verified this last year, often stressing his behind-the-scenes leadership, whether it was a phone call to check in on Bradley in the D-League a couple of years back, or packing Capri Suns and Teddy Grahams for last year's preseason trip to Turkey, much of what makes Rondo a leader isn't always in plain sight.
But here's the real question: What kind of captain will he be?
You see, getting the C isn't the hard part in Boston. It's how long you maintain that post that dictates your legacy as a leader. Will Rondo be part of the longevity club, captains who served in that role for more than a decade and don't need their first name to be referenced in these parts like Cousy (1950-63), Bird (1980-92) and Pierce (2000-13)? Or will the captain's crest bounce around as it did in the '90s, when, after Bird capped his 13-year run in 1992, eight different players -- more than half the total that have worn it since 1950 -- were named captain of Boston teams that were trapped in the rebuilding process?
Irrespective of his captaincy, this is a monster season for Rondo. The fact that he's rehabbing from ACL surgery in February complicates matters a bit, but Rondo needs to show this season -- on the court and off -- that he's indeed the franchise cornerstone that Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has suggested he is. That would allow the Celtics to build around Rondo moving forward, making him the foundation upon which the next iteration of an overhauled Boston squad would be built.
On the night the Celtics formalized the trade that sent Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn, Ainge said he views Rondo as someone the team can build around and has stressed since that he has no intention of trading him this offseason.
|Rajon Rondo will be entering his eighth season wit the Celtics.|
But that doesn't take much pressure off Rondo. Entering the 2013-14 season, he no longer has that Big Three support system. No longer are Pierce and Garnett here to echo his message. At the moment, Rondo doesn't have a close friend like Keyon Dooling to nudge him in the right direction in terms of being a vocal leader.
This is unequivocally Rondo's team now, and it's going to be really intriguing to see how he leads, particularly if Boston endures the hefty losses that typically come along with the transition process -- something he hasn't navigated since his rookie campaign. His desire to win and his ability to make the players around him better ought to serve Rondo well, but being a leader is so much more.
Maybe that part won't be so difficult. You'll remember last summer how Rondo quietly organized offseason workouts, bringing much of a new-look Celtics team to the Los Angeles area (where Pierce and Garnett live in the offseason) to build chemistry (and play flag football). Once Boston's roster is firmed up, it might benefit Rondo to organize another field trip before the team gathers for training camp in Newport, R.I., in late September. With all the new faces, and a new coaching staff, getting on the same page early is as important as ever if Boston hopes to hit the accelerator on the rebuilding process.
So much has been made about Rondo's relationship with 36-year-old coach Brad Stevens and the question of whether the two can coexist. Stevens visited with Rondo at his basketball camp in Louisville earlier this month and has kept in touch with him since then. Stevens made establishing a relationship with Rondo a priority, likely understanding the importance of having the team's most influential presence to help hammer home the message of a new administration.
Whether he's back on the court by opening night (the aggressive timeline the team and player established after a partially torn ACL was repaired by Dr. James Andrews in February) or more toward Christmas (old friends Pierce and Garnett have stressed for him to take it slow with rehab), Rondo needs to reassert himself as a leader on and off the floor. Forced to spend nearly a half season away from the team last year, it will be interesting to see what he absorbed while away. After watching his coach flee 3,000 miles to chase a title in L.A. and watching some of his closest friends get shipped to Brooklyn to usher in the rebuilding process, Rondo ought to have plenty of motivation to guide this team.
Rondo has two more seasons remaining on the five-year, $55 million extension he inked in 2009. His ultra-favorable cap figure and a soon-to-be-expiring contract will make him an attractive option on the trade market the next couple of seasons. The Celtics have to decide moving forward whether Rondo is truly a building block, particularly as he's on the verge of a hefty payday (especially with someone like Washington's John Wall on the verge of inking a five-year, $80 million extension).
The question is no longer whether this is Rondo's team. That's undeniable and he'll soon have the captain's crest to hammer that home. The question is: How long will he hold that post? His ability to help Boston navigate this transition process could dictate how his captaincy is remembered.