Hard to believe the new Big Three era had its official breakup party just seven months ago, when Danny Ainge hit the reset button and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett relocated to Brooklyn. Those heady days already feel so long ago.
The Celtics’ rebuild in their admirable wake is a long-term project, of course, one that will be accompanied by difficult growing pains. It already has — this season has aged Brad Stevens to the point that he looks at least 30 years old now. But as difficult as the process of losing now to win later is for a city and franchise that has 17 banners and has space reserved for the 18th, it does seem to be ahead of schedule.
Ainge has stockpiled legitimate assets remarkably fast. The Celtics have at least two first-round picks in four of the next five drafts, and don’t you get the sense Ainge knows who he wants already?
And there are useful puzzle pieces already on the roster: Jared Sullinger, with his coach’s-kid instincts and Venus flytrap hands, is positioned as an important player on their next contender or as a key player should another KG/Minnesota blockbuster present itself. Kelly Olynyk is improving, and while Tommy Heinsohn should cool it on any Dirk Nowitzki comps, Jackie MacMullan’s recent suggestion that there’s some Jack Sikma in Olynyk’s game is intriguing.
The NBA trade deadline arrives Thursday at 3 p.m., and Ainge has a chance to do more to enhance the Celtics’ future. Players such as Brandon Bass, Kris Humphries and Jeff Green aren’t going to be around for the next great Celtics team, but they could all be useful to current contenders for this year’s title. Bass in particular seems likely to move. It’s kind of a surprise he’s still here right now, actually.
We know Ainge isn’t about to let sentiment get in the way of a good deal, and so nothing he does in the next couple of days would come as a total shock. He could trade Ed Lacerte to the Clippers for a trainer-to-be-named-later and a second-round pick and we’d say, “Well, it was a good run for Eddie, but Ainge must have spotted a game-changing trainer in college he thinks will be an upgrade.” With Ainge, anything is possible.
But there’s one player, for basketball reasons and entertainment reasons, that I don’t think he should trade and don’t believe he will, unless he’s presented with an offer so overwhelming that he can’t say no.
I hope Rajon Rondo remains a Celtic beyond Thursday and deep into the future. He should be the bridge from the New Big Three to the franchise’s next big winner.
Part of that sentiment, I’ll gladly admit, is because I enjoy watching him play so much. I know the gripes: he’s mercurial, stubborn, inconsistent when the spotlight is dull, a streaky shooter at best … all the usual complaints that have stuck to him since he arrived in 2006. But my mind is boggled by those who claim to like basketball who don’t find satisfaction in this, or this:
Hey, I know he’s far from flawless; I’ll even agree he’s enigmatic. I find myself wishing he exhibited the commitment to lock-down defense that he did earlier in his career; now he’s too often a disinterested gambler. But the pros outweigh the cons with Rondo to such a degree that the cons are tolerable, and even in some way a part of his charm. I mean, since when is having a brash, super-confident, rubber-armed, tough-as-hell, bright-to-brilliant point guard who plays his best against the best opponents a bad thing? He’s one of the few players on earth who can claim to have been the best player on the court in a game that involved LeBron James.
He looks like himself since coming back from the year lost to a knee injury — he’s even hitting outside shots — and any franchise lacking at point guard that is contending for something other than ping-pong balls should covet Rondo to run their show.
Judging by the rumor mill, that’s exactly what’s happening. Toronto, one of the surprises of the season, supposedly covets him, with point guard Kyle Lowry due to hit free agency after the season. Sacramento is said to have offered Isaiah Thomas, Ben McLemore, and picks, though it should be noted that the deal doesn’t match up in the trade machine. The New York media keeps coming up with imaginary ways the asset-free Knicks could acquire Rondo. Another report said Ainge is asking for two unprotected first-rounders as well as young, useful players.
Unless Rondo does move, we’ll probably never know Ainge’s true asking price or the full extent of offers that were made. For now, all we have now is fascinating gossip.
The hope here is that Rondo remains a Celtic for a long time — unless Ainge pulls off an Auerbachian heist on a deal that just cannot be refused.
So far, no such offer seems to exist. I’m cool if it remains that way.