Rajon Rondo's Future with the Boston Celtics Will Define Franchise

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Rajon Rondo's Future with the Boston Celtics Will Define Franchise
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There's an elephant walking around the cobble-stoned streets of Boston. It's adorned in Celtics green and white, preening for the preseason promenade and doing exactly as trained. It's speaking when spoken to, trumpeting in all the correct ways, and yet no one in the city can quite look it in the eye for fear of what comes next. 

The elephant, of course, is point guard Rajon Rondo. And the reason that no one can keep his gaze for more than a few seconds is that no one knows just how much longer he will be wearing the Green and White No. 9. 

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

When the Boston Celtics opened their training camp last week, the franchise was staring at its greatest upheaval since Larry Bird and Kevin McHale left in 1992 and 1993, respectively.

Gone was Paul Pierce, who—after 14 years of service—unquestionably developed into one of the city's favorite sons. Gone was Kevin Garnett, whose stay in Boston was shorter but came with the city's first championship ring since Larry Legend's heyday. Gone was Doc Rivers, the man who stewarded the ship not too long after his Q-Score rivaled Rick Pitino's. 

With Ray Allen having left for the Miami Heat the previous summer, the original Big Three was nothing but smoldering wreckage and banner No. 17 hanging at TD Garden.

Oh, and Rondo. The enigmatic point guard was left to watch on as his co-stars vanished, sitting in his mansion with his feet propped up and doing his best Vince Lombardi impression. From the moment Doc left for Clipperland and the Brooklyn deal went down on draft night, Rondo instantly became the new source of conversation.

It wasn't if Rondo would get dealt, it was when

But almost instantly, that narrative was struck down by anyone involved with the Celtics organization. Both team president Danny Ainge and new head coach Brad Stevens went out of their way to effusively praise Rondo, to say that he's a part of the Celtics' present and their future.

Even Rondo himself has toed the company line throughout. When asked by Mark Murphy of The Boston Herald about his future with the franchise, Rondo made it quite clear he was on-board with the current plan.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

"'I love it here, the fans are great here, (president of basketball operations) Danny (Ainge) has been straight with me, so why would I want to leave?' he said. 'Why would I want out? This is a brand new start for us as a team.'"

If this all seems a little Jim Jonesian in its toeing of the company line, well, that's because it is.

I'm of the opinion that Rondo will be traded before this February's deadline. I'm also of the opinion that it's the right move for Boston—now and in the future. 

Much of the uncertainty surrounding when and whether Rondo will be on the move surrounds the health of his ailing knee. The All-Star guard is about nine months removed from suffering a partial tear to his ACL, an injury that prematurely ended his 2012-13 campaign and arguably set this rebuild process into motion.

While the initial timetable was initially reported to be six months, Rondo hasn't resumed full basketball activity yet. He's not expected to be ready for opening night, and the Celtics have been A-OK with him taking his time. Ainge even suggested that Rondo would sit out until December, though acknowledging that it could even be later.

Now, having a point guard take a little longer than expected in ACL recovery is nothing new. The Chicago Bulls spent their entire 2012-13 season in a state of uncertainty over the return of Derrick Rose, which of course happened last Saturday—in the 2013-14 preseason.

Rondo also faces uncertainty, but not about whether he'll be back. Rondo will definitely be on the floor at some point this season. The uncertainty comes when discussing what Rondo's purpose will be once he sets foot on the TD Garden floor: Will he be the returning star looking to resuscitate his team or merely a pawn in the long con, auditioning for his next stop?

If the Celtics are committed to a full-scale rebuild, it will be the latter.

Guess what? Danny Ainge isn't one to passively rebuild. 

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

You don't trade Paul Pierce if you're half-you-know-whatting it. You don't trade Kevin Garnett. You don't allow Doc Rivers to walk out on a deal that's still has ink drying. 

Rondo should be the next one to go because it's the logical conclusion to the rare NBA plan that makes sense. When the Celtics made the Garnett-Pierce deal, they inherited the expiring contract of Kris Humphries and a human eyesore that's also known as three years of Gerald Wallace. Humphries can play out the final year of his two-year, $24 million deal and walk.

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Wallace is on the book for $10.11 million for each of the next three seasons. It's a debilitating, untradeable contract that could only be moved if packaged with a host of assets—you know, like a Hershel Walker-size trove of draft picks. Or a player of Rajon Rondo's caliber. Assuming the Celtics want to rid themselves of Wallace—and ohdeargod, they do—then Rondo has to be the fall guy. No one is cutting those checks for Avery Bradley or Kelly Olynyk.

Then there's the whole inane argument that Rondo could be a franchise cornerstone to a rebuilding team. Rondo turns 28 in February. He's about 14 months younger than LeBron James and 19 months older than Kevin Durant. Should Boston return to contention within a semi-realistic window of three seasons, Rondo would be 31 by the time the playoffs began. Keep in mind, this is a player with a basketball IQ that rivals anyone but a jump shot that's shown only mediocre improvement over seven NBA seasons.

Do the Celtics really want to pay Rondo max-level money, when it's possible he's morphed into Andre Miller by the time they can compete? 

Rondo also isn't your typical building-block player. He's in the middle of his prime, not in his early prime. He plays the deepest position in the entire league, and he does so in a fashion that will probably age him out of superstardom a little earlier than most. 

The stark reality is that Rajon Rondo is one of the game's 15th- to 10th-best players when healthy. He's also, outside of the NBA Voltron in Miami, the league's most tantalizing and unique talent. He's a guy who you can absolutely win a championship with.

The peak of Rondo's NBA destiny, though, is as an elite second banana. He's not someone you can trust down the stretch of close games because of his free-throw deficiencies and week jumper; anyone who has watched Boston play over these past few years can tell many stories of Rondo ceding to Pierce in the final minutes of games. And while I'd never argue that the Celtics were better, the numbers show they scored at a better rate without him and showed negligible difference defensively.

With two cheap years remaining on his deal, Rondo is also a perfect candidate for the Deron Williams Corollary. Boston holds all the cards in trade negotiations and can hold on through February of 2015 looking for the perfect deal.

I understand the bluster. Trust me, I do. Ainge cannot go out and slap a "for sale" sign on Rondo's forehead—especially not when he's rehabbing from a knee injury—just as Rondo cannot go out and publicly bemoan the terrible roster in Boston and publicly request a trade. Both scenarios torpedo his trade value.

But the reality is that both sides are better off divorced. Keeping Rondo consigns this roster to the NBA's middle, where they're just good enough to win 35 games but nowhere near contention. In a season where everyone is piling on top of each other to win the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes, the middle is a death sentence.

No one in Boston can look Rondo in the eyes because they fear what will come next. But if they look past the initial ugliness and avoid half measures, what comes next could be the start of Ainge's latest franchise-altering caper. 

 

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