It’s the curious case of Rajon Rondo.
The four-time All-Star has done nothing wrong, at least not in the past couple of weeks, and yet a vast number of fans and media members alike are calling for the Celtics to ship him out of town faster than you’ll finish this column. At its most basic level, it’s easy to understand why.
Rondo’s a victim of circumstance.
The Celtics’ perceived elite coach has been traded, two future Hall of Famers followed elsewhere, and Rondo’s team is still in limbo, neither good enough to contend for a championship nor bad enough to sit near the bottom of the NBA. Given Boston’s salary cap issues and lack of being a desirable destination for free agents, those title hopes won’t be improving overnight. On the other hand, the prospect of a lottery pick a year from now in what many believe will be the best draft since 2003 is exciting enough that the C’s could decide to (tactfully) throw away the coming season altogether. To be that terrible, that may mean no Rondo. The Celts can't be half-pregnant.
So what do you do?
As a fan, I’ve agonized over this question (as if I have a say or something) – I didn’t want Celtics president Danny Ainge to ship Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett out of town but I understood the decision; they’re old, slow, expensive, near the end of the line, and landed a high return. The end justified the means.
At 27 years old and on a team-friendly contract set to keep him in Boston for two more seasons, the answer with Rondo isn’t nearly as clear.
The lanky but limber point guard is a top-five player at his position with incredible vision and passing skills. Is he perfect? Of course not. His long-distance and free-throw shooting need lots of work and he’s flawed defensively, but he’s as physically tough an SOB as you’ll come across. Prior to his ACL tear last January, Rondo regularly took falls that might have made spectators cry out in pain, and then he’d just pop up as if he was made of rubber. If he were bigger and could skate, I’d put him on the Bruins’ third line.
But that ACL injury could present a problem. While Rondo and Ainge are hoping for an opening night return, there’s no telling exactly when the guard will be ready or how he’ll play when he comes back. Look at Derrick Rose. Though the tail-end was his decision, the Bulls' All-Star missed all of last season.
Then there’s the personality-driven side of his game. Rondo has admitted in the past that he’s tough to coach. Often, it seems like he’s on his own island on the court and you never know when he’s going to feel like bringing his A-game. If you’ve been watching, you know that effort typically coincides with the nationally televised contests. He’ll put up big numbers much of the rest of the time, too, but has been known to become so obsessed by collecting assists that it’s actually hurt his team. Imagine that, selfish selflessness. And none of that accounts for when he appeared to shut it down when his buddy Kendrick Perkins was traded away a few years back.
Off the court, many have speculated that Rondo was a major factor in the decisions by Doc Rivers and Ray Allen to leave town. However, Rivers didn’t fuel that fire upon his exit, and even said the pass-first performer is the type of player you can build around if he’s healthy and consistent.
Rondo’s not, in my mind, a franchise star, but he’s much better than a mere complementary piece to a winning team. In today’s NBA, where the conventional wisdom is that you can’t win without a “super team,” Rondo can be one of those guys. He’s not LeBron James, but it’s not crazy to think he could be Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. Josh Smith, however, will never be a member of such a triumvirate, so let’s please just stop that talk right now.
Rondo’s not the type of guy you cast away for pennies on the dollar for the sake of hoping you’ll be bad enough to win 20-25 games and maybe, just maybe land Andrew Wiggins or one of the assumed prizes behind him. Counting on the lottery is extremely risky, as this very franchise has already learned in 1997 and 2007.
The future of a presumed star player are sometimes about as big an unknown as how those ping pong balls will bounce. Ask the Blazers, Wizards, Bobcats, Clippers, or a host of other teams. Even when you get the right guy, it doesn't always pan out – Greg Oden, for instance – and sometimes when you are in the right spot you simply make the wrong pick. Ainge has done well for himself with Rondo, Al Jefferson, and Tony Allen, among others, but for each one of those successes you have a Gerald Green or JaJuan Johnson. This was outlined very well by Gary Dzen.
In short, it’s nice to proclaim, “We’ll rebuild through the draft!” but there’s no guarantee it’ll work, at least not right away. You have to pick correctly, and still get a little lucky.
Besides, do you honestly believe the Celtics are the only team thinking this way? Come on.
It’s understandable that people would suggest dealing Rondo. Motivational concerns aside, he’s an asset. If he can net the C’s equal value now or at the trade deadline – whether in the form of future cap relief, ditching crummy contracts (I’m looking at you, Brandon Bass, Courtney Lee, Gerald Wallace, and even Jeff Green), or adding a solid, younger and less enigmatic talent, or more draft picks – it would be difficult for me to declare the move foolish.
But to trade him while his value may be at an all-time low for the sake of tanking, well I don’t subscribe to that theory. I’d rather see the Celtics slow down Rondo’s return from injury or – wink, wink, nudge, nudge – sit him out more than every once in a while. Remember when David Robinson missed a year as the Spurs put themselves in position to land Tim Duncan? Rondo seems too competitive to go for that but, if he would, sign me up.
Moreover, Ainge has been stockpiling picks – nine first-rounders in the next five drafts, including two in 2014 – and other assets, so there’s no saying he couldn’t bundle some together to climb into the lottery next season if his team can’t get there on its own. If that didn’t work, or even if it did, its nice to have the pieces should marquee players become available down the line. That’s how both Allen and Garnett got here.
It can still work for Rajon Rondo in Boston. He thrives around good players, has the ability to make his teammates better, and he’s got more than a few prime years ahead of him. Picture that with a young, athletic, run-and-gun offense this time, where he can play at the pace he’s capable of. The right mentality from the could-be superstar coupled with the proper pieces around him and the Celtics might look like the Thunder or Clippers. Again, he’s probably not the guy. He can be a guy.
Danny Ainge likes to talk about the three D’s of building a team: draft, develop, and deal. Personally, I’m hoping it’s just two out of three when it comes to Rondo.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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