As if Rajon Rondo‘s 18-17-20 tour de force Sunday wasn’t enough evidence for you that for all of his flaws, trading the enigmatic but breathtakingly inventive point guard would be a transaction liable to haunt, you’re probably too busy mentally trading him for a more flawed player that you’re far less familiar with anyway.
So let me take another approach, one I think should strike you at your soul as a Celtics fan:
Why would you want to risk Rondo becoming someone else’s DJ?
I know, it may seem borderline blasphemous to compare Rondo, not yet six full seasons into his NBA career, to Dennis Johnson, a Hall of Famer who has a case that the Big 3 on those eternally revered ’80s Celtics teams really was a fantastic four. Larry Bird famously called him the greatest teammate he ever had. At DJ’s posthumous and long overdue induction in Springfield, Magic Johnson remembered him as “one of the smartest players ever to play.” His No. 3 hangs from the Garden rafters, an acknowledgement of his role in winning championships in 1984 and ’86, of all the big shots …
. . . and heady plays . . .
… DJ made along the way. If Bird didn’t have the ball in his hands at the end of the game, you wanted it in DJ’s.
That’s something we’re obviously not quite ready to say about Rondo at the moment. And I’m not suggesting Rondo is DJ’s peer as a Celtic, though I think it’s someday possible provided this storm passes and Danny Ainge finds a way to reload the roster without losing a couple of seasons — and Rondo’s interest — in pursuit of lottery ping-pong balls. I don’t dish comparisons to DJ lightly; he is probably my favorite non-Larry Celtic of all time, depending upon which flashbacks I’ve seen on NBA TV recently. He’s in the starting five for sure.
But it must be remembered that DJ was not a Celtic lifer. He built his career and his reputation — for better and worse — in Seattle and Phoenix before coming to Boston in what would be a heist of Lowe/Varitek-for-Slocumb proportions, arriving for Rick Robey in June 1983. There’s a reason Johnson, the 1978-79 Finals MVP for the Sonics, a six-time first-team All-Defensive choice and four-time All-Star before he ever took the court for the Celtics, was available.
He was an incorrigible pain in the neck. And that’s the watered-down DJ fanboy version.
In writing about David Halberstam’s classic “The Breaks of the Game” a few weeks back, I made reference to one of his references about Johnson’s petulance and his negative effect on chemistry with the Sonics, eventually leading to him being dealt to the Suns, where he played three productive but tumultuous years before coming to Boston. Here’s another DJ anecdote from that book:
During the previous year’s playoff series against Phoenix, with Dennis Johnson going into a childish funk during a crucial game, [veteran forward Paul] Silas had sat next to him on the bench and lectured him in harsh terms about how much was at stake and how much he was costing his teammates. Johnson had gone back in the game, played better, and hit the last-second shot which allowed Seattle to win. After the game, a reporter had approached Silas. “Good game to win, Paul,” he had said. “Yeah,” Silas agreed, “too bad an [expletive] had to win it for us.”
Still skeptical? Here’s Bob Ryan’s lede on his column the day after DJ was finally elected to the Hall of Fame:
He wasn’t always beloved. Headstrong from the start, he continually tested the patience of Seattle coach Lenny Wilkens to the point where the Sonics were happy to trade him to Phoenix one year removed from being a Finals MVP and a mere weeks after being named to the All-NBA second team. And despite protestations to the contrary, the Suns never would have traded him to Boston three years later had there not been some issues during his time in Phoenix.
Bob noted in the piece that DJ would occasionally take the night off during, say, the random January game in Sacramento. It was part of the package. But the big performances in big games became habit, and DJ earned the cachet to get away with it:
What the Celtics learned for themselves was the meaning of that stellar 1979 Finals performance. DJ liked the big stage, and he had an inner mechanism that enabled him to perform at his absolute best when it most mattered. “I know DJ is really up for the game when he takes it to the basket,” Bird would say.
Did you notice yesterday that Rondo again rose to the challenge on national television against a hyped opponent, in this case Jeremy Lin? Like DJ, he sometimes gets bored with the NBA routine, and Bird’s he’s-into-it-when-he-takes-it-to-the-basket measuring stick probably applies to Rondo as well. When he’s challenged and engaged, you wouldn’t want him on any other team but the one for which you cheer.
I recognize that DJ and Rondo aren’t precise comparisons. They are two of the most diversely and unusually skilled players in league history. There is not a spot-on comp for either of them, though it’s impossible not to recognize that they do have much in common, particularly when you’re talking about the spry DJ of his youth, who was every bit the ridiculous athlete Rondo is.
DJ was the defender Rondo is purported to be (he blocked an astounding 14 shots in the ’79 Finals. Find me another 6-foot-4-inch guard with that in his repertoire). Rondo is a superior playmaker and plays with more duende. DJ shot better the bigger the moment, while the foul-line-phobic Rondo still shrinks from time to time in the fourth quarter. Both could fill out a box score. Both had tremendous defensive skills, though DJ’s were more refined and consistent. Both annoyed the hell out of their teammates at times. Both were regarded as temperamental, eccentric, intelligent, instinctive and unorthodox. Both played a major role in winning a championship at a young age (DJ at 24, Rondo at 21).
Ainge can live with Rondo, not as a centerpiece, but as an essential piece. Remember, the Celtics boss knows a thing or two about playing with complex teammates, having been DJ’s backcourt partner for nearly six full seasons.
It seemed like it should have been longer, didn’t it?
Here’s hoping Rondo is here long beyond this, his sixth year.
We don’t want to know what Suns fans felt like watching Dennis Johnson became the epitome of a Celtic, wondering why he couldn’t stay with our team longer and how anyone ever thought trading him for Rick Robey was a bright idea.