With Rajon Rondo, the Boston Celtics are playing with house money. Teams don't usually get players like Rondo with the No. 21 pick in a shallow draft. When Boston excised the young core to pull in Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, Rondo, then coming off of a rookie season where he averaged six points and as many rebounds as assists, was one of two (with Kendrick Perkins) who stayed. When it came time to sign an extension off of his rookie deal, the C's held out until the last minute, then convinced Rondo to take five years, $55 million, about $20 million less than the max for a player of his age.
Not only did that contract pay off, but Rondo made the next two All-Star teams, continued to play all-league defense and has at times been the Celtics' best player ... on a team with three first-ballot Hall of Famers.
The Celtics have been extraordinarily lucky with Rondo, yet Danny Ainge, never content to sit on his hands and pray for rain, has reportedly talked about moving the point guard in big-name deals. There's some real dissonance there, and it says more about the culture of the Celtics than Rondo.
Ainge is never satisfied. Consider all of the midseason moves he's made during the Celtics' Atlantic reign: he pulled in P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell in the course of the 2008 title run (despite having the best record in the league), he brought in a waived Stephon Marbury (!) in 2009, Nate Robinson in 2010 and traded Perk for Jeff Green in 2011. Reports have indicated that Ainge is looking to offload Rondo because of personality issues. A GM overly concerned with personality issues doesn't bring in Stephon Marbury and Nate Robinson in midseason, doesn't give free agent contracts to Rasheed Wallace and Shaquille O'Neal, and doesn't trade the universally beloved Perkins for a limited player like Jeff Green in the middle of a season. Not once in his Celtics' tenure has Ainge been afraid of a different personality or of messing up the team's chemistry. Even if Rondo alienates his teammates, he's still on a contract that most teams would kill for. Watch what Russell Westbrook gets on his extension, and Rondo will be even easier to appreciate.
So then why would Ainge look to trade Rondo?
The answer on the Rondo question is the same for every question about Ainge's motivation: he is not satisfied with the current state of the Celtics, and wants to improve the club. Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald argues that the indications are that Ainge will have a quiet offseason devoted to keeping Boston's own free agents (Green, Glen Davis) and tinkering around the edges.
I'm sorry, but did you see how Boston went out in May? The Miami Heat killed them. Rondo's elbow was injured, but consider that the Celtics are seeing another year of wear on Garnett, Allen and Paul Pierce, and that the Heat will be improved both thanks to a free agent signing or two and having some time in the bank for the on-court meshing of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. You think Ainge doesn't see all of this?
Murphy is correct that the free agent market doesn't have Ainge's answers. But there will be some sort of splash, whether before the season begins or at the trade deadline. Garnett will be a free agent next year, and he's growing ever closer to the end. Allen will be a free agent, too, and while he can shoot forever, if the team isn't contending, keeping him could be difficult. Pierce has an additional guaranteed season. Because of their ages and those contract situations, they wouldn't be terribly attractive in the trade market. Each could pull maybe a sub-All-Star young player -- KG, especially, still has pull as a vet that can whip an underperforming roster into shape quickly -- but none of them alone can guarantee the future of the roster.
Rondo can. While he's young, he's a player who depends on others to score. He needs high-octane help. A guy like Chris Paul doesn't, so hence that rumor. That deal won't work, but something out there will. And if you add that piece with the pieces you can net from trades for the veterans, you're starting to paint a portrait of the next great Boston Celtics, a team that looks nothing like the current version.
If this were nearly any other GM, you'd bet against massive overhaul right now when there looks like there could be one last run. But Ainge has never been shy on the trigger. He's never checked his itchy finger. He'll do something big in the next few months, or he'll flame out trying.
The question is whether the luck he met with Rondo will continue with the next young star he snags. If not, it could be a long rebuilding timeline for the Celtics.
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