Rajon Rondo is working without a safety net now.
Every key piece of the Boston Celtics' championship core is playing elsewhere, and there's a franchise-wide hope that the mercurial point guard can take over as the team's next great leader.
With Boston poised on the edge of a new era, Rondo must overcome the flaws that have plagued his past in order to prove he's worthy of leading the Celtics into the future.
For what it's worth, Kevin Garnett thinks his former teammate is prepared to handle the challenge. In an interview from a Chinese promotional event (transcribed by MassLive.com's Jay King), KG was asked what he taught Rondo during their time together.
About leadership. I feel like one of the things I always tried to stress to him is, when you're a leader, you lead by example. It's not a lot about what you say, it's a lot about what you do.
Garnett then answered affirmatively when asked whether he thought Rondo had taken enough from those leadership lessons to help lift Boston back to its place among the league's elite.
Absolutely. I'm sure he's going to push them to make the team better, and (president of basketball operations Danny Ainge) is going to do just that. The franchise has always been used to winning. They have a new coach and new system up there, so I'm thinking that's going to be a plus. I wish them all the best, man. I have no ill will towards anything in Boston.
I definitely think he’s matured and can handle a lot. I talked to him and he’s ready for the challenge. He knows that it’s his team. He knows he has to be a leader, and from being around me and Kevin [Garnett] and seeing how we work.
Celebrity endorsers like Pierce and KG are nice, but their opinions don't count for much if the product they're pitching is defective.
The truth is that Rondo is a player with real flaws, both in his game and in his personality. That's not to say he can't work through them, but any honest treatment of Rondo's capabilities as a leader has to start by looking at the traits that could prevent him from ever earning that title.
Now or Never
The first part of Rondo's game that has to improve before he qualifies as a legitimate leader is his jumper. Stop me if you've heard that one before.
Maybe it's an unwillingness to take instruction. Or perhaps Rondo's exceptionally long arms and oversized hands simply make a mechanically sound jump shot an impossibility. Whatever the case, Rondo's jumper is still busted, and his mechanics aren't getting better.
Sure, he's improved his marksmanship from the top of the circle. But that's a shot defenses want opponents to take. Excelling at low-efficiency offense while posing absolutely no threat from beyond the arc isn't going to be enough for Rondo.
That's because a point guard who can't keep the defense honest on the perimeter makes everything harder on his team's offense. Spacing breaks down, and as a result penetration becomes more difficult as defenders sag off and pack the paint.
Even pick-and-rolls lose their teeth because Rondo's lack of a jumper allows defenders to go below the screen.
Note here that Devin Harris ditches Rondo to go way underneath Pierce's pick. Josh Smith steps out to make an obligatory "show," but clearly isn't worried about a Rondo jumper.
As Harris casually makes his way back, Rondo has found himself wide open—no doubt a position the Atlanta Hawks were totally comfortable with.
He pulls up and fires a brick.
Rondo's inability to strain a defense with his shot is a problem on a couple of levels. First, as we've discussed, it allows for defenses to take shortcuts, or ignore him altogether.
Second, it results in an overall lack of aggressiveness from Rondo that simply can't exist if he's really going to become a team leader.
Of players that logged at least 500 minutes for the Celtics last year, Rondo ranked seventh in shots per minute, per NBA.com. Yes, Rondo is a facilitator, and he's got four other players to keep happy. But he also has to at least keep defenses honest. Especially now that the Celtics' main scoring threats are playing for the Brooklyn Nets.
He needs to find a way to iron out his jumper, or he'll never be the kind of versatile threat (or leader) the Celtics need him to be.
Rondo's attitude will also have to improve if he's going to captain the C's new era.
At this point, it's widely accepted that Rondo is sort of a "different" guy. He's quiet, moody and generally keeps to himself. That's a problem on its own, as leaders typically need to be outgoing and vocal in the course of their duties.
But the bigger issue is the dark side of Rondo's moodiness.
That's not a leader; that's a petulant, hot-headed kid.
With Brad Stevens in charge now, there's greater potential than ever for a few Rondo meltdowns. If the point guard was willing to butt heads with Rivers, one of the most respected coaches in the league, how's he going to act around a coach who's getting his first taste of NBA experience?
And if Rivers had so little success in his efforts to rein in some of Rondo's on-court outbursts, what chance does Stevens stand?
If Rondo's going to be a real leader, he'll have to take ownership of his actions, acknowledge his past immaturity and work to become a more connected, vocal teammate.
The Big Gamble
The Celtics seem to think Rondo is capable of making the leap into leadership. Maybe they're right about that. But at the same time, putting so much stock in a player who has so many question marks surrounding him is something of a gamble.
And remember, there's still an immense amount of uncertainty surrounding Rondo's return from a torn ACL. Teammate Jared Sullinger thinks a December return is in the cards, but Ainge has no idea when his best player will make it back to game action.
If injury prevents the dynamic guard from being the force he once was, it may turn out that the Celtics have put their faith in the wrong guy.
The team is pretty much out of better options, though, as it's going to be almost impossible to get fair value in any potential trade.
So the Celtics are prepared to sink or swim with Rondo in charge of the early stages of their new era. Let's hope they have life vests handy.