The Celtics beat the Orlando Magic on Wednesday in what was one of their most convincing wins of the season. After starting the game with a flurry of turnovers, Rajon Rondo had 13 points, 15 assists and seven rebounds. It was one of his best performances in a season that has already seen him rack up three triple doubles.
The victory left the Celtics a half game out of the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference despite a 9-14 record and put them at the crossroads of an existential quandary they have been pondering for the last year and a half: How good can they be with Rondo, and is there any way to get better quickly?
The answer to the first part appears to be: just good enough to trade him. The answer to the second question was already answered with a resounding "no" after their failed pursuit of Kevin Love last summer. With no help available in the short-term and with Rondo's contract set to expire after this season, team president Danny Ainge finally pulled the trigger on one of Boston's longest-running melodramas.
After all the rumors, denials and false starts, the Celtics finally traded Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks for Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder and Jameer Nelson. The deal includes a protected first-round pick (1-3 and 15-30 in 2015 and top-7 from 2016-2020, per Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski) and a future second-rounder, which likely gives Ainge six first-rounders over the next two drafts and a vast collection of second rounders.
By trading Rondo, Ainge is signaling an end to the first phase of his rebuilding plan, which was to add another established star to play alongside the point guard. When that fizzled, the focus shiftd to the next phase: clearing cap space, adding draft picks and further developing a young core that includes players such as Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger and Marcus Smart.
This may not be the most popular choice in Boston -- although given Rondo's polarizing career here, it's not the most unpopular either -- but it does seem like the right choice given the circumstances. If the Celtics are going all-in on the rebuild, paying Rondo max money doesn't make a ton of sense. There could be more deals on the way with Jeff Green playing some of the best ball of his career and solid veteran Brandon Bass in the final year of his contract.
The Celtics have a first-round pick coming from the Clippers in the 2015 draft in addition to their own. Barring something strange, they'll likely get the Mavericks pick in 2016, along with one from the Cavaliers and an unprotected choice from the Nets that could become extremely valuable if Brooklyn clears its roster. They have the option of swapping spots with the Nets in 2017 and they own Brooklyn's pick outright in 2018.
The cap space is yet another factor in the equation. With Rondo and his impending extension off the books, the Celtics have a little less than $50 million committed to next year's roster. That number could shrink appreciably if Green is traded or if he opts out of the final year of his deal that pays him just over $9 million.
There are a handful of intriguing 20-somethings set to hit free agency this summer, including restricted free agents such as Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green and Jimmy Butler, as well as DeAndre Jordan, who is unrestricted. While Boston had become a free-agent destination for older vets at the end of their career during the Kevin Garnett era, it has never been an attractive spot for young stars in their prime. To be fair, though, they've rarely been in the market for those players.
But cap space isn't just for free agents. With room and a surplus of picks, the C's would be an attractive trade partner should another Love situation arise. Less than two years after tearing down the roster, Ainge has options and assets. What he does with them will define this phase of his tenure.
In trading Rondo, Ainge has finally closed the door on the championship team he assembled in 2008. Ainge has done right by his championship core, which he began dismantling with a trade deadline deal that sent Kendrick Perkins to Oklahoma City back in 2011. Last summer, he dealt Garnett and franchise icon Paul Pierce to Brooklyn and allowed Doc Rivers out of his contract to coach the Clippers with front-office autonomy.
All of them went to competitive situations: Perkins got paid, Doc got control and Pierce and Garnett had the final years of their contracts guaranteed. Yet Rondo may wind up in the best environment of all, playing for a Dallas team that has one of the league's best coaches, a dynamic offense and the promise of again playing meaningful games. The trade sets Rondo free, and he has always played his best when the stage is bigger and the lights are brighter. It also removes him from the harsh glare of Boston, where he was embraced by a large segment of the fanbase and curiously reviled by others.
Rondo has that effect on people. His teammates by and large swore their allegiance to him, yet he had no interest in making friends with opponents and curried no favor with the press. That made him a target for talk show hosts, although his relationship with the beat writers was generally fine, if occasionally terse.
He was an enigma by choice, which made him all the more fascinating to cover up close. His brilliant games made up for his disinterested ones. His idiosyncrasies were balanced by an obvious intelligence and competitiveness.
His most revelatory moments came on the court, where his talent and flaws were on display on a nightly basis, sometimes in direct conflict with each other. The point guard who couldn't shoot single-handedly dominated playoff games against some of the best players of his generation and resulted in underwhelming performances in others.
Rondo was an original, one of the most compelling athletes to play in Boston in recent memory. He began as a sidekick, developed into an All-Star and was ultimately the last one standing. He was eccentric to the extreme, but it was impossible to take your eyes off him when he had the ball in his hands.
In his final game with the Celtics, he casually tossed off pinpoint passes from impossible angles and ran the team as well as he has all season. As final acts go, it lacked the dramatic flair of an inspired playoff run, but it was perfect in its own way. It was a final reminder of his abilities in all their sublime weirdness.
It was a hell of a run, but it was also time.