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Rondo: Handle with care

Trade talk sure to ruffle him

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / December 9, 2011
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WALTHAM - There definitely needs to be a long, soul-cleansing conversation between Danny Ainge and Rajon Rondo today before the Celtics begin training camp for what Ainge hopes will be one final championship season for his veteran core.

Rondo has been at the team’s practice facility all week, working out as if everything were normal, while Ainge was conjuring up trade scenarios to send him to New Orleans for Chris Paul, like a desperate gambler making one last roll of the dice before crapping out.

In a press conference eight days ago, Ainge said he was not trying to trade Rondo, but a Hornets source said this week that the Celtics were more than willing to move the two-time All-Star point guard for the brilliant Paul, who has an opt-out contract clause at season’s end. The Lakers tried to acquire Paul yesterday, but the deal was nixed by the NBA.

Rondo has not spoken to the media since the trade rumors surfaced, but if there is anything that has become clear during his five years in Boston, it’s his sensitivity. Despite brash confidence that has been known to anger opponents, Rondo revels in his insecurity. He remains that unorthodox guard from Kentucky who was begged to stay in school after his sophomore season.

He is the guard few believed was mature and savvy enough lead the Big Three to an NBA title, which he did in 2008. He remains a player who privately pouts over criticism and refuses to acknowledge his glaring weaknesses.

Ainge is going to have to conduct damage control over the next few weeks, because Rondo is going to view him with a crooked eye, wondering what trade scenario is next. Rondo for Stephen Curry? Rondo for Brandon Jennings? Rondo for Jason Kidd?

None of those deals are happening, but Rondo has to enter camp today with a soaring level of doubt as to whether the Celtics truly trust his floor leadership.

A source close to Rondo said last night that the guard would respond positively if the Lakers land Paul, relieved that he is staying in Boston and able to concentrate on establishing himself as an elite point guard.

His stock has unquestionably depreciated in the past few months. Being torched by Derrick Rose in one-on-one matchups, showing an undependable jumper, missing free throws, and adopting a mercurial and aloof attitude has brought him his share of detractors locally and around the league.

Perhaps this will serve as an opportunity for Rondo to mute the criticism and reemerge as the franchise cornerstone that could lead the Celtics into their next dominant stretch.

Ainge tried desperately to make a run at this season’s title by choosing one year of Paul and more than $20 million in salary cap space next summer over Rondo and the current Big Three.

That has to be considered an insult, especially since Rondo does not have a friendly relationship with Paul after the two nearly came to blows in a November 2009 game at TD Garden.

One negative about being a free-wheeling, maverick general manager is the repercussions when the daring moves don’t come to fruition. Ainge also dangled Jeff Green in a potential deal for Paul and two first-round picks, something that could help the Celtics rebuild in coming years.

The reality is not so cloudy, however. Rondo can control a game without shooting or dominating the ball. That is an extremely rare ability. By keeping Rondo, the Celtics won’t sacrifice their future for the sake of today.

So after he scrambles to fill his roster, decides what to do with Green and Glen Davis, and acquires another productive big man, Ainge needs to address the mental state of his point guard. The “you know we love you, man’’ approach will translate as insincere and disrespectful.

Rondo was crushed by last season’s Kendrick Perkins trade, and his play reflected that. When circumstances are uncertain and criticism heavy, Rondo tends to mentally check out, and that has to change. There are times when he has such a mastery of the game that he appears to challenge himself mentally by creating adversity to overcome.

This is true adversity for Rondo. He has been doubted, not by opponents or those NBA observers who fault his offensive skills, free throw shooting, and defensive lapses, but by his own organization.

If anything, Rondo has learned the past few weeks that the NBA is a cruel business, and scrutiny is as prevalent as alley-oop dunks and body art. It may be time for him to swallow his pride, focus on this season, and convince the disbelievers with a career season. A little chat with Ainge should help that process.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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