Forget about taking things one step at a time. In the span of a week, Rajon Rondo returned from a year's worth of recovery only to find himself the subject of subsequently refuted trade rumors.
It sounds like a familiar story, and part of it is. Ever since the Boston Celtics of yesteryear got older, Danny Ainge's rebuilding strategy has implicated a potential deal for Rondo. Even before the rebuild turned to trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, it was abundantly obvious trades would be coming one way or the other.
Trading Rondo isn't a good idea, but it's a persistent one.
And nobody believes Celtics head honcho Danny Ainge will hold onto point guard Rajon Rondo, who just returned after recovering from ACL surgery, at all costs.
The Pistons have always been enamored with Rondo, the ultimate facilitator and competitor. And though Detroit has Brandon Jennings, he’s not necessarily viewed as a long-term option at point guard.
The floodgates—never quite shut all the way—are officially open again—at least partially.
Whether Ainge is willing to keep Rondo "at all costs," there's an emerging consensus he'll hold on to him for now.
The Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett thinks the two sides "have until the middle of next season to prove things to the other." He argues that, "The C’s must show they will be good soon enough so Rondo wants to stay when he becomes a free agent in 2015, and Rondo must show he is a worthy cornerstone."
It sounds more and more like with Rajon Rondo’s return and a ceremonial bestowing of captaincy the Celtics plan to keep Rondo and try to get him to extend. It makes sense given the importance of point guards. More executives think the Celtics want to trade Jeff Green. They’re probably trying to persuade someone to take Gerald Wallace along with Green, though many figure they’ll eventually move Green.
Regardless of what Boston's front office is actually thinking, there's no shortage of opinions about what it should be thinking. Maybe Ainge should finish what he started. Gone are the remnants of the Celtics' championship days, and there's no telling when their replacements are coming along.
Moreover, Rondo would return the kind of assets that every rebuild needs: premium draft picks and young talent. Whereas Pierce and Garnett were firmly entrenched in the sunsets of their careers, Rondo is still in his prime.
He also has just one more season worth just under $13 million on his contract. That makes him affordable by All-Star standards, and it means a would-be contender could secure his services for an entire season (including, potentially, the remainder of this season and offseason thereafter). In other words, Rondo is an attractive short-term investment.
Unfortunately for all the dreamers out there, he's an even more attractive long-term investment for the Celtics themselves.
Bleacher Report's Howard Beck explains why in a nutshell:
This entire rebuilding exercise—the stockpiling of draft picks, the payroll clearing—is aimed at acquiring or luring a franchise star, someone capable of lifting the Celtics back into title contention as soon as possible. Someone mentally tough, dedicated at both ends of the court and committed to making his teammates better. In other words, the Celtics would be looking for someone a lot like Rondo, who at 27 is still in his prime and ranks among the top point guards in the league.
Ordinarily, of course, rebuilds aim to acquire players who are younger than 27—even if it means taking them before they reach their primes. The point is to aggregate affordable, emerging players who can develop their skills within a team's particular system.
Ideally those players have the opportunity to grow with one another and discover their primes more or less simultaneously (the Oklahoma City Thunder are a prime example of a rebuild gone right).
But Beck is correct in large part because Rondo isn't your typical 27-year-old. Whereas you might be worried about a point guard turning 30 and losing some foot speed, athleticism has never been the cornerstone of Rondo's game. He should remain successful well into his 30s, not unlike Jason Kidd or Steve Nash.
Just like Kidd or Nash, there's no reason Rondo shouldn't adopt the informal role of player-coach as he ages.
Good as Rondo's been, his best may be ahead. His leadership abilities are still developing. Much as Doc Rivers might have talked about Rondo being the team's leader, it's hard to emerge from Hall of Fame shadows.
Additionally, Rondo's on-court success is premised on an elite understanding of the game (and everyone else actually executing). He's a patient distributor, willing and able to let plays develop and make timely passes. You don't need top-shelf speed or amazing hops to play that role to perfection.
If there's been a noteworthy deficiency to Rondo's game, it's been his outside shooting. He's never made more than 31 percent of his three-point attempts in a season, and that was in 2008-09. After eight seasons struggling from beyond 18 feet, improvement may seem unlikely.
But it's certainly not impossible nor would his improvement need to be dramatic as the C's don't need Rondo to become a marksman. They need a reliable spot-up shooter who can keep the floor spaced, a tool that would make Rondo significantly more dangerous.
So maybe Rondo gets better as he gets wiser. Maybe he doesn't. Either way, he's an ideal player to build around, one of those rare force multipliers who makes everyone around him better in some weirdly synergistic way. The Celtics will need that if they're to avert an ugly, protracted rebuilding process—they need someone who makes an average roster play above-average ball.
From a business perspective, Rondo is about more than good basketball. He's also about continuity, someone the fans recognize and someone who can link Boston's championship past to its uncertain future.
There's something to be said for a soft rebuild that maintains some degree of dignity in a time of flux. The Celtics can do that with Rondo and probably can't without him.
But Boston doesn't want to be a middling, eighth seed every year either. The risk with keeping Rondo around is that the team may not bottom-out enough to collect elite talent through the draft—not just this season but in future seasons. You could argue he'll make this team just good enough to remain bad.
Business considerations (e.g. making the playoffs) aside, the problem with that argument is that it assumes every bad team can do what Oklahoma City did. It forgets about perennially bad teams that have been rebuilding for years or skipping from one rebuild to the next. Someone as talented as Rondo offers hope of avoiding that cycle.
Besides, smart point guards are a rare and valuable commodity in the NBA. The chances Boston would land another one of Rondo's caliber through even the best of drafts are somewhat slim.
Ainge has to make this roster better without getting rid of its best young player, and that can be done. The turnaround won't be immediate, but its chances of happening in under five years are better with Rondo around.
Finally, even if Boston does trade Rondo, it makes sense to wait. His value isn't exceptionally high right now, and it probably won't be until he proves something this season. He then becomes a rental unless Boston signs him to an extension first. Once locked up under a long-term contract, Rondo's value may be considerably higher—even if he's a year or two older.
No one in the Celtics corner feels like sitting tight at the moment, but that may be the best one can hope for. Getting someone to take Gerald Wallace's contract won't be easy, and it's unclear if trading away Jeff Green would actually make this club better anytime soon. A lot could change between now and the trade deadline, but that change shouldn't and won't involve Rondo.
His unfinished business is Boston's gain.