The 2008 Celtics had three future Hall of Famers in Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
And a young point guard named Rajon Rondo.
In just his second year, Rondo was viewed as a weak link in Boston’s championship hopes. He was talented, but raw. At best, he was a wildcard.
So, Boston signed Sam Cassell as a backup shortly before the playoffs. Cassell won titles in his first two NBA seasons, with the Rockets in 1994 and 1995. In the years since, he never returned to the NBA Finals but developed into a dependable veteran. He was quite excited for his opportunity with the Celtics.
“I won championships so early in my career, the first two years, and I thought, ‘That’s how it’s going to be,'” Cassell said. “Let me tell you something. When you miss it and miss it and miss it year after year after year…”
Cassell – with the help of Rondo and the Big Three – got his gratification, winning a third title 14 years after his first.
Now, 12 years later, Rondo sounds a lot like Cassell.
Rondo’s Lakers are up 3-1 on the Heat in the Finals. In Game 5 tonight, he could win his first championship since 2008.
“I definitely appreciate it more,” Rondo said. “…Thinking you’re going to continue to go back over and over again, and it just doesn’t happen…”
If Los Angeles wins, Rondo will have gone 12 years between his first and last titles – one of the longest such reigns in NBA history.
Here are the players who’ve gone the longest between their first and last championships, the number of years marked:
Championships won by players on the chart:
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 1971 MIL, 1980 LAL, 1982 LAL, 1985 LAL, 1987 LAL, 1988 LAL
- Robert Parish: 1981 BOS, 1984 BOS, 1986 BOS, 1997 CHI
- Tim Duncan: 1999 SAS, 2003 SAS, 2005 SAS, 2007 SAS, 2014 SAS
- Sam Cassell: 1994 HOU, 1995 HOU, 2008 BOS
- Robert Horry: 1994 HOU, 1995 HOU, 2000 LAL, 2001 LAL, 2002 LAL, 2005 SAS, 2007 SAS
- A.C. Green: 1987 LAL, 1988 LAL, 2000 LAL
- John Havlicek: 1963 BOS, 1964 BOS, 1965 BOS, 1966 BOS, 1968 BOS, 1969 BOS, 1974 BOS, 1976 BOS
- Rajon Rondo: 2008 BOS
- Bill Russell: 1957 BOS, 1959 BOS, 1960 BOS, 1961 BOS, 1962 BOS, 1963 BOS, 1964 BOS, 1965 BOS, 1966 BOS, 1968 BOS, 1969 BOS
- Tony Parker: 2003 SAS, 2005 SAS, 2007 SAS, 2014 SAS
- John Salley: 1989 DET, 1990 DET, 1996 CHI, 2000 LAL
- Earl Cureton: 1983 PHI, 1994 HOU
- Kobe Bryant: 2000 LAL, 2001 LAL, 2002 LAL, 2009 LAL, 2010 LAL
- Derek Fisher: 2000 LAL, 2001 LAL, 2002 LAL, 2009 LAL, 2010 LAL
- Horace Grant: 1991 CHI, 1992 CHI, 1993 CHI, 2001 LAL
- Don Nelson: 1966 BOS, 1968 BOS, 1969 BOS, 1974 BOS, 1976 BOS
- Sam Jones: 1959 BOS, 1960 BOS, 1961 BOS, 1962 BOS, 1963 BOS, 1964 BOS, 1965 BOS, 1966 BOS, 1968 BOS, 1969 BOS
- Clyde Lovellette: 1954 MNL, 1963 BOS, 1964 BOS
Obviously, Rondo’s career isn’t as impressive as other players listed. Unlike players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan and Bill Russell, Rondo was never a superstar who annually elevated his team into championship contention. In this group, only Rondo and Earl Cureton (a deep reserve on the 1983 76ers and 1994 Rockets) won fewer than three championships.
In many ways, Rondo’s accomplishment is a product of circumstance. Rondo didn’t control starting his career with Boston, which got him with the No. 21 pick in a draft-day trade in 2006. He just happened to join a team that already had Pierce and was only one year from trading for Allen and Garnett.
But Rondo deserves credit for how quickly he got up to speed. Few second-year players, even those bound for stardom, can handle so much deep into the playoffs. Rondo was advanced.
He became an expert in reading the floor as a passer and savvy defender and rebounder. Rondo has planted himself firmly in discussions of the league’s most intelligent players.
💪🔢 NEW #BIGNUMBER
The real reason behind the Lakers’ demise
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) March 7, 2019
But the Lakers still re-signed Rondo last offseason – and you can draw a line from Rondo’s Boston title to that decision.
The Celtics beat the Lakers in the 2008 Finals and lost to the Lakers in the 2010 Finals. In those battles, Rondo earned the respect of Kobe Bryant. Years later, Bryant recruited Rondo hard to Los Angeles. Think that resonated with Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, Bryant’s friend and former agent?
Back with the Lakers, Rondo improved his chemistry with LeBron. Rondo has played key minutes in these playoffs and usually justified Frank Vogel’s faith. Behind the scenes, Rondo also continues to help Los Angeles’ young players develop.
So, yes, it’s somewhat coincidental Rondo happens to be on the likely champion. He easily could have spent the season with some other team, maybe even a very good one, that fell short. But he’s smart and determined enough to keep pushing forward. He gives himself opportunities.
Another title 12 years after his first would be such a fitting ode to his prompt and enduring ability to contribute to winning on the highest levels.