Whether or not the Boston Celtics decide to breakup their aging roster, the 2012 NBA Playoffs effectively ended the era of Boston's Big Three. For most observers, the end has been a long time coming but in truth been over since Rajon Rondo's emergence at the dawn of the 2010-11 season as an impact point guard turned the Big Three into the Fantastic Four. The Celtics are now Rondo's team. In the first 12 games of last season, Rondo averaged 15 assists per game and was mentioned as an early MVP candidate before he strained his hamstring in a loss to Oklahoma City.
However, before this lockout-shortened season began, Rondo was the subject of numerous trade rumors involving then-Hornets point guard Chris Paul and Warriors guard Stephen Curry. Meanwhile, as the Celtics were disregarded as contenders, Rondo transformed into an indispensible cog in the Celtics' future plans.
During the early years of the Big Three, Rondo was viewed as the chink in Boston's armor. Instead, the young point guard with turnover problems has become a Celtics fan favorite as the Celtics' anti-Russell Westbrook because of his unselfish style of play in addition to his unwillingness to shoot. Unfortunately, his prickly attitude and friction between he and Ray Allen had management aggressively shopping him as late as March.
Statistically, Rondo is even reaching achievements that Celtics legend Bob Cousy could never dream of. On February 29, the Celtics were .500 just before the All-Star break and Rondo was averaging just under 10 assists per game. After the break Rondo churned out 13.4 assists per game and the Celtics roared to a 27-10 finish. In the process, Rondo closed out the season by finishing with double digit assists in 24 straight games. The only players with longer streaks are Magic Johnson and the record-holder John Stockton, who did so in 29 straight games( Technically, the streak ended at 28 games in the first round of the playoffs, however, it will resume in the 2012-13 season opener).
When Cousy was 27, the Celtics drafted a 6-10 defensive dynamo named Bill Russell, who now has his name on the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award. Next year, the Celtics are projected to be $24 million under the cap and $54 million below their current payroll. Rondo doesn't have the complete package of a point guard like Chris Paul, therefore general manager Danny Ainge will have to rebuild around Rondo. A dominant post presence like Dwight Howard, who has won the Defensive Player of the Year Award three times might be just what the Celtics need.
Howard's disdain for Shaquille O'Neal led him to shy away from a trade to the Lakers, so what better way to enhance his legacy by becoming the anti-Shaq and winning a championship with the Celtics? However, that will have to wait until 2013.
Despite their advanced age, don't bury the Celtics yet. While a run at Dwight Howard may be in the cards next summer, the Celtics may have one more shot at greatness with their current makeup with the returns of injured contributors Avery Bradley, Chris Wilcox and Jeff Green. If Garnett and Allen are willing to take discount one-year deals, the Celtics will be able to take serious moves this off-season and next.
Despite his deficiencies as a shooter, Rondo has consistently posted some of the most complete stat lines in the league and most importantly has become a clutch performer in the fourth. In the Celtics' Game 7 loss to the Heat, Rondo recorded his second Game 7 triple-double of the 2012 playoffs. However, the way that Rondo gets his assists is more remarkable. Instead of swinging kick out passes to shooters on the perimeter like most point guards gather assists, most of Rondo's are engineered by his on-court pointing to teammates cutting in the lane or in penetration.
For every negative report about Rondo losing jump shooting contests to eighth graders as a professional in 2007 there is another about the high school game where he dropped 31 dimes, just four shy of the national record. Rondo will never be a great scorer but strictly as a distributor he's arguably the NBA's best. The question now becomes who will he be passing to next season?