Rajon Rondo is the best, most significant player on the Boston Celtics roster. He's been out all season rehabbing a torn ACL suffered 11 months ago, but his return to the floor is on the horizon, and if it happens before the trade deadline the impact it will have on Boston's personnel could be huge.
Rondo is a four-time All-Star and a franchise player who has the ball in his hands a ton and plays with a style that changes the way teammates approach their roles. Rondo influences the game more than most when he’s on the court, and those who run beside him will be forced to adapt. When he returns to action, the Celtics will be a very different team, regardless of whether they make any trades.
But it's likely Danny Ainge initiates some discussion once his star point guard returns because the team will have excess talent.
In Rondo's absence, other Celtics have developed much quicker than expected, boosting their trade value and allowing Ainge flexibility to make deals knowing Boston won't get significantly worse. Tanking was never the primary goal, and with the playoffs in sight it makes little sense for Boston to change course now.
The primary trade chip is, unsurprisingly, current starting point guard Jordan Crawford. A free agent come the summer, Crawford is having the best season of his four-year career, averaging 16.2 points and 6.5 assists per 36 minutes, with a 17.3 PER and 54.6 true shooting percentage (both figures are far above his career average).
When Rondo returns, Boston will have Crawford, Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee, Phil Pressey, MarShon Brooks and Keith Bogans in its backcourt. That's seven guards in a rotation that will barely have enough time for four. Brooks and Bogans appear destined to sit on the bench until someone in front of them gets hurt.
That leaves one odd man out. Pressey is signed to a three-year, fully non-guaranteed minimum deal, and for an undrafted rookie, he's done a commendable job running the second unit. He's more valuable to the Celtics as a player than a trade asset.
Bradley is 23 years old and improving by the day. He's a restricted free agent this summer, but Boston will look to re-sign him and have the right to match any offers. Before then, they won't move him unless a star or 2014 lottery pick is coming back in the deal, and neither is happening.
Including this season, Lee is guaranteed $16.35 million through 2016. He's overpaid but brings extra value beside Rondo as a spot-up shooter and above-average on-ball defender. He's also leading the Celtics in effective field-goal percentage at a glittering 56.9 percent. Regardless, trading Lee will be very difficult given the length of his contract.
And that's how we land at Crawford, Boston's most reasonable trade chip, who just so happens to be keeping Rondo's seat warm.
When Rondo returns, he'll once again be the team's starting point guard. Crawford isn't a quality defender and needs the ball in his hands on offense—an ungodly 81.8 percent of all his made field goals (NBA.com/stats login required) this season have been unassisted—which means pairing him beside Rondo won't work.
A trade here seems inevitable, and the Celtics would be more than happy receiving a protected future first-round pick in return.
Rondo’s appearance could also make Ainge consider upgrading things sooner than later. When reports broke out in mid-December about Boston's interest in Houston Rockets center Omer Asik, such as this note from Yahoo! Sports' Marc Spears, the timing surprised those who expected the Celtics to take things slow.
Acquiring an expensive center scheduled to hit free agency in two seasons isn't taking it slow, and it certainly isn't the blueprint a rebuilding team should have. But Asik would fill Boston's dire need for rim protection, and in the porous Eastern Conference, a playoff round could be won this season with a Rondo-Asik-Bradley-Jared Sullinger-Jeff Green starting lineup.
One other option on Ainge's table could be shopping Gerald Wallace and his thought-to-be-untradable contract by attaching it to one of Boston's two 2014 first-round picks. Any team looking to get into this year's draft would have to stomach the $20.2 million Wallace is owed next season and the year after—something a rebuilding team with cap space may be willing to do.
In exchange, the Celtics could bring in more immediate talent. Wallace's 9.0 PER and grotesque 32.2 percent turnover rate (twice what it was last year!) isn't exactly helping them win games.
Boston's current stance as a possible playoff team without Rondo puts it in an interesting position upon his return. They'll be better with him on the court, but does Ainge want to expedite the rebuild by cashing out on future assets while Rondo is in his prime?
It all depends on when he returns, how he looks and how the team responds to playing beside such a forceful basketball persona. If everything checks out, the Celtics will be one of the most active teams heading up to the trade deadline.
All salary related information from this article can be found at ShamSports.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.