Before the start of the 2014-15 campaign, Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge repeatedly stated that he expected Rajon Rondo to have the best season of his NBA career. As the calendar flips to December, it affords us an opportunity for a one-month checkup that seems to reveal a bit of a mixed bag for Rondo, whose individual performance is diminished slightly by the team's struggles to close out games while emerging with a 4-10 record after the first full month of the season.
In the big-picture view, Rondo's triple-double-flirting stat line of 9.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and a league-leading 10.5 assists per game is nothing to sneeze at. His scoring is down, but so are his minutes, and yet Rondo is rebounding at a career-best rate and creating at an elite level despite not having the superstar talent of the past around him.
Troubles lie on the defensive end and with production in the fourth quarter, when the Celtics have needed Rondo the most. Let's zoom in closer on the good, the bad and the ugly of Rondo's first 13 games.
In terms of creating for others, Rondo is the best in the league. The league's player-tracking data positions him atop the NBA in points created by assists per game (24.5) despite playing nearly three fewer minutes per game than the likes of Ty Lawson, Chris Paul and John Wall, who linger nearby. Rondo is edging close to Paul as the leader in total passes per game, while Rondo is No. 1 in assist opportunities per game (21), with only five other guards in the league averaging more than 15 opportunities per contest.
Even as the Celtics struggle with their 3-point shooting, Rondo has helped the team rate near the top of the league in field goal percentage by generating quality looks inside the arc. Despite struggling at times with turnovers, Rondo's assist-to-turnover ratio still is a career best (3.26), and Boston's offensive rating of 102 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor is his best mark since the 2010-11 season.
Even as he struggles with his own offense -- Rondo's field goal percentage is well below his career average despite shooting a career best beyond the 3-point arc in limited attempts -- Rondo is helping Boston put points on the board, at least for the first three quarters (but more on that later) -- at a rate that exceeds most expectations.
It's tantalizing to think about what Rondo could do with an elite scorer alongside him to both maximize his playmaking talents and take pressure off him to score. But that's a discussion for another day.
While Rondo's playmaking has been his best on-court asset, his rebounding deserves special mention as well. Rondo is hauling in a career-best 22 percent of available defensive rebounds, and his total rebound rate is third on the team behind only Jared Sullinger and Tyler Zeller (and ahead of bigs Kelly Olynyk and Brandon Bass).
It also should be noted that Rondo has been an excellent leader off the court. Embracing coach Brad Stevens' not-too-high, not-too-low mindset while navigating a prickly November schedule, Rondo has remained optimistic in the face of sustained adversity. Boston hasn't beaten a team not named Philadelphia since Nov. 8.
Even as many of his teammates oozed frustration following Sunday's lopsided loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Rondo kept a positive outlook. December will dictate in large part if Boston is able to make the sort of strides the team is looking for. Rondo deserves credit for trying to keep an optimistic vibe in the locker room despite the struggles.
Boston's continued lack of a true rim protector has only highlighted Rondo's struggles on the perimeter. Back when Kevin Garnett was patrolling the back line, it gave Rondo the sort of flexibility that led to him (twice!) landing on the league's all-defense teams.
The Celtics have helped mask Rondo's struggles to keep guards in front of him by putting Avery Bradley on opposing ball handlers but, especially as Marcus Smart rehabs from an ankle injury, Rondo has had to defend the ball at times, particularly in sub lineups. Rondo has struggled at times to get over screens, and Boston simply doesn't have the backline personnel to compensate when guards get into the paint.
Rondo can be a real pest when he's allowed to float a bit, but he's struggled as a 1-on-1 defender. The league's player-tracking data shows that opponents are shooting 53.3 percent against Rondo this season, 7.6 percent higher than those players' season average. What's more, his opponents are shooting 74.2 percent inside of 6 feet, or 10.7 percent above their overall average.
Boston's defensive woes are not limited to Rondo, and the Celtics must develop better continuity as a team, particularly because there's such an obvious correlation between the team's ability to generate offensive opportunities after stops as opposed to the stagnation it experiences when teams score.
Recognizing the inexperience behind him, Rondo must elevate his game as part of the first line of defense.
Do we really need to rehash Rondo's free throw woes? He is shooting just 30 percent (9-of-30). He remains adamant that he can shoot his way out of his funk, and, given that he routinely makes free throws in practice, you can believe him.
Here's the bigger problem: Rondo doesn't get to the line enough to help him work through his in-game woes. Only once this season has Rondo generated more than four free throw attempts in a game. And that was against Phoenix, when he went 2-for-10 at the stripe and this whole funk began.
In 157 minutes of floor time since the Phoenix game, Rondo has shot 10 total free throws (and made only three). He missed two free throws with 64 seconds to play in a tie game against Chicago on Friday, then missed the only pair he attempted in Sunday's loss to the Spurs.
Rondo said the misses have not affected his aggressiveness toward the basket, but his free-throw-attempt rate remains too low for a player whose game is built on getting into the paint. On a team that struggles to generate free throws, Rondo has to be even more aggressive toward the hoop and is likely to cure his shooting funk in the process.
But the biggest eyesore for Rondo right now is his fourth-quarter production. Again, fair or not, the youthful Celtics are looking toward Rondo as the veteran leader in crunch time. Here's his fourth-quarter stat line: 98 minutes, 8-of-31 shooting (a team-worst 25.8 percent), 28 assists, 11 turnovers, 5 blocked attempts, minus-45 in plus/minus.
Granted, the Celtics as a whole have been dreadful in the fourth quarter. This is a team issue, not just a Rondo issue. But he's the guy the team wants to lean on in crunch time. Boston's offensive rating drops to 90.2 when Rondo is on the court in the fourth quarter, nearly a five-point dip below an already abysmal rating.
Rondo engaged in a long locker room chat with Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn after Sunday's loss to the Spurs. He said Heinsohn encouraged the team to "keep chugging away" and hinted a large part of the conversation focused on how Boston's pace dips in the fourth quarter. Indeed, Boston's fourth-quarter pace of 97.13 is its lowest of the four quarters, even if it's still the fourth-fastest in the league in that frame. The Celtics average 100.03 possessions per 48 minutes, the second-highest total in the league.
Rondo suggested that Boston's inability to get defensive stops is bogging down the offense and leading to team-wide discouragement, particularly given how many games have gotten away from the Celtics already this season. Boston is 2-6 in games within five points in the final five minutes.
Both Rondo and the team desperately need a win in one of those crunch-time situations to help eliminate the way they're currently pressing at the end of games.
Rondo is doing a phenomenal job of getting the most out of his teammates for most of the game but must elevate his play, particularly in the fourth quarter, to help the team overcome its late-game woes.
There's no getting around it. The Celtics are 3-10 in games that Rondo has played this season and, challenging November schedule or not, that's not good enough considering the potential they've shown.
Rondo might have summed it up best for his team and for himself after Sunday's game.
"The best thing is we've got around  more games to go, so we can't get too down on ourselves obviously," he said. "We can critique our mistakes, and we need to get better, but it starts with us individually and looking ourselves in the mirror. And doing what we need to do best for our team, making sacrifices."