The Great Rebuild is finally upon us. With the departures of Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce occurring in rapid succession, the Big Three era is over, and Danny Ainge again faces the task of restoring the Celtics to glory.
The one remaining vestige of the championship era is Rajon Rondo—for now. As it appears, the Celtics are content on tanking for a loaded 2014 draft, there has already been heated debate about whether or not Rondo is a centerpiece for the next era or simply another chip for Ainge to cash in.
The Rondo question is impossible to answer at this moment, because we have no idea how Boston's star point guard will react to the overhaul. It is unclear how he could fit in with the Celtics' hodgepodge of new players, or if he even has the patience to lead the team through a few lean seasons. Add all this on top of his ACL rehab and one could excuse Rondo for being a bit flustered at the moment.
Rondo's situation will resolve itself in due time. But for now, here are several of the most likely scenarios to unfold over the next few months.
Rondo Gets Traded Before the Start of the Season
Worst Case: Ainge trades Rondo out of necessity, exchanging his best remaining asset for pennies on the dollar.
Ainge has explicitly stated he plans on building around Rondo, so this scenario seems the least likely at the moment. But what if another team made an offer that could allow the Celtics to tank as planned, while also clearing Boston's currently messy cap situation?
Consider if a team like (gulp) the Lakers wanted to go all-in to maximize its immediate championship potential. In LA's case, the scenario is especially plausible, considering the likelihood of Howard leaving in free agency and the team's dwindling window with Kobe Bryant.
Celtics fans may remember the Pierce-Pau Gasol rumors from past trade deadlines. Subbing in Rondo for Pierce, what if the Lakers offered Gasol's $19 million expiring contract, and were also willing to take the Gerald Wallace albatross off Boston's books? Ainge would have to entertain the deal, as it would provide enormous cap flexibility and increased odds in the 2014 Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes.
Of course, the Celtics' biggest fear at the moment is Rondo forcing his way out, a la Doc Rivers. At the moment, it's unclear if the All-Star point guard reciprocates Ainge's desire to keep him in Boston. A recent Marc Stein interview implied Rondo's departure was imminent (fast forward to the 5:20 mark):
The rumor mill will continue to swirl until the Celtics reach some long-term solution (more on that later). But even if Ainge could receive more draft picks and young assets for Rondo, losing his purported new franchise player would certainly sting.
Rondo Gets Traded During or After the 2013-14 Season
Best Case: As with the preseason scenario, a fringe contender overpays to maximize their short-term championship contention.
Worst Case: Rondo proves inept as a leader next season, and Ainge is forced to trade away a locker room cancer, again restarting Boston's rebuild.
The in-season trade seems more likely, considering that 50-50 contention often causes teams to act impetuously. In previous seasons, the Celtics have entertained offers for the likes of Rudy Gay and Eric Gordon. While those two in particular are far too expensive, considering that neither is a franchise-altering superstar, the Celtics could do worse than adding to their young core.
Still, if Rondo starts the season in Boston, Ainge would probably only trade the enigmatic point guard if he proves impossible to deal with amidst constant losing. When hearing the recent horror stories of the Celtics' last legitimate tanking effort in 1996-97, it's hard not to think Rondo could quickly become disillusioned. M.L. Carr, then the Celtics' head coach, illuminated to ESPNBoston's Jackie MacMullan how purposeful losing took a toll on the players:
The hardest part, said Carr, was straddling the fine line between encouraging his team to play the game the right way but make sure they didn't win too much.
"I remember one game in particular, when David Wesley was hitting jump shots and 3-pointers all over the floor," Carr said. "I had to get him out of the game.
"He came over to me and said, 'Coach, what are you doing? I just hit four shots in a row.' I said, 'I know, David, but I'm experimenting.'
Moreover, Ainge has shown a propensity for holding onto his assets if he does not get top value for them. If Rondo clearly wants out and Ainge keeps him through the season, that could prove detrimental for the development of younger players like Jared Sullinger and Avery Bradley.
At this point, no one is certain how Rondo would react to leading a 55- to 60-loss team. But if he cracks under the frustration, Ainge would be wise to move quickly.
Rondo Stays in Boston Long-Term
There is no best- or worst-case analysis for this, because this is the best possibility for Boston's future, and one many Celtics fans are hoping for. Though Rondo still has two years remaining on the five-year, $55 million bargain he signed in 2009, Ainge could relieve some of the doubt surrounding the Celtics by locking up his star for the long haul.
Rondo's ACL remains a precarious situation, and one the Celtics should be fully comfortable with before making any move. But by all accounts, Rondo is ahead of schedule on his rehab, though it would certainly help Boston's tanking efforts if he took his time.
In the end, slowing down the rehab may be the most beneficial solution for both sides. Say what you will about Derrick Rose this past season, but he is now working out without limitations, according to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times, and the Bulls will be better off than if he had rushed back last year.
Sitting Rondo out until, say, the All-Star Break would not only give the Celtics more lottery balls, but also alleviate the mental strain of carrying a bad team for 82 games. Boston does not need Rondo next year so much as they need him ready for 2014-15, when they hope to pair him with a franchise difference-maker.
Nonetheless, this is all irrelevant unless Rondo has some sort of long-term security. The situation is a bit reminiscent of another Boston team's contract standoff—Vince Wilfork with the Patriots in 2009. Wilfork admitted how difficult it was being a locker room leader without even knowing if he was part of the Patriots' long-term foundation. Since his extension, Wilfork has led a steadily improving young defense that may soon become championship-caliber.
Rondo is trying to assume the same role with a young Celtics squad that will experience growing pains over the next few seasons. If Ainge can lock in his new foundation, that would provide some much-needed clarity, and mark the first step towards building the next great Celtics team.