Celtics

As Celtics Welcome Back Rajon Rondo, It’s Time to Welcome What the Future May Bring

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The hello again for Rajon Rondo is unusually close to the goodbye, not that anyone who enjoyed the vast majority of his 8 1/2 seasons with the Celtics will complain.

His first game at the Garden as a member of the Dallas Mavericks comes tonight, just 16 days after his final game at the Garden as a Celtic, one in which he put up a fairly classic Rondo stat line: 13 points, 15 assists, 7 rebounds, and yes, 6 turnovers in a 109-92 win over Orlando.

In retrospect, it was a fine farewell, and tonight is a fine time for a homecoming, even if the two are in unusually close proximity. Our memories of Rondo, the spectacular, reckless kid brother to the New Big Three and the last of that wonderful 2007-08 championship team to depart, are fresh. He was still delivering new highlights, albeit with less frequency, just a few weeks ago.

But that doesn’t mean we won’t get sentimental when the This-Is-Your-Celtics-Life video plays on the video board sometime in the first half. Because he’s such a stylish plastic-man of a player, there are endless highlights to choose from. But this one has to be prominent, because it’s Rondo at his finest in about three different ways:

The Celtics do these things so right, and Rondo, a true original who in that flawed-genius spirit is probably closest to Dennis Johnson among Celtics champions, deserves every roar.

I suppose his return and the appropriately warm, heartfelt and prolonged salute — which he will receive, without a doubt — offers closure on the era that began when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined up with Paul Pierce and youngsters Rondo and Kendrick Perkins in 2007. And that’s if the Rondo trade wasn’t the closure itself.

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I do know this much: As we salute Rondo and the recent past, it’s becoming easier to become optimistic about the Celtics’ future, even as the roster does not inspire championship daydreams at the moment and the rewards will not be revealed for years.

The Rondo deal has allowed the last stragglers among us to reconcile with the concept of a full rebuild. While he was here, there was always some chance that Danny Ainge’s strategy might include signing Rondo long-term, then utilizing some of these “assets” he’s accumulated to acquire another star or two. It was just this past summer that we all got caught up in Kevin Love’s weekend in New England, as long ago as that seems.

Now, the path to rebuilding is one with just two forks. The Celtics can spend all of these accumulated draft picks — which right now shapes up to be eight first-rounders and nine second-rounders over the next four seasons — to supplement the current roster. Of course, that’s not mathematically possible unless they plan on sending half of those players to the Red Claws for the winter.

So really, it’s one fork: Ainge will hang on to select picks, but he will have to trade some either for established players or to move up in the draft.

I know, it’s hard to be patient during an NBA rebuild, especially when the current standings — the 11-18 Celtics are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, a game back of the Heat — feels a lot more like purgatory. There’s no doubt that this will be a long process, and the possibility of trading for an established, prime-of-career star is hazy at best right now.

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One of the great blessings in Celtics’ history is that Kevin Garnett, the rare superstar who played his ass off on defense and didn’t give a damn about getting his shots, was available with some of his prime left. There is no one out there like him right now. There’s no one like Paul Pierce in place on the Celtics roster, either.

But the future is hardly grim. Ainge is accumulating assets.

Kelly Olynyk is developing as you’d hope in his second season, shooting 52.1 percent from the field and 38 percent from 3-point range while averaging 12.1 points per game. Marcus Smart, just 20 years old, is unpolished, yet his toughness and relentless defense have already made him a fan-favorite and someone who looks suited to be a key cog on a winning team someday. It would not surprise me if he gets into it with Rondo tonight. Jared Sullinger is inconsistent, but he’s capable of 20 and 10 when the matchup is favorable, and he’s a bright, instinctive player. James Young has as much promise as anyone on the roster.

Besides, any anticipation of what the future holds for the Celtics isn’t about who is already here, but about what may be to come. While there is some flexibility in their collection of draft picks — Ainge could conceivably hold the 2015 first-rounder from Cleveland until it is unprotected in 2019, and the Dallas No. 1 acquired in the Rondo deal until 2021 — they have a fascinating array of picks coming up. Here’s a helpful breakdown of their draft-pick status for the next few seasons.

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Of particular intrigue are the two they have coming from the Nets, who would appear to have some serious disarray headed their way in the near future. Those picks are unprotected in 2016 and ’18, and they also have the right to flip with New Jersey in ’17.

The Nets, who will have to flip No. 1s with the Hawks this year, have little hope of repairing a roster that has seen Deron Williams regress, KG fossilize, and Pierce depart after one season. It’s starting to look like they will hit rock-bottom right around the time the Celtics begin collecting their picks. This has a chance to be one of the better trades in Celtics history, which is saying something given all of the heists Red Auerbach pulled off through the years.

Asking fans to wait until 2016 — when the Celtics have three first-rounders (on top of the two they have in ’15) and four seconds — is a lot to ask. And they will require some lottery luck, which is of course long overdue for this franchise.

But as we salute the recent past tonight, it’s worth remembering: Danny Ainge brought Rajon Rondo to Boston at a time when the future didn’t look particularly bright.

Here’s to hitting similar jackpots — and maybe even finding players who will someday be worthy of video tributes of their own — as he builds the Celtics up again.

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