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Thursday, 26 September 2013 13:11

When Should Rajon Rondo Return?

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The NBA season is still more than a month away, and I can’t take my eyes off of my left knee. Specifically, the four inch scar that begins at the bottom of my kneecap and the two small hole-sized scars on either side.


It’s amazing what little remains of the two surgeries on my knee. Sure, it won’t ever be 100 percent healthy again, but I’m still amazed at how far we’ve come in the medical world. An injury that would end a career or severely hinder a person mere decades ago, is now a blip in the grand scheme of life as we know it today.


But there’s still one injury that frankly, scares the s*&# out of me. Tearing my ACL. Aside from the most obvious reason -- that it must hurt like hell -- it’s the aftermath that worries me.


The arduous months of rehab. The sheer pain of it. The uncertainty.


Now imagine that your entire season rests in the recovery from ACL surgery. For Boston Celtics (and Chicago Bulls) fans, there’s no need to imagine. It’s reality.


But while Derrick Rose should fully healthy and on the court on opening day, for the first time in roughly 17 months, Rajon Rondo’s return is up in the air.


Both players carry the fate of their respective teams on their surgically repaired knees. Without Rose, the Bulls can squeeze into the playoffs but lack the firepower to advance past the first round. Without Rondo, the Celtics are a lock for the NBA Draft Lottery.

Plenty of questions remain for both players; two of the fastest NBA players before their injuries. Will they be as explosive as they once were? How long will it take to get back to their All-Star and MVP levels of play?

That all comes down to this. When should professional athletes return from a torn ACL?


For a bit of clarity, I spoke with my own orthopedic doctor, Joseph M. Layug, M.D. of Orthopedic Solutions, L.L.P. in Columbia, Md.


Before we get started let’s throw out the case of Adrian Peterson. That’s simply not normal. Dr. Layug agreed. Peterson is an outlier.


More importantly, when examining Rondo’s return, we should be looking at other NBA point guards who have a more similar body type. Not a 6’2”, 217 pound iron-horse of a man.


“It takes a minimum of six months for biological graft [which replaces the ligament] to heal,” Dr. Layug explained.


After the six-month mark, you can start cutting, pivoting, and shifting your weight around on the recovering knee. The key, however, is gaining strength.


For most normal guys “like you or me” it takes about a year to get our strength back, Dr. Layug added.


Speaking about professional athletes, he said the timetable for recovery has been cut in half.


“It used to be a year, than nine months, and now it’s at six. The problem is, you need a biopsy to really tell if the knee is healed, but who’s going to want to do that?”


Ricky Rubio, star point guard for the Minnesota Timberwolves, was halfway through a brilliant rookie campaign before he tore his ACL in his left knee back on March 11, 2012. He returned to action 280 days later. Was that too early?


He got off to a very slow start -- both his scoring and shooting percentage decreased while he committed more turnovers. Rubio didn’t regain his old form until February as Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney chronicled earlier this year.


At that rate, Rondo could be donning Celtics green around the start of November, though he wouldn’t be back to peak form until 2014. Reasonable expectations in my mind.


Jamal Crawford tore his ACL in 2001 during his second NBA season. One year later, he played in 80 games for the Chicago Bulls and has averaged 67 games per season since then and has had a steady career arc, improving with each season until his natural, physical decline began to take its toll. He’s taller and heavier than Rondo, but earlier in his career, he was nearly as slender as Rondo.


Baron Davis, a more solid 6’3”, 212-pound point guard, tore his ACL during the NCAA Tournament of his freshman year at UCLA in 1998. He recovered in time for his sophomore campaign and was selected as a Third Team All-America in 1999. He was the third player drafted in 1999 and played in all 82 games for the Charlotte Hornets that season and averaged 64 games a season throughout his 13 years in the league. He re-injured that right knee in the playoffs for the Knicks, ending his very successful NBA career.


As Crawford and Davis have shown, it’s more than possible to recover fully from that kind of injury. It is possible to exceed your performance before such a gruesome injury.


In the world of professional sports, there’s an incredible amount of pressure to get the athletes back onto the field as quickly as possible. Dr. Layug brought up the case of Robert Griffin III, the Washington Redskins, and Dr. James Andrews. He admitted he wouldn’t want to be in the position to say whether or not a player should return.


RGIII has been labouring through a poor start to his second NFL season, with a massive knee brace no less, after he tore his ACL in the playoffs last season. He doesn’t look like the same player or all-world athlete.


“Is it physically possible to do so after such a short amount of time?” Dr. Layug asked. Sure, but it’s not best for such a young athlete, especially for a guy who doesn’t need to worry about being on the field for that next paycheck in order to have a secure financial future.


I asked him about Rose’s decision to take an entire year off -- one I applauded all of last year on the CLNS Radio airwaves.


“That’s the smart thing to do. It’s medically correct [to wait that long].”


Plus there’s the added mental benefit of making sure you feel like you’re completely healthy. We often forget -- or choose to ignore -- that recovery isn’t just physical.


After seeing Rose go down last year, Crawford told RealGM about the mental hurdles he’d have to overcome:


"Then, after surgery, you start rehab and start to see some progressions. You get a little more confident as it goes along. And then the last stage is the mental part: 'Can I still do that move? Can I still do that cut?' The actual leg you injure ends up being stronger than the leg that's not injured. But you don't believe that at first. You're scared. You doubt."


Rondo has never lacked for confidence so I’m sure by the time he steps onto the court, he’ll feel like he’s the same player he was before, if not better. He won’t take the same beating as RGIII or Peterson because of the sport he plays and based off the examples of Davis and Crawford, there’s a good chance he either won’t re-injure that knee by the time he’s done playing.


So when should Rondo return?


First and foremost I want to say it has to be up to Rondo and he alone. I think Rondo’s stubbornness will aid him in blocking the outside noise.


But if Rondo wants my advice, I’d tell him to wait until January. There’s no need to rush back. The Celtics can say they’re not tanking, but even with a healthy Rondo from day one, it’s a team that’s likely headed for a first-round playoff exit. Besides, the team would be better off getting Rondo back at top-form instead of putting him out there while he’s still recovering.

This last reason is purely selfish. Rondo is my favorite player. Simply put, he does things on the court that no one else can. He could have another 10 years or so left in him and coming back early from this could shorten his career down the road. I, for one, want to see him continue to improve and reach a level of greatness we’ve seen in past playoff runs.