Finally, Rajon Rondo gets his trip to Mexico

Rajon Rondo is playing well with the Kings after a rocky stint with the Mavericks last season. Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images

When the NBA suspended Rajon Rondo for two games in December of 2012, he joked that he used his brief furlough to vacation in Mexico. It became an occasional recurring gag, and Rondo would playfully field questions about whether he was headed south of the border whenever there was extended in-season downtime.

It's somewhat ironic that, three years later, Rondo, now with the Sacramento Kings, finally finds himself in Mexico to meet the Boston Celtics for only the second time since being traded away last season.

While Rondo competing against his old team will be the dominant storyline of Boston's latest international foray, the matchup on Thursday is also a reminder of just how much things have changed for Boston in the year since Rondo's departure.

There are only three players on Boston's roster -- Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger, and Kelly Olynyk -- who played with Rondo longer than the 23 games at the start of last season. More than half of Boston's 15-man roster -- eight players including Jae Crowder, R.J. Hunter, Jonas Jerebko, Amir Johnson, David Lee, Jordan Mickey, Terry Rozier and Isaiah Thomas -- never played a single game with Rondo.

But there's still something unique about Boston competing against one of its former leaders. The last person to wear the team's captain's crest. The last player to depart from the 2008 title squad.

So while Boston's roster looks a lot different, those who were around for even a short part of Rondo's time here continue to monitor him from afar. What's more, those inside the Celtics organization are genuinely happy that he's playing at a Rondo-like level again this season after things soured quickly in Dallas following the trade last December.

"I'm happy for Rajon," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "Obviously, we need to prepare well for their whole team, but certainly I've watched [the Kings] play, when I've had the chance, just because of my relationship with him. ... He absolutely killed us when he came back to TD Garden last year, he played a great game, and we'll have to do a much better job to have a chance [Thursday]."

Rondo torched the Celtics for 29 points in his return to Boston last January with the Mavericks and it was maybe the high point of his Dallas stint. Things deteriorated quickly, with Rondo leaving the team before the end of the season. He's landed on his feet in Sacramento.

In 19 games with the Kings this season, Rondo is averaging 12.9 points, 10.7 assists and 7.1 rebounds. He has posted a league-best four triple-doubles (and eight double-doubles). There have been glimpses of the player whom some Boston fans once deemed untradable (remember those who balked at the idea of a Rondo-for-Chris Paul swap?).

As sometimes was the gripe in Boston late in his tenure here, Rondo's glitzy individual stat line hasn't always translated to team success. The Kings are 7-12, including just 2-9 against Western Conference foes. The Kings own an offensive rating of 101.4 with Rondo on the floor (lower than the team's 102.1 season average that ranks ninth in the league overall). That is offset further by the team's defensive rating of 106.5 with Rondo on the court (though that number is in line with the Kings' overall defensive rating of 106.1, which ranks 26th in the NBA).

As prickly and frustrating as Rondo could be, he's still as close to a superstar as Boston had, maybe even in the final stages of the Big Three era. But then he tore his ACL and by the time he was back on the court, Boston looked radically different after watching Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett depart. Rondo's defensive intensity seemed to wane and it seems fair to wonder if he was emotionally invested in the rebuilding process.

Still, he was Boston's captain for a reason. And while he had his missteps -- skipping a trip to Sacramento to celebrate his birthday in Los Angeles chief among them -- he won over younger players in Boston's locker room as a soft-spoken leader.

And that's why those who have been around longest are excited to see him in Mexico.

"It's going to be great," Sullinger said. "I talk to him all the time. He's one of my mentors. He's like a big brother to me. He's always looking out for me. It's going to be great to see him."

Added Bradley: "Rondo was a great leader. He's like a brother to me. I was able to learn a lot from him. From day one, Rondo was a player that believed in me and it helped me off the court and on the court. I respect him for that and I appreciate him for that."

When it was suggested to Rondo last month that it seemed that maybe he preferred to move on from Boston because of the rigors of the rebuilding process, he disagreed with that assessment.

"I don't feel that way at all," Rondo said. "I had a beautiful home, my kids were in an excellent school system. It's not just about me. I wasn't unhappy in Boston; I was averaging a double-double. At the time we weren't winning a ton of games but it was early in the season."

Rondo believes his much-publicized breakfast with Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, an event that celebrates its one-year anniversary this weekend, might have accelerated his departure, which happened less than two weeks after he dined with a rival star.

"I think the meeting with Kobe kind of threw things off," Rondo said. "That's when people started saying, 'He's going to L.A.'"

But pressed if Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge had suggested the meeting contributed to his departure, Rondo added, "No, Danny never said anything, but I'm pretty sure that, after that, Danny thought he'd lose me for nothing at the end of the year so he made a decision and I understand that."

In the aftermath of the Rondo trade, Ainge admitted the Dallas deal came together pretty quickly and, pressed on why he moved Rondo, Ainge answered, "Definitely uncertainty into what might happen this [past] summer [in unrestricted free agency]. That was a big factor. ... I think that gave us the impetus of wanting to do a deal."

Ainge liked Rondo's quirkiness and often stressed how much he enjoyed their conversations. Rondo was so strong-willed that he was more of a handful for his coaches (just ask Rivers), but Stevens has steadfastly offered nothing but praise since Rondo's departure.

"I think the meeting with Kobe kind of threw things off. That's when people started saying, 'He's going to L.A.'" Rajon Rondo

Do the Celtics miss Rondo? The team's record suggests no. From the time he returned from his ACL injury in January 2014 until he was dealt in December, the Celtics posted a 20-45 (.307) record (though it should be noted that Rondo did not appear in all those games, particularly while easing himself back from the ACL injury). Since his departure, the Celtics have posted a 41-36 (.532) mark.

There's certainly a case to be made that things might have eventually turned around if Rondo had stuck around. Further removed from ACL surgery, he might have morphed back toward his former self like we're seeing in Sacramento now.

Ultimately, both sides might have needed a change.

Rondo himself admitted that, "What happened in Boston has helped me [in Sacramento]." He added, "Everything [Kevin Garnett] told me, I'm relaying back to these young guys [on the Kings' roster]."

Rondo might have needed a change of scenery to reinspire him. If he continues to play like he has early in the 2015-16 season, he'll stand to collect a monster payday this summer as the cap makes another jump.

The Rondo trade delivered Jae Crowder to Boston, and not only is he the team's starting small forward, but he's embraced his own leadership role. Like Rondo, he doesn't always talk loud, but his words speak volumes, particularly when he challenges this team to play to its potential.

Boston still has a first-round pick coming from Dallas, likely in 2016 if it's outside the top seven (it projects around No. 19 at the moment). The trade, combined with a handful of others that followed last season, helped Boston cobble together a roster that surged to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. There's hope for another step forward this season.

Seeing Rondo will trigger some obvious nostalgia. But this Celtics team is in a much better spot than it was a year ago. It was a tough decision to move on, but the Rondo deal helped Boston start accelerating through the rebuilding process.

ESPN's Jackie MacMullan contributed.