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Sunday basketball notes

Is Rajon Rondo a Hall of Famer? It’s a great question

Rajon Rondo (right), now playing with Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers, has shown a steady hand, especially in the playoffs.
Rajon Rondo (right), now playing with Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers, has shown a steady hand, especially in the playoffs.Harry How/Getty

It’s a serious question that deserves serious consideration: Is Rajon Rondo a Hall of Famer? Perhaps a few years ago, the answer would have been no. But as his career has progressed, his skills more coveted and his ability to galvanize his teammates appreciated, Rondo is approaching consideration for the Hall.

Rondo was so sought after, despite being 35 and in his 15th NBA season, that the Los Angeles Clippers sacrificed professional scorer Lou Williams to the Atlanta Hawks for Rondo’s floor leadership.

This is a serious question because the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame has become more liberal the past several years with inductees such as Mitch Richmond, Tracy McGrady, Maurice Cheeks, Paul Westphal, Bobby Jones, Jo Jo White. Many of these players didn’t collect eye-popping statistics but impacted winning.

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Let’s look at some numbers. Rondo has two NBA titles — 2008 with the Celtics and 2020 with the Lakers — playing pivotal roles on both teams. Rondo has led the NBA in assists per game three times and been named to the All-Star Game four times.

He was named to the All-Defensive team four times and All-NBA once. He led the lead in steals in 2009-10 and is 57th all time in that category. He is fourth among active players in assists — behind Chris Paul, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook — and he is 15th all time in assists.

Rondo should pass Cheeks this season for 14th. And of the 14 players ahead of Rondo on the all-time assist list, eight are in the Hall of Fame, three are active, and three — Andre Miller, Mark Jackson, and Rod Strickland — are not in the Hall.

Hall of Fame cases could be made for Miller, Jackson, and especially Strickland. But the question is will Rondo be considered above the Miller-Jackson-Strickland level or at that level, which is players with dominant years but just short of being an all-time great?

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If Rondo has reached that level at this point, then Hall of Fame conversation is not unreasonable.

He has his detractors. His clash with Rick Carlisle in Dallas got him banned from the Mavericks after the club sought him for a final title contending piece. He also has 45 career technical fouls, eight ejections, and the ugly incident where, while playing for the Kings, he made a homophobic slur to official Billy Kennedy during a loss to the Celtics in Mexico City.

Rondo also has dealt with various injuries over the years, preventing him from playing more than 70 games since the 2015-16 season. He has become a hired gun, whose leadership and ability to put the ball in his teammates’ hands in the perfect places has outshone his detractors.

And what could push Rondo over the top when his résumé is being reviewed is his playoff performances. In 121 career playoff games, Rondo has averaged 13.3 points, 9 assists, 5.9 rebounds, and 1.8 steals. Never considered a shooter, Rondo made 40 percent of his 3-point shots during the Lakers’ playoff run in the bubble.

And in 92 playoff games with the Celtics, Rondo averaged 14.5 points, 9.2 assists, 6 rebounds, and 2 steals. He also played through a dislocated elbow sustained in the 2011 playoffs. His 44-point performance in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat in 2012 was perhaps the best game of his career.

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Rondo also was able to recover from a torn ACL sustained during his final days with the Celtics and he’s one of seven players drafted in 2006 still remaining in the NBA. Rondo is so far removed from his Celtics days that many younger fans likely don’t remember him entering his prime and setting up Ray Allen for jumpers or tossing alley-oops to Kevin Garnett.

Rondo was the baby of the bunch during those Big Three days but he has developed into a basketball sage that championship-caliber teams are seeking. He only shoots when necessary, rare in today’s NBA.

Celtics faithful have varied opinions about Rondo. He was a mercurial figure during his Boston days, perhaps the best overall distributor since Bob Cousy and with bravado and attitude to match.

But when scoring point guards, starting with Stephen Curry and Westbrook, became the league’s fancy, Rondo’s limited offensive skill set became less desired. But two things happened: Rondo worked on his offensive game enough to be a decent outside shooter and NBA teams figured out they needed at least one player on the floor who could pass effectively and run the offense.

Rajon Rondo has played in 30 games this season between the Hawks and Clippers.
Rajon Rondo has played in 30 games this season between the Hawks and Clippers.Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Rondo became in vogue again and he has undergone sort of a career resurrection.

“I’ve been through a lot in my career. Everyone goes through a lot,” he said after winning his second title. “You play the game this long, 14 years, and I had early success. I had a lot of great teammates early, great coaching staffs early, and I thought that’s what the NBA was. And then obviously down the road, year 10, 11, things changed for me in my career. Every time going into training camp, you weren’t expected to win a championship because of the teams I was on, so that was a different mind-set coming into the season.

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“To be able to come back and redeem myself and play a big part in this championship is definitely a hell of a feeling and something I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Like I said, it’s been a rocky last couple seasons. We didn’t get to the playoffs last year. A couple years ago, a teammate got hurt and exited early in the playoffs. So just staying the course, never too high, never too low and continuing to grind. I pride myself on how hard I work. People that know me know how dedicated I am to the game, and my mind and my body, the work I put in in the offseason, and it’s definitely a blessing to be able to come out and reap the benefits of what I’ve been working for for so long.”

PLAY-IN FORMAT

Teams want to avoid unlucky seven

If the season ended today, the Celtics would host the Knicks in the 7-8 play-in game.
If the season ended today, the Celtics would host the Knicks in the 7-8 play-in game.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

At first the play-in format was just a cool idea to give Zion Williamson a chance at the playoffs in his rookie season. The NBA developed its version of the First Four in the bubble to make the end of the regular season more intriguing, and it worked. Portland finished within four games of eighth-seeded Memphis — the conditions for the play-in tournament — and beat the Grizzlies for the right to face the top-seeded Lakers in the first round.

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This year’s play-in format is different. The seven through 10 seeds will participate. But the format is different than usual play-in tournaments.

The seventh and eighth seeds will play one game to determine the seventh seed, which makes finishing seventh the most undesirable place because you essentially have to win another game to earn the seed you’ve worked for all season. The only benefit is the game against the eighth seed is at home.

The ninth and 10th seeds play for the right to face the loser of the 7-8 game for the eighth seed. The seventh seed could theoretically lose two games in the tournament and not reach the playoffs.

If the season ended April 9, the Celtics would host the Knicks in the 7-8 game while the Pacers host the Bulls in the 9-10 game. The goal for all the teams in this Eastern Conference logjam is to avoid the seventh seed.

Three games separate six teams in the Eastern Conference standings (through Thursday), making the final five weeks a daily struggle to avoid that tournament.

In the Western Conference, the Mavericks would host the Grizzlies in the 7-8 game while the Spurs would play the Warriors at home in the 9-10 game. The Pelicans are lurking, two games behind the 10th-seeded Warriors, while the Kings remain 2½ games back.

The fascinating story line in the West is that the Warriors, Pelicans, and Kings are desperate to reach the postseason. The Warriors want to show they are on the verge of returning to prominence after an injury-filled 2019-20 season that landed them in the draft lottery.

The Pelicans filled their roster with high draft picks, including franchise cornerstone Williamson. The Kings refrained from a fire sale at the trade deadline because of the play-in tournament. The Kings were in the mix before a recent five-game losing streak, which included a double-digit home loss to the Pistons.

The Mavericks are desperately trying to climb out of the seventh seed and they are one game back of the No. 6 Trail Blazers as the Lakers’ injury-caused slide has caused a logjam in the middle of the West. The fifth-seeded Lakers are seven games back of top-seeded Utah and would not have home-court advantage in a first-round series with the Nuggets if the season ended today.

The Nuggets, winners of seven straight through Thursday, could make a run at the second seed with a strong finish.

THE DRAFT

NCAA Tournament highlighted deep class

Davion Mitchell, who just won a national championship with Baylor, is considered one of the top prospects in the upcoming NBA draft.
Davion Mitchell, who just won a national championship with Baylor, is considered one of the top prospects in the upcoming NBA draft.Jamie Squire/Getty

The only positive from the Celtics’ mediocre record is they could get a top-20 draft pick in what is tabbed as one of the deeper drafts in recent memory. The NCAA Tournament showcased several prospects and thrusted a couple of more players into that lottery conversation after their performances.

Here’s a look at a couple of those prospects:

Davion Mitchell, Baylor

The best guard in the NCAA Tournament for the best team, Mitchell was stellar during the title run. He was a plus defender with a smooth jump shot and toughness that is reminiscent of Marcus Smart. The drawback is that Mitchell is nearly 23, but that could mean he’s NBA ready. It’s hard to envision a team in the top 10 passing on a lockdown defender and pure shooter.

Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga

Despite the Bulldogs getting blown out in the national title game, Suggs’s stock rose during their run, perhaps to No. 1 overall. Suggs is not only a polished scorer but a strong defender and will present matchup issues for guards. Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State had been the consensus choice for the No. 1 overall pick but Suggs has cast doubt on that, depending on what team gets the first pick.

Evan Mobley, USC

Pac-12 players usually don’t get the attention of their counterparts in other conferences, but Mobley emerged as the Trojans advanced to the Elite Eight. Mobley has the potential to be an elite defender at center but also possesses shooting touch around the rim and a solid mid-range jumper. Mobley may be the first big man taken.

Luka Garza, Iowa

Garza is being tabbed as a great college player who likely will be a role player in the NBA, i.e. Tyler Hansbrough. Garza won several college player of the year awards, and brought the Hawkeyes to a No. 2 seed, but will his burly, score-in-the-paint style translate to an NBA where centers are 3-point shooters? It would seem Garza will be willful enough to find a spot in the league but for now he’s projected as a second-round pick.

Max Abmas, Oral Roberts

Abmas burst onto the scene when he helped the Golden Eagles to the Summit League title as the fourth seed and continued during the NCAA Tournament when he led Oral Roberts to the Sweet 16 with upset wins over Ohio State and Florida. Abmas is a speedy guard with shooting range and his ability to get into the paint with his quickness will boost his draft stock. Despite leading the nation in scoring this season at 24.5 points, Abmas is only a sophomore and has not yet declared for the draft. Perhaps another strong season for Oral Roberts and he could play himself into a lottery pick.

Layups

Luke Kornet has presented the Celtics with an interesting dilemma. He has played so well in his short stint the club may not need another center if one becomes available on the buyout market. The Celtics’ options for upgrading their roster are limited to buyout players and unemployed free agents. And there are two players who could attract considerable attention if they are bought out. Kelly Olynyk has flourished with the Houston Rockets, a team headed for the draft lottery. He has averaged 17.4 points and 41.7 percent 3-point shooting through his first seven games. He appeared to be a lock for a buyout but coach Stephen Silas has inserted Olynyk in the starting lineup and he’s playing 29 minutes per game. Olynyk is a free agent this summer. Another former Celtic, Avery Bradley, acquired in the deal that sent Victor Oladipo to the Miami Heat, is playing nearly 23 minutes per game off the bench for Houston. The Orlando Magic waived backup center Khem Birch so he could join the Toronto Raptors, which is a curious move because the Raptors appear a cinch for the draft lottery. Birch, a defensive-minded big man who can score around the rim, would have drawn interest from several teams had he elected not to sign in Toronto. The Magic held onto Otto Porter, although he has missed the past week with a foot injury. Porter would be a serious target of the Celtics, who could use another wing shooter. If that were to occur, the roster move likely wouldn’t be Kornet. The candidates would be Carsen Edwards or perhaps Moe Wagner. The Celtics could not swap Tremont Waters for a roster spot because he’s on a two-way contract, and only a two-way player could fill his slot. The Celtics have used Tacko Fall increasingly over the past few weeks to moderate success. It’s reached a point where the club would consider signing Fall to an NBA deal this summer … The NBA COVID-19 numbers are decreasing as the league revealed that one player tested positive since March 31 — likely the Celtics’ Evan Fournier — as the league attempts to complete the season. The NBA is trying to encourage players to take the vaccine —– but it’s not mandatory — by loosening the restrictions on the road for access and guests. The Celtics have been the hardest hit of any team in the NBA by COVID protocols.


Gary Washburn can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.