Sidelined since last January by a torn ACL, he appears to be approaching the final hurdle in this nearly 12-month road to recovery.
But what's up next for the enigmatic floor general? Will these be the first of many steps as the new face of this franchise, or is the four-time All-Star simply auditioning for potential trade partners?
If the Celtics play their cards right, it has to be the latter.
For a franchise so thin on talent, Rondo's the one player that can restock the shelves. He's been a gift to this organization, but his biggest value now is the trade package he can bring in return.
When president of basketball operations Danny Ainge turned the page this summer and sent longtime Celtics Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and coach Doc Rivers elsewhere, it was his brutally honest acceptance of reality.
Boston's championship window was shut, locked and boarded up. Quick-fix solutions were no longer an option. His roster needed the works, the Nerlens Noel treatment—a total rebuild.
Ainge is doing what he can to acquire the tools needed for a job of this magnitude. He just turned combo guard Jordan Crawford and volume scorer MarShon Brooks into a pair of future draft picks and reserve big man Joel Anthony in a three-team trade with the Miami Heat and Golden State Warriors, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.
But Ainge's cupboard is still littered with expired goods, weighty contracts and unproven commodities. The few upside pieces he holds haven't built enough trade value to justify sacrificing their potential.
Significant financial relief won't come before 2015. The young talent on this roster will need at least that long to start scratching its ceiling.
Even if Ainge continually guesses right—on draft night, the trade market and free agency—this is going to take some time. Time that the 27-year-old Rondo may not have, assuming he'd even have the patience to give it a try.
ESPN Insider Chad Ford (subscription required) said the combination of Ainge's limited resources and Rondo's question marks is too great for this franchise to overcome. Despite Ainge's insistence of the opposite, via boston.com, Ford said he's hearing Rondo is on the market and likely to be moved:
He turns 28 in February, has posed chemistry issues in the past and there is an increasing belief among NBA circles that GM Danny Ainge will use him, once healthy, to get multiple assets back. So the chances that he's the Celtics' cornerstone moving forward look slim.
Don't expect to hear any confirmation on Ainge's end. He needs to collect a king's ransom for his roster's lone piece of royalty. Publicly putting Rondo on the trade block would only drive down his value.
It would also put an unnecessary strain on Rondo's return.
Players can hear the trade chatter, but at least Ainge can avoid a mutiny by saying it's all coming from the outside. First-year Celtics coach Brad Stevens has passed all of his NBA tests so far, but why expose him to a fractured locker room and a disgruntled star?
Ainge needs Rondo to be comfortable, healthy and, most importantly, productive. He needs something sweet to sell to rival execs.
It isn't easy gauging Rondo's trade value.
His combination of length (6'9" wingspan), athleticism and court vision is the kind of blend that can only be called elite. He can't shoot (24.1 three-point percentage, 62.1 free-throw percentage), has never run much in his career and has still averaged better than 11 assists in each of his last three healthy seasons.
He rebounds, defends, hustles and even scores when needed. He's a jack-of-all-trades and a master of several.
And his on-court production has its limits.
He's spent the majority of his career surrounded by Hall of Fame talent. Some people are concerned about the effect that's had on his stat sheet.
Surely, all eyes will be on Rondo whenever he makes his return. He doesn't have nearly the same supporting cast as the one he left behind, and potential trade partners will want to see how he adjusts his game to these new pieces.
Ainge needs Rondo to look the part of transcendent talent early. As it is, the executive has a little over a month to find a worthwhile package before the Feb. 20 trade deadline.
Even with a short window, though, Ainge shouldn't feel rushed. He has quite the commodity to sell.
With an NBA title and multiple All-Star selections on his resume, Rondo is one of the league's better non-rookie-contract bargains. He's on the books for just under $11 million this season and set to make roughly $12.9 million in 2014-15. That gives him just the 47th most expensive contract this season, via Basketball-Reference.com, putting him just between teammate Kris Humphries ($12 million) and New York's Andrea Bargnani ($11.8 million).
That extra year of security should make buyers more comfortable with this dice roll. Teams would have the rest of this campaign plus all of next season to decide if Rondo should be a part of their future.
That extra protection might be the difference between someone balking at Ainge's ideal price and someone exceeding it.
End of an Era
Moving on is never easy, but what other choice does Ainge have?
This roster is years away from competing for anything of substance. What can Rondo do in the present other than lift this team from atrocious to mediocre?
The longer a healthy Rondo sticks around, the fewer ping-pong balls the Celtics will have in the draft lottery. The fewer chances they'll have to land their next cornerstone piece. Or two, or three.
Cutting ties with Rondo is going to bring some help. Maybe an impatient front office will part with a coveted 2014 lottery pick. Or someone will be willing to take Gerald Wallace and the two years, $20 million remaining on his contract after this season, leaving Ainge primed to strike in the stacked free-agency classes upcoming over the next few years.
The point is, Ainge will find something of value when he goes looking for it. Even during this supposed golden age of point guards, there isn't another player like Rondo around.
Ainge is holding the biggest trade card in a year when gambling will be rewarded. He just has to trust his own talents enough to play it.
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