How, in four brief years, does the No. 21 pick in the draft turn into an All-Star leader with a championship ring? Here is the story of the Celtics' 24-year-old point guard, Rajon Rondo, who averaged 20 points and 15.5 assists as Boston surprisingly split the opening two games against No. 1 seed Cleveland.
• Stay hungry. Rondo has been humbled throughout his young career. Coming out of high school (he spent three years at Eastern High School in Louisville, Ky., and one year at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va.), Rondo was viewed as a lesser prospect than Sebastian Telfair. He slid to No. 21 in the 2006 draft after his inconsistent shooting was blamed for Kentucky's problems, and then early in his rookie NBA season he found himself on the Celtics' bench behind Telfair, even though Rondo believed he'd won the position.
One year after helping the Celtics win the 2008 NBA Finals, Rondo heard undeniable rumors that Boston was shopping him for possible trades. He has yet to feel secure as a top point guard.
"I want guys like that," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I love guys like Dominique [Wilkins], who I played with -- even in his last year he was still trying to seek validation. Michael Jordan, every night if he heard something wrong or read something he didn't like, he wanted to prove himself. I think that's a very healthy thing.''
Boston wasn't expecting to pick Rondo in 2006. On draft day the Celtics unloaded Raef LaFrentz's rich contract along with the No. 5 pick (which Portland converted into Brandon Roy) in return for Telfair, who was initially viewed as their next point guard.
"I'd heard from Danny [Ainge] repeatedly how much he loved Rondo," said Celtics managing partner and CEO Wyc Grousbeck, who surprised GM Ainge by suggesting early in the first round that he buy a pick to choose Rondo. "He said, 'We've already got a point guard.' I had [co-owner Steve] Pagliuca there and I said, 'We believe in you, and you love this kid more than anybody we've heard you love. Go get him.' "
The Celtics bought the No. 21 pick of the Suns, with the deal contingent on the right player being available. "When [Renaldo] Balkman was picked by the Knicks [at No. 20], we all were cheering," Grousbeck said. "This is not me saying, 'Go get Rondo because he's going to be an All-Star.' It's me saying, 'Danny, you're the guy, and I'm buying into Rondo because I'm buying into you.' "
Rondo started 25 games as a rookie, and when the Celtics dealt for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in 2007, their 6-foot point guard was the one young talent they refused to include in either deal. His new teammates were surprised to realize how little he knew about their careers.
"He has no clue of the history of the game," said 36-year-old Michael Finley, who signed with the Celtics in March after a buyout from San Antonio. "He said he never saw me play. I told him he didn't have that channel, I only came on cable."
This is not to say that Rondo isn't plugged into his job. "He studies film as much as anybody on the team, he knows the [opponents'] plays as good as anybody," Finley said. "I've met a couple of people in my career who watch as much basketball as me. His life is based around basketball. His knowledge of game situations is what helps him get rebounds and steals and puts the team in good situations.
"He's just focused on the time that affects him, and because of that I guess he doesn't get burnt out watching basketball all the time."
• Overcome trade rumors. Rondo was the Celtics' most marketable talent at his current rookie-contract salary of $2.1 million, and so Ainge called around the league last summer to assess his value. He was surprised and upset to be on the market a year after helping the Celtics win a championship.
"I don't think he had great habits," Ainge said. "That will be my speech to Rondo again this year at the end of the season -- just continue to develop habits and those habits will help him be great.
"I would say the same thing to [Kendrick] Perkins and the same thing to GlenDavis. There's one thing KG has and Ray has: They consistently work on their games and their bodies, it's a daily routine, and they've formed great habits. That's what I would say to Rondo, to get to that point where shooting becomes a habit, and taking care of your body and stretching and lifting and those things all become habits every day. He's just going to get better and better, and I still don't think he's reached what he's capable of being."
Rondo was hearing the same advice from Rivers, and he took it to heart. Last summer he lifted weights to bulk up to his current 188 pounds, and he improved his shooting with the help of Mark Price. He came into camp seeking -- but not expecting -- a contract extension from the Celtics, even though they had shopped him for potential trades and only three rivals from his draft class (Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Andrea Bargnani) would receive contract extensions from their original teams. "I had the mind-set to play and wait it out," he said. "Play through it and having to negotiate in the summer.''
Just before the season Grousbeck pushed through the negotiations to sign Rondo for five years at $55 million. "I think that's one of the key events of this season or the next five," Grousbeck said. "I knew that I wanted him here, and I told him as we went into the negotiations that we were either going to sign or match him -- he's going to be here, so get it out of his head."
Said Rivers: "He wanted the extension -- he really wanted it, and I didn't know if he was going to get it or not. And I was really happy when it got done, just so that barrier is removed.
"It was something that definitely weighed on his mind. It would have been talked about all during the course of the season. I think Rondo would have still had a good year, but the fact that he could relax and be more of a leader and feel that there was not any separation between him and ownership and management and coaches -- there wasn't any divide there. It was, We all trust you, we're all investing in you, so don't worry about that anymore. Just go worry about winning."
Said Rondo: "Both parties were happy with the deal, and hopefully I'll be here for those five years."
• Be coached. If Allen, Garnett and Pierce have behaved like his big brothers, then Rivers has been Rondo's disciplining father -- his Great Santini.
"It wasn't easy, especially at first," Rondo said. "He's the biggest critic. You've got to take it as a positive, though. He's played 13 years and coached 11, so he's been in the game as long as I've been alive, so he knows what he's talking about. He's pushing me a lot, he wants me to be great, so that's what I have to realize when he's coaching me and he's critiquing me as hard as he is. It's taken me a couple of years to realize that but now I think I'm doing a better job each year of maturing and growing and understanding that he wants the best of me."
Rivers sees him growing in several areas. "The thing Rondo has to still improve on is he gets upset about a guy blowing a play,'' Rivers said. "And it affects how he plays for the next five minutes. He said, 'Coach, I'm not mad at you or anybody, I'm just mad.' I've said, 'Does it really matter who you're mad at? If you're mad and you can't function -- I don't care who you're mad at, just play and do your job.'
"But as the year's gone on, he's made better and better strides at it. He would get so mad at a guy who misses two plays, he'd pout the next six minutes of the game and literally not play. And now it's one play maybe, or not even, and he'll catch himself. He's gotten better and that's really important, because I can see where coaches or even teammates would have taken that personally, like he's quitting, he just gives in. But he's not. We had to get that out of him, and this year has been his best year by far."
Rivers also credits him with knowing when and how to apply the ball-fakes and enthralling bounce passes off the dribble that inspire teammates. "I always remind him, It's a competition," Rivers said. "It's short, he gets it now. He'll giggle sometimes or laugh, and I'll say, 'Don't! It's a competition, it's not a show. You don't get extra points for flair.'
"But some part of that flair, he actually needs it in his game. It's like a great shooter -- you've got to give him more latitude because he's gifted. You don't want to choke off his talent, but you want to make sure he doesn't cross that line to make it a hard play instead of a simple play. But he catches himself now.''
The coach adds that Rondo is also grasping his potential to disrupt opponents by pressuring the ball full-court defensively. "He finally understands how important he is,'' Rivers said, "which I don't think he got before."
I asked Rondo if he understands what Rivers means about learning to appreciate his own value to the team. "No, not really," he said. "He tells me all the time, and I'm like, OK, and I continue to try to get better. And when I do play well he tells me, 'That's what I'm talking about.' "
So sometimes you're nodding along, I said, even though you're not really sure what he means?
Rondo nodded and laughed. "I know somewhat he's talking about maybe picking up full-court defensively, so I'm not letting them get into their sets until 16 or 17 [seconds] on the shot clock so that way they only have one option."
It said a lot for Rondo that he has been able to meet the high standards of three elder teammates who couldn't wait for him to grow up, in addition to a demanding coach who was a former All-Star himself. "It definitely was hard playing for a coach who played point and knows the game so well that you can't get [away with] anything."
• Earn teammates' respect. More important than approaching their income status was Rondo's elevation as an All-Star while averaging 13.7 points and 9.8 assists this season. "Once you're in, you're officially part of the club," Pierce said. "You're talking about a guy who grew up, who had a great year, and once you're put in that elite class it's like there's no more looking down on him."
When Rondo speaks now, his teammates are more inclined to listen. "He always spoke up, especially being a young point guard," Pierce said. "It's just that he's got more ears now. There's a difference."
"I saw an incident in Miami -- it must have been Game 3 because I was sitting right behind the bench," Ainge said. "I could see Perk and Tony [Allen] were having a discussion, and a little bit of emotions were in the discussion. Then KG got involved because he was sitting on the bench, and then Paul got in the discussion, and this was while the coaches were in their little huddle out on the court. And then after 30 seconds or a minute, Rajon stepped in and they were all listening to Rajon. I thought that was very interesting from my perspective, and I know that's not the first time they've listened to Rajon -- but I don't think that would have happened two years ago. I don't think Rajon would have tried to make it happen two years ago, and I don't think he could have calmed the storm at that moment to say, 'OK, here's what we need to do.' It seemed like the emotions had died down and he had control of that huddle until the coaches came in."
• Threaten to upset the No. 1 seed. Rondo's skills have been on display over the first two games -- the changes of speed, the ability to penetrate at will, the precise bounce passes off the dribble, the vision and strength to kick assists with either hand out to the three-point line. He has even been shooting jumpers confidently and making 80.6 percent of his playoff free throws after converting only 62.1 percent during the season.
One way to nullify his effectiveness is to turn him into a scorer, and Rondo understands this as well as anyone. On the one hand he must be aggressive, because "his speed gives us a dimension that we don't have," Rivers said. "Without his speed we're a slow basketball team. He's very important [to create shots] for Kevin and Ray; Paul can get his own, but it's really important for those other two."
If Rondo is scoring at a high rate, then the opportunities are diminished for Garnett and Allen, and the Celtics ultimately lose two of their vital weapons. That's why Rondo responded to his opening half of 19 points and eight assists in Game 1 by driving less often and trying to move the ball around to his teammates, but it was too late to create the new rhythm. In Game 2, he took the opposite tack of spreading the ball around before eventually imposing himself with the dribble, and his 13-point, 19-assist performance had everything to do with Boston's 104-86 win.
The Celtics are bracing for a stronger effort from the heretofore blasé Cavs, who must split the two weekend games in Boston. As important as the health of Garnett and Pierce have been to the Celtics, Rondo may be their one indispensable player. Over the last three years he's had no true backup point guard, and he was averaging 43.5 minutes in this series because Rivers can't afford to play any longer without him.
Rondo insists he doesn't need a No. 2 -- he wants "as many minutes as possible," he said. "I'm 24, I feel great. I'd rather play 48 minutes a night if I could."
Pierce, Garnett and Allen remember how they used to feel that way, and no doubt they're glad Rondo feels that way now. Because he has the potential to extend their usefulness.
• When is someone going to have the nerve to tell Mark Cuban that his over-the-top, hands-on, neurotic approach as the owner of the Mavs is why his team is unable to win a championship? It is obvious, but he will never admit that. Watching his antics behind the bench, I can feel the negative influence he has on his team right through the TV screen. It may not be an energy any of his players really are aware of, but his personality has become the personality of this team. Although I am sure he is an intelligent guy, he should be honest and recognize what he is doing with and for the Mavs is simply not working and he should recognize that he is not helping by being so close to all the everyday activities. What do you think?-- Edward, Harvey Cedars, N.J.
I hear you, Edward, and I know a lot of people agree with you. My feeling is that a decade of 50-win seasons without fail should not be taken for granted, and it's no coincidence that the two franchises that have succeeded at that level are supervised on a daily basis by the man in charge, whether it's Gregg Popovich with the Spurs or Cuban with the Mavs. If Cuban had been the typical owner who recedes from his team, would Dallas have remained so good for so long? He is able to personally hold his players accountable because he is around them every day, and he is more willing to invest in large contracts because he understands first hand what the team needs.
He has made mistakes, as he admits, but you have to accept the whole package. You can't ask him to invest his money without accepting his management style. On the whole the franchise is far better off than if he never had bought the team.
Now, have they failed to fulfill their potential in the playoffs because of his management style? That's a fair question that Cuban will have to answer until he wins a championship. My view is that the makeup of the team has been the main issue, and that Cuban's daily oversight does far more good than harm -- that they wouldn't contend every year if he wasn't around the team throughout the regular season. Most NBA teams suffer because the players aren't held accountable, but that isn't a problem in Dallas.
• I've been a D-Wade fan ever since I prayed he would fall to the Bulls in the draft way back when. But is he really the greatest fit with Derrick Rose? He's an incredibly talented player, but don't Wade and Rose basically have the same game?-- Adam, Sturgeon Lake, Minn.
That would be an amazing backcourt, Adam. Both players can drive inside at will and create and defend, and Rose is going to improve his jump shot just as Wade has improved his. But I don't expect them to wind up together. This is completely a hunch, but I'm guessing Wade would be less likely to move to Chicago than to New York, where his celebrity could grow exponentially. But the likelihood is that he'll remain with Pat Riley in Miami.
• If LeBron is hurt or in any way limited, the Cavaliers have no chance to win the title. Do you agree?-- Johnathan, Knoxville, Tenn.
I don't agree, Johnathan. He can win games in a lot of ways -- with his passing especially -- and he is surrounded by shooters and low-post scorers. If he is limited offensively, maybe he offsets that by inspiring his team to play better defense.
The same goes for the Lakers: No one should rule them out just because KobeBryant has been hurting.
• What's going on with the Hawks? How could they look so strong in the regular season and just let it all fall apart in the playoffs?-- Darren, Atlanta
In the first round, they looked like they expected the Bucks to accept defeat, but that wasn't happening. Now they're getting clobbered by a superior team. The Hawks have done as much as they can with their limited resources, but they were never going to win a second-round series against the richer payroll of Orlando or Cleveland. They've done as well within their means as they can possibly do.
I spoke with the Spurs' 35-year-old big man toward the end of their first-round upset of the Mavericks. His words have new relevance now that San Antonio finds itself down 2-0 to Phoenix.
• On the perspective of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. "We never get down, because overall we know the ability we have on this team," he said of the team's difficult regular season. "You could lose, you could be down for a second -- which is not to say we weren't sad or depressed about our losses -- but we felt that we had the potential to still be a good team this year. It gives you a sense of comfort knowing that we don't get down on a lot of things and we'll bounce back the next game, and that's how we always took it."
• On doing his part. "My frustration came from my own security, of trying to learn the different positions on the court, and learning the defensive schemes and offensive schemes, which is totally different from other teams. That's where my frustration came. But everybody else seemed a lot more calm, besides the new guys. When we struggled in games with our shooting and rebounding, me and [Richard Jefferson] didn't know how to take it. We felt like we put it on our shoulders, that it could be our fault. But listening to the guys that have been here and Popovich kind of letting you know that everything will be OK, that gave you a sense of relief."
• On the inspiration of the Big Three wanting to win again. "They lift your energy. When you see Manu come back with a broken nose? Come on, man. I had a broken nose, I didn't come back the same game -- and it was a playoff game. But to see Manu come out there and knowing how bad we need him to play, it inspires me. He does all the dirty work to get us going. Without him we definitely would not be where we're at. I told him earlier this year they say Dwight [Howard] is Superman, but Manu is our real Superman. He comes to save the day for us every time."
• The Suns. I did not see this coming. Their roster looked far less dangerous than in the Mike D'Antoni years, and it was on the verge of growing weaker three months ago when they were seriously thinking about moving Amar'eStoudemire. But the Suns have made the most of their deepened bench, and they won Game 2 against the Spurs without the dominating performance they figured to need from Steve Nash. Even if the Spurs come back to win this series, Phoenix's year-long performance should be recognized as an example that teamwork can make a difference in this league.
• Grant Hill. Something extra has to be said of someone whose left ankle has survived five operations, who missed 357 games over six prime years, and who has now appeared in all but one game over the past two seasons while -- at 37 years old -- limiting Ginobili to 11 points in Game 2 on Wednesday. This is turning into one of the more amazing comebacks in the history of the league.
• The Orlando Magic. They drew the easiest path to the conference finals of any favorite East or West, but don't hold that against Orlando. The Magic will likely finish off the Hawks within five games and wait unscathed for Cleveland or Boston to emerge. They don't have Hedo Turkoglu creating mismatches anymore, but they do have Jameer Nelson playing at a high level, they are possibly the best defensive team in the tournament and they believe wholeheartedly they can beat the Cavaliers or the Celtics. While the Cavs, Lakers and Spurs have all foundered at times this postseason, the Magic have looked ruthlessly efficient. We may yet look back to realize this was the league's best team all along.