There's the potential this season for the Boston Celtics to trot out a starting lineup featuring what Shaquille O'Neal recently dubbed, "four first-ballot Hall of Famers," looping himself in with the vaunted Big Three. Yet close observers of the team are nearly unanimous in their assertion that the most important player on the court is the one who has yet to ascend to that lofty status.
We asked 18 writers from eight of our favorite Celtics blogs who would emerge as Boston's Most Valuable Player during the 2010-11 season and fifth-year point guard Rajon Rondo was the runaway winner, with 89 percent of the vote.
While many of our panelists grappled with the decision to pick one player, one going so far as to offer a team MVP selection, the only other player to garner a vote was Kevin Garnett.
Yes, Boston's success in this new Big Three era has been dictated by the overall depth and contributions from the entire roster, particularly a starting five that typically includes Kendrick Perkins.
With the added depth of former All-Star centers like Shaq and Jermaine O'Neal this offseason, our panel deferred to Rondo because of how instrumental he is -- and will continue to be -- in extracting max performance from players who were once regarded as the MVP of their individual squads.
And that's why my vote would fall to Rondo, as well. At the end of the day, he's the quarterback of the Celtics. While a point guard doesn't get quite the attention a signal-caller does on the gridiron, there's no more valuable asset on a balanced team than a player who can make everyone else look good.
So while it's unlikely you'll find Rondo among the top 10 candidates on ESPN.com's MVP Award Watch next season, his contributions cannot be overstated.
Echoing the sentiments of coach Doc Rivers, our panel often quoted the Celtics' helmsman that, "As Rondo goes, so go the Celtics." Indeed, examining Boston's success from last season, it spiked when Rondo played his best ball. Likewise, the Celtics' biggest struggles often occurred when Rondo's play dipped.
Maybe Red's Army's Jay Ouellette summed it up best when he wrote, "Which player could the Celtics least afford to lose for a prolonged period of time? I don't think you need more than a few moments to come up with the correct answer."
Indeed, the Celtics have been able to weather stints without Garnett and Paul Pierce over the past two seasons (though KG's absence almost certainly stemmed the tide of the team's playoff run in 2009). Next season, they'll have to play without Perkins (offseason knee surgery) for at least the first four months of the season. Thanks in part to the frontcourt additions, the Celtics will weather that storm.
But if you take Rondo out of this lineup, how does this team fare? One line of thinking suggests that the overall talent would make even a rookie like Avery Bradley look like the next John Stockton. But you can't undervalue Rondo's ability to get all the players involved, especially the one with the hot hand. When four players are calling for the ball, it's the confidence-oozing, 24-year-old guard who doesn't second-guess his decision where to direct the ball, even if that means keeping it himself and attacking the rim.
It's impossible to gush about Rondo's abilities without pointing out his flaws. Undoubtedly, the holes in his game (perimeter jumper, free throw shooting) prevent him from being looped into the same breath as league MVP candidates like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
But Celtics Stuff Live's Justin Poulin noted, "Is any other player sacrificing more of his innate talents than a fast-break point guard leading an aging group of half-court offensive vets?"
It's true. Boston's style dictates the way Rondo plays and he's part chameleon, able to adapt to any situation. When injuries crop up, he's able to increase his scoring. When the Big Three are clicking, he's fine with being a distributor.
When the Celtics' roster is overhauled in two years, maybe Rondo will be forced to carry this team on his shoulders every night and enter the conversation for league MVP. Maybe only then will we realize how crucial he was to a roster of aging Hall of Famers.
Check out the responses of our panel below.
Brian Robb, CelticsHub (Rajon Rondo)
On a team that was maddeningly inconsistent through the final four months of last year's regular season, the only thing C's fans could count on was a strong showing day in and day out by Rondo. With another year under his belt, and a deeper roster than ever, it is fair to expect more of the same out of the 24-year-old guard. Rondo played more minutes than anyone in the NBA last year, so a chance for additional rest thanks to the arrivals of the likes of Delonte West and Bradley should serve Rondo well. Rondo's flaws are still glaring, but he's undoubtedly the engine that makes this team go. He may not be the most consistent player on the roster, but he is the guy the team relies on most. With likely just two years left with this Big Three, expect another tremendous effort from the former Wildcat.
John Karalis, Red's Army (Rajon Rondo)
It's a very simple saying that we've been saying for a long time now: "As Rondo goes, so go the Celtics." Rondo is the engine that makes this team go. The C's can win if Rondo's off, but the C's can't lose when his game is on.
Chuck McKenney, Red's Army (Kevin Garnett)
KG is the fuel for the defense. Without him, they can't win a title.
Jimmy Toscano, CelticsBlog (Rajon Rondo)
"As Rondo goes, so go the Celtics" ... or something like that. Last year, Rondo proved that, while he may not be the "superstar" of this team, he is the most valuable member of this team. If he's running the offense like he's capable of, the team just flows. With a lineup overflowing with talent, it's Rondo's job to distribute the ball to the right player on any given night. Whether it's his maturity or playing with a chip on his shoulder (or both), Rondo has stepped up his game tremendously over the past season and I don't see him stopping. On a team loaded with veterans, he is the future. Oh, and when he gets the ball in transition, you can almost guarantee two points out of it.
Greg Payne, CelticsBlog (Team MVP)
The Celtics are such a balanced team that I think it's difficult to label one single player as the team's clear-cut MVP. Most people will vote for Rondo, and understandably so. Rondo's absolutely crucial to this team's success. The Celtics would not make it back to the Finals without Rondo, but the same can be said for Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett (see 2009 for proof of this). Pierce and Allen are too important to the team's offense, and Garnett is still the team's defensive colonel, despite being another year older. I've said for the past three seasons -- and will continue to say -- that the Celtics are the best team in basketball, in terms of the quality they have at each and every position, particularly in their starting lineup. I maintain my stance that the "team aspect" of this ball club is its actual MVP.
Tommy King, CelticsTown (Rajon Rondo)
Midway through last season, the Celtics became Rondo's team. He's still young, and didn't accept the responsibility every game, but he is the Celtics' best player. As Rondo goes this season, so goes Boston.
Jay King, CelticsTown (Rajon Rondo)
Without a doubt it's Rondo, no explanation necessary. This could be the year he becomes a true superstar, rather than just an All-Star.
Brandon Paul, Gino's Jungle (Rajon Rondo)
As the days go by, it is becoming clearer that the Celtics are transforming into "Rondo's team." Whenever Rondo is on the court he makes the guys he's playing with look so much better. That type of player can't go unnoticed and can not be replaced. For that reason, I think it's safe to say he is the most valuable part of this Celtics team.
Nick Gelso, North Station Sports (Rajon Rondo)
Wow, this is a tough one. Each player brings so many different essential elements to the squad that choosing one player is incredibly difficult. There's Allen's shooting and mentoring of the youngsters ... Pierce's toughness and scoring ability ... In the past, we have said that the C's cannot win without Garnett. Though I believe the Celtics would have a nearly impossible mountain to climb without the Big Ticket, I believe they are a sixth or seventh seed without our feisty point guard. Garnett's emotional contributions may enable us to win a title, but without Rondo's stamp on every game, the C's would never be in a position to compete for that title. So, I am reluctantly giving team MVP to Rondo.
Jon Duke, Celtics Stuff Live (Rajon Rondo)
The Celtics' team MVP in 2011 will be the same as it was in 2010: Rondo. Though it would be difficult to argue that the Celtics' personnel moves this summer added the needed running mates that Rajon needs on the break, Rondo's liabilities in the half-court set should be minimized by adding a stronger offensive presence in the post. When the Celtics are playing well, usually it is because Rondo has his foot on the gas pedal and is operating at an obscene level. Certainly, Garnett's full recovery from knee troubles would be a nice shot in the arm for the 2011 Celtics, but this is Rondo's team now.
Justin Poulin, Celtics Stuff Live (Rajon Rondo)
More egos means more responsibility. Rondo's unwavering confidence -- bordering on aloof arrogance -- has never been a bigger asset. Combined with another year of experience and increased clout amongst his peers, he gets the glue award for this club. Also, is any other player sacrificing more of his innate talents? A fast-break point guard leading an aging group of half-court offensive vets?
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.