Give And Go: Scoping out the comeback trails of Rajon Rondo, Greg Oden and more
Give And Go is a recurring feature in which The Point Forward’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney bat an NBA topic du jour back and forth.
This week: A look at five teams that have gotten, or will soon get, key players back in the fold after injuries. How will the returning players shape the balance of their teams’ seasons? (All stats and records are through Jan. 15.)
1. Rajon Rondo will return to the Celtics on Friday, marking almost a full year since the All-Star point guard last played in an NBA game. Where does his comeback leave Boston?
Ben Golliver: Rondo will surely receive a hero’s welcome, what with Boston mired in a 2-12 skid, but I’m expecting something less than a hero’s impact. As with any player coming back from an ACL injury, short-term expectations should be kept in line. If he is able to get his numbers back to his pre-injury output by early next season, that should be considered a win. It would be thrilling if the “take over the game, put up a triple-double, play like an MVP candidate” Rondo we saw during the 2012 playoffs appears between now and April, but more likely he’ll be shaking off cobwebs and getting his timing back, much like Bulls guard Derrick Rose earlier this season.
Perhaps the bigger issue is that Rondo’s return comes shortly after two cost-cutting moves that sent out Courtney Lee and Jordan Crawford. Boston is therefore left juggling a new-look backcourt rotation that now includes Rondo and newcomer Jerryd Bayless, and it’s certainly possible that Celtics president Danny Ainge will continue to spin roster pieces between now and the trade deadline. Rondo was at his best when surrounded by the steadiest of players — Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen — and he approaches this comeback with fresh faces on all sides and the possibility that some of those guys will be dealt at a moment’s notice.
This was going to be a rebuilding season one way or another for the Celtics. Rondo’s return offers, more than anything else, the chance to see how well he pairs with Avery Bradley in a potential backcourt of the future. Bradley, known best for his ball-hawking defense, has made progress as both a scorer and an outside shooter this season, especially from the corners (41 percent from the left corner, 40 percent from the right corner) and in spot-up situations (49 percent overall, 45 percent from deep). He figures to be the prime beneficiary of Rondo’s excellent set-up skills among Boston’s wings.
Another two-man interplay to watch is that between Rondo and 2012 first-round pick Jared Sullinger, who has struggled to finish around the basket this season and has taken to firing jumpers from mid-range and beyond. Rondo’s pick-and-roll experience and understanding of spacing should make life easier for Sullinger, whose numbers have suffered without a natural distributor on Boston’s roster this season.
Past that, it’s hard to know what to expect. Boston hasn’t posted elite offensive numbers since 2009, even with Hall of Famers occupying seemingly every position, and I’m not sure Rondo’s return will lead Boston to jump up the offensive efficiency charts from its current No. 24 ranking. There’s only so much anyone can do with the talent that’s on hand.
Similarly, I don’t see the 14-26 Celtics, who are three games out of the playoffs in the East, cracking the conference’s top eight by season’s end. Rondo’s return doesn’t address their undersized front line, struggles on the defensive glass or 33.5 percent three-point shooting (27th in the league). Nevertheless, the four-time All-Star does inject some badly needed excitement, which counts for a lot considering the current state of the Celtics.
Rob Mahoney: That last point Ben made — that Boston hasn’t been an elite offensive team since 2009 — provides the most interesting backdrop for Rondo’s return. His skills as a playmaker and ability to get by his defender are obvious. Rondo has scorched even high-level defenses with his shot creation, particularly when he remembers that attacking the basket with the intent to score is even a possibility. But he remains one of the most well-respected point guards in the league despite rarely bringing his team to respectable offensive marks, even when flanked by capable role players and a few Hall of Famers.
More than anything, though, this season and beyond offer a chance to see Rondo in a different context. His reluctance to assert himself as a scorer and the degree to which he can influence games as a passer and defender make him a rare talent, one so odd that it begs to be tested in a variety of different circumstances. We know how Rondo plays off Garnett, Pierce, Allen and other Celtics mainstays. But now we’ll get an opportunity to see how the dynamic shifts when he’s clearly in charge of all Boston does on the court, and in a position where he’s very much needed as a scorer. The help will be more marginal, the playbook has changed completely and opposing defenses will focus on him above all else. What can Rondo — once he works his way into better, healthier form — accomplish under those circumstances?
The answer to that question won’t act as the be-all, end-all of Boston’s season, but it widens the experimental set for a player whose talents are still a bit difficult to place.
2. Greg Oden played in his first regular-season game in more than 1,500 days on Wednesday, finishing with six points and two rebounds in eight minutes. Was this the first step toward a difference-making presence during the playoffs?
Ben Golliver: I harbor no ill will toward Oden, but I honestly never thought he would make it this far, even when “this far” equals a few minutes in a mid-January game when his team is surprisingly trailing by 20 points in the first half. Before we even begin to think about the upcoming playoffs, we must first salute Oden for the work he’s put in over the last four years. There were peaks and valleys, things looked touch-and-go on multiple occasions, and he even admitted that he would consider life as a gym teacher if he couldn’t continue his NBA career. I’m sure I speak for the entire world when I say I’d much rather see Oden dunking against the Wizards than officiating dodgeball at recess.
The depleted nature of the Eastern Conference favors the Heat generally, of course, but it also favors Oden in particular. A worst-case scenario entering the season would have involved Miami facing, say, the Bulls or Nets (Joakim Noah or Brook Lopez), the Pacers (Roy Hibbert) and the Spurs (Tim Duncan) to claim its third consecutive title. Instead, the Heat can yawn their way through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and Oden really only needs to hold up for bench minutes in a maximum of 14 games over the course of a month. The possibility of an Andrew Bynum signing could make Oden’s life even easier. Maximum skepticism has been the most prudent approach throughout Oden’s career, but the former No. 1 pick really couldn’t ask for a better start to the season when it comes to his own play and the external factors surrounding Miami’s title chase.
Rob Mahoney: It’s impossible to know what April might hold for Oden, if only because we don’t yet know what tomorrow brings. Everything we’ve seen to date suggests that the Heat will take things as slow with Oden as is necessary, making it challenging to know how Miami will manage its rehabilitative project from here. Wednesday’s appearance could have been the formal casting off of the bubble wrap — a signifier that, while cautious, the Heat intend to work Oden back into the rotation as the situation allows. It could also very well have been a mere trial — a chance for Oden to give the game a go to see how his knees respond.
Either way, there’s no question that Miami’s depth and standing work to Oden’s benefit, as at this point he’s much better suited to be an accessory than a load-bearing column. If there is any path toward him making a difference in the postseason, it had to begin as Wednesday did — with Oden logging controlled, regular season minutes against an unspectacular opponent in a game with a wide margin. I don’t think many expected that collision of factors to come with the Wizards running up a 30-point lead in the first half on Wednesday, but the state of the game made viable the opportunity Oden has worked so hard to create. It was awesome to see, but any expectation should follow the “one game at a time” mantra Oden established for himself heading into the season (via Ethan Skolnick of Bleacher Report):
“Marking success for me is walking onto a court and just walking off healthy,” Oden said at the time. “No matter if it is one minute or two minutes. My dream is to be able to play basketball, and if I can go out there and do it, run up and down, and come off the court again healthy, that’s goal one. Goal two is going into my second game and walking on and walking off.”