Rajon Rondo's return from a torn ACL is imminent, with the guard targeting Friday for his season debut. That night, the Boston Celtics will host the Los Angeles Lakers in a matchup of two of the the NBA's most storied franchises, now in the middle of difficult rebuilds.
Boston's cast of characters, in particular, will look extremely different to Rondo, who hasn't played since last January. There is no Paul Pierce. There is no Kevin Garnett. There is no Doc Rivers.
There are, of course, a few familiar parts in Avery Bradley, Brandon Bass and Jeff Green, but this is an organization with a different set of goals and a new set of priorities. The Celtics are on nine-game losing streak, a downswing that Rondo hasn't been a part of since his rookie year when the team lost 18 straight starting in January of 2007.
One interesting new partner is Jordan Crawford, the fifth-year guard who arrived in Boston via Washington nearly a month after Rondo tore his ACL. Crawford has handled most of the point guard duties with Rondo sidelined and he has played surprisingly well in that role, registering the highest assist rate (31 percent) of his career, per Basketball-Reference, while turning the ball over at a rate just slightly above his career average.
That assist rate, however, isn't in the same galaxy as Rondo's. In 2011-2012, Rondo registered a 52.5 assist rate and, last season, one in which he was tasked with an uptick in scoring, that rate was 49.3.
The four-time all-star is a much better point guard than Crawford in a traditional sense. Rondo sets up his teammates for easy buckets and navigates pick-and-rolls with the intentions of finding the open man. He's also a superior defender, supremely instinctual in playing the passing lanes able to pick the pockets of opposing ballhandlers.
Luckily, Crawford is well rounded enough to slide to the shooting guard and it's possible Celtics coach Brad Stevens rolls with the Rondo-Crawford pairing for stretches. Crawford is shooting just 35 percent in spot up situations, according to mysynergysports.com, a figure that ranks 113th in the NBA, but he excels off the ball as a secondary pick-and-roll ballhandler and isolation creator in late shot clock situations. Playing them together means Rondo can create for others and Crawford can create for himself.
Another intriguing combination is the Rondo-Avery Bradley duo that has played about 700 minutes over the last two years. The two were particularly deadly together in 2011-12 when they registered a 14.7 net rating, per NBA.com. The defense was apocalyptic, giving up just 88 points per 100 possessions. They still project to be good defensively, but it's just tough to tell how much of that effectiveness will be lost with all of the roster turnover and the lack of Garnett protecting the paint.
What's encouraging for the offense is that Bradley is sinking nearly 39 percent of his three-point attempts on a career-high 2.9 attempts per game this season. What's even more encouraging is that Bradley is netting 51.7 percent of his spot up attempts, good for 10th best in the entire league, per mysynergysports.com. If Bradley can keep up that rate, Boston's offensive spacing should leave Rondo room to work.
That's what Rondo does; he gets into the lane and finds open shooters. He has his own issues -- particularly his jump shot, which really hasn't improved much over his seven-year career -- but pairing him with Bradley, a capable spot up shooter, and Crawford, a creative scorer, should help. Things will have changed for Rondo when he returns to the court, and the organization's priorities are definitely different, but it'll be nice to see him finally play basketball again.