There likely won’t be two men with more to prove during the next NBA season than Rajon Rondo and Brad Stevens.
Both the Boston Celtics point guard and new head coach are heading full-steam into a wildly unknown campaign. They don’t truly know what to expect from each other, themselves or even who exactly will be on the roster.
Rondo will be playing his first season without Paul Pierce alongside. It will be the first time since his rookie year that Kevin Garnett won’t be on the floor with him either. Expectations of leadership will be high, but Rondo has long relied on others to help him handle that aspect of the game.
Stevens will turn 37 just before opening day, making him the youngest head coach in the league. He will also be making an incredible leap in both job style and security. At Butler University, Stevens was facing teams like Valparaiso and Detroit-Mercy in the Horizon League. Now, those tiny schools become the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets in the Atlantic Division.
After leading the Bulldogs to two NCAA finals, Stevens probably could have worked at Butler for the rest of his life. He had maximum job security there. Even if he preferred to make the slide to a major college program, that job security would be pretty strong.
Nearly half of the head coaches in the NBA from last year will not be with their former team. An even scarier prospect, seven of those 13 made the postseason in 2013. Job security in the NBA is a bit different than the Horizon League.
Rondo may be the one whose contract expires in 2015, but given how often NBA coaches get the axe, it is impossible to say who will be in green longer. Doc Rivers agreed to a five-year extension with Boston in 2011 but found a way out of it. Stevens’ six-year, $22 million deal isn’t exactly iron-clad.
Whatever the makeup of Boston is, they will be looking for direction and identity out of the gate. Two critical starters and a third major contributor have departed in the blockbuster trade with Brooklyn, meaning next season will bring about a host of new faces.
They will all be looking for direction in one of two places: Rondo or Stevens. While a lot will depend on the individual players' feelings, a fair amount will be placed on whoever assumes the bigger leadership and agenda-setting role.
A common thought will be that since Rondo has been a Celtic for seven full seasons now, he has therefore gained the respect of the organization and his teammates. Stevens is the rookie here and doesn’t have an ounce of NBA cache to his credit.
However, who exactly on the roster has played with Rondo long enough to put him on that pedestal? Of course, everyone will praise his play and production, but Avery Bradley is the second-longest tenured Celtic and he has played just 145 regular-season games with the organization. Of his 50 games played last season, 39 came without Rondo.
Rondo is well-respected around the league as an elite point guard, but within his own team, there are few who recognize him as their automatic leader because of tenure.
Instead, Rondo has just as much to prove as Stevens. Both bring unique visions to basketball, yet have experienced success only in vacuums: Rondo with two or three Hall of Famers alongside him, and Stevens at a mid-major college basketball program.
Those vacuums are colliding this coming season, eliminating each man’s former comfort zone.
Both have detractors as well as positives for defining the next Celtics era. Rondo is by far more movable, as a trade of him would bring back a healthy haul. However, he remains the lone marketable star on the roster. No fans are lining up to buy Stevens merchandise.
Rondo’s game and mentality are proven at the NBA level, while Stevens’ coaching style, ideas and chops are all untested. Do his analytical ideas translate from 35 games against 20 percent elite talent to 82 games against 100 percent elite talent? That is the mountain Stevens has to climb.
When it comes to defining eras in the NBA, there are a lot more players doing so than coaches. Ultimately, this question won’t be decided by either man individually, but by their followers. What direction the team and Danny Ainge sways will probably decide the era.
Much has been made about how similar the two are. Those unique visions align in one major way—preparation. Stevens is incredibly focused on the analytical side of basketball, bringing Drew Cannon, his personal statistician, with him from Butler to Boston. Rondo, likewise, is a glutton for studying opponents and himself.
This could formulate as some common ground for the two. While it may take some ego swallowing on Rondo’s part, listening to a mid-major coach and his kid statistician may be best for the Celtics overall.
It is an exciting experiment that Ainge has undertaken. A young coach to lead a young team, with a strong-headed young star in the mix. The organization let a lot of talent walk this offseason, but the fresh faces and potential down the road are intriguing.
When those fresh faces get to Boston, it will be more important that Rondo takes them under his wing than anything else. He spent six years learning how to set a culture from Garnett and Pierce, and now it is his turn to implement.
Both Rondo and Stevens bring a culture of winning. However, Rondo has learned to win at a whole different level.