With the Minnesota Timberwolves arriving at the Garden Wednesday night on the occasion of Rajon Rondo's return from a two-game suspension more or less for having his teammate's back, I've found myself flashing back to when Rondo first arrived here, and when there seemed a real possibility of him departing just a year later.
Rondo missed a win over the Blazers and a loss to the Bucks while serving his time for defending Garnett. Just imagine what we'd have missed had he been traded for him all those years ago.
First, for the sake of setting up the timeline and providing a reminder of how quickly a perception of a player's talent can change, here is what Danny Ainge told the Globe for the June 29, 2006 editions after he acquired Rondo in a trade from Phoenix after the Suns drafted the former Kentucky star on the Celtics' behalf with the 21st overall pick:
"I don't think you can have too many [point guards],'' said Ainge, who also acquired Sebastian Telfair from Portland that night. "We feel like speed is the way the game is going now. You see in Chicago and you see in Dallas all those teams playing multiple point guards at one time. And we think [Rondo] has a chance to be a special player. We wouldn't have done the deal if we didn't think that he has a chance to be the quality of a player of an Al Jefferson, a Gerald Green, those kinds of players. We think he has that kind of upside."
Now, Ainge knew that night that he was getting a potential steal in Rondo -- he had said before the draft that he was the seventh-ranked player overall on the Celtics' draft board. But it was the acquisition of Telfair, the underachieving prep legend, that was the main point of interest in the aftermath of the draft, and it is amusing to consider that it was a compliment at that point to suggest he had the upside of Gerald Green, who washed out of the league for two full seasons before finding recent redemption with the Nets and Pacers.
The coincidence is that one year, 24 wins, and 58 losses later, Green and Telfair -- who must be in the starting five of the most exasperating players Doc Rivers has ever attempted to coach -- were gone to the Timberwolves as secondary pieces behind centerpiece Jefferson in the franchise-altering trade for Garnett. And Rondo got to stay behind and form a bond with Garnett that would result in a championship a year later, a silly incident a few days ago, and so much in between.
Six-plus seasons later, Rondo is still a source of frustration to an element of impatient Celtics fans. I get it. He probably should have avoided the impulse to do much more than shove Kris Humphries and throw a few easy insults his way rather than escalate the incident to the point of suspension. This is Rondo's team now, and restraint in moments of frustration is part of leadership, something he seems to understand.
"I want to get better; I want to run off about eight or nine games straight [wins]," he said Tuesday. "It starts in practice and it starts with staying in the game. I just want to go out there and give it all for my teammates and try to get some wins. We have to get this show on the road. We have to have a great December. November is behind us. We didn’t play well. We’re 9-8. But it’s a new month and I’m ready to go.”
But I also think his genius for his particular sport isn't always appreciated around here to the extent he should be -- in fact, the perception of Rondo strikes me as increasingly similar to that of Pedro Martinez during his heyday. I'm not saying Rondo is the point guard equivalent of the maestro Pedro was as a pitcher -- that would be Oscar Robertson, alone in his own stratosphere -- but the pride and intelligence and fierce competitiveness are sometimes overlooked at the expense of emphasizing the occasional petulance. Rondo threw the ball at an official. Pedro threw the ball at Karim Garcia. They aren't the world's first temperamental geniuses, you know?
That's my way of suggesting we recognize how fortunate we are to be able to watch him, my way of saying I'm glad he's back and that he wasn't gone before all the good times began. I'll always wonder how close Ainge really was to including Rondo in that deal in the summer of 2007. Minnesota general manager Kevin McHale coveted Rondo, who was coming off a rookie season in which he'd shown flashes of brilliance as a 20-year-old in 78 games (25 starts) for a brutal team. But Ainge knew what he had -- or at least thought he knew what he had -- and steadfastly refused to include Rondo in the trade, and wouldn't you have just loved to have heard his bartering with McHale as the deal was taking shape?
It helped the Celtics' cause that Telfair, who still held mild appeal as a prospect then, essentially had to be included in to make the trade work relative to the salary cap. But if McHale had said, "Include Rondo or I'm trading KG to the Lakers" -- a real possibility at the time -- would Ainge have relented?
He says no now, just as he said no then. But it's nonetheless fascinating to consider today, with Rondo -- essential, polarizing, brilliant, occasionally petulant, uniquely talented, and as much fun to watch when he is on his game than any Celtic since No. 33 -- returning to the Celtics lineup.
It sure beats the bizarro-world alternative that could have been set in motion in 2007 -- returning as a member of the Timberwolves to the place where he began his career. Thank goodness we know Rondo as Garnett's loyal teammate than as someone for whom he was once traded.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.