Let the Rajon Rondo sweepstakes begin.
The Celtics are rebuilding, and that means nothing is off the table. Refusing to deal Rondo was just easier before, when he was injured. And it remained easy upon his return, when he was struggling.
Now it's not so easy.
Rondo is starting to play trademark Rondo basketball again, and with his improvement comes an influx of questions and doubts about his future—a future that may or may not include Boston.
There hasn't been anything particularly special about Rondo's return.
Through seven games, he's looked how you would expect someone who hasn't played in roughly a year to look: rusty and a step or two slow with flashes of promise sprinkled in.
But over the last few games, those glimpses of progress have become more of a perpetual stasis.
In his last three games, Rondo has looked, well, more like Rondo, averaging 13 points, 7.7 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals. Just as importantly, he's logging 28 minutes a night during this span, even eclipsing the 30-minute mark once.
Via NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.
With Rondo's numbers fast approaching his career marks, his trade value is steadily increasing, something we all considered inevitable—just not this quickly.
Much of his resurgence can be attributed to his more knee-friendly play style. Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook—two other star point guards who have fallen victim to knee injuries—rely heavily on their explosion; Rondo doesn't.
Although lateral quickness and the ability to weave in and out of the paint are vital to his effectiveness, his cuts aren't as sharp or abrupt. Where Rose and Westbrook are athletically inclined, Rondo is more crafty, cunning and deceitful, using intellect and vision above physical advantages.
Not concerned about Rondo regaining form. Unlike Rose/Westbrook, he's one of the players who could be effective while standing on one spot.— Adam Fromal (@fromal09) February 5, 2014
That's only part of it, though. Following any serious knee injury, you want to see players adjust and adapt. So much of Rondo's game has always been predicated on his ability to reach the rim and slice through defenses, and with those attacks come additional risks, no matter how explosive or graceful you are.
In Rondo's case, you want to see a reformed jump shot, something that proves he doesn't always need to abuse his quickness. And in the early stages of his return, he's done just that:
Three games is an incredibly small sample size, but it's the volume we're interested in. Since returning, more than 43 percent of his shot attempts have come between 10 and 24 feet, which, if it holds, would be the highest of his career:
|Season||% Shots Coming Between 10 and 24 Feet||FG%|
Seven games is a small sample size as well, and Rondo isn't shooting particularly well from this area, but it's a sign of change. And over the last three games, he's been money from that distance.
That's something we call deliberate change culminating in accelerated hope and uptick in trade value.
Motivation To Strike A Deal
Rondo isn't necessarily part of Boston's future.
Going on 28, he's hardly the perfect building bock for a team far away from contending. General manager Danny Ainge has outfitted Boston with plenty of draft picks and future financial flexibility, but it could still be years before the Celtics are legitimate championship threats.
ESPN's Chad Ford (subscription required) previously reported these same reasons would compel the Celtics to shop their star point guard:
All three of the teams ahead of them have at least one young player they can conceivably build around. The Celtics? Rajon Rondo could be that building block. But 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.
Boston did throw a wrench in that take, though, by offering Rondo a contract extension to no avail.
Financially, it makes sense for Rondo to wait until 2015, when he can become an unrestricted free agent and sign for more money and years. But according to the Boston Globe's Baxter Holmes, Rondo is also looking forward to having the freedom that comes with free agency.
"It’s kind of like college recruiting," Rondo said. "I’m pretty sure a lot more goes into it in the NBA. A lot more money is spent. I’ve heard stories, guys getting called right at midnight. It’s something that I haven’t experienced. I may want to go through it. I haven’t thought about it at all."
Harmless though that seems, it also gives Rondo an out. He will be 29 when he enters free agency, and if the Celtics aren't nearing contention, he could leave for a more promising situation. There will be no shortage of teams interested in his services if he's playing like he is now, after all.
Should Ainge and the Celtics have any doubts, moving Rondo now, when he's playing well, makes the most sense; waiting doesn't.
Losing him for nothing in 2015 would be a crushing blow. Knowing Ainge, he won't let that happen. He would be more likely to deal Rondo before next season's trade deadline. But waiting even that long is dangerous.
The list of teams willing to relinquish valuable assets in exchange for a player who could be a rental won't be long, forcing the Celtics to sell low on their most valuable asset. Trading him now puts the situation in a different perspective. Even if Rondo doesn't guarantee he'll re-sign with his new team (he won't), the destination in question has more than a season to sell him on its future, allowing Ainge to drum up any return he receives.
There's the matter of a potential regression, too.
What if Rondo's production plummets between now and next season? Or he aggravates his injury? The Celtics would then be stuck with an injury-prone point guard who they could have turned into draft picks and burgeoning prospects.
Don't overlook the financial benefits, either. Despite dealing Courtney Lee, the Celtics still have a few undesirable contracts on their books.
Gerald Wallace, who is owed more than $20.2 million over the next seasons, and Jeff Green, who is due $18.4 million through the next two years, are two names that spring to mind. Boston could package either (both?) of them with Rondo in exchange for contracts that expire in 2015 or this summer, freeing up even more cap space moving forward.
Combined with the fact Rondo remains a flight risk less than two years from now, there's clear value in dealing him now, when his stock is on the rise.
Will They or Won't They?
This is a tricky situation.
Calls continue to trickle in, but the Celtics appear intent on waiting, in hopes of at least upping opposing teams' antes.
Ainge on Rondo: "Yeah [I'm getting calls], but I think everybody's sort of fishing right now. I don't think they're anticipating anything."— Ben Rohrbach (@brohrbach) January 30, 2014
Ainge says teams are hoping to land Rondo at a bargain. Certainly didn't rule out dealing him. "I don't think there's anything serious yet."— Ben Rohrbach (@brohrbach) January 30, 2014
Rondo's recent improvement changes things—a lot of things. Waiting is now a bigger risk.
Teams wanted Rondo at a bargain for a number of reasons. Chief among them had to be the question marks surrounding his play. With him rapidly answering those questions with gobs of dimes, encouraging shooting and rising defense, conning Ainge into flipping Rondo for minimal gain is impossible.
It was always impossible.
Now, at least, Ainge can rebuff embarrassing offers with confidence, knowing interested parties should offer more. Ergo, the Celtics should only trade Rondo for a specific return. If they aren't going to get it, then don't move him.
#Celtics won’t trade Rajon Rondo unless: 1) Package is comparable to KG-Pierce deal (nope). 2) Package nets legit superstar (nope). So…nope.— Ethan Norof (@Mr_Norof) February 4, 2014
But if those offers start maturing into palatable returns, then they must consider striking a deal, because there's nowhere to go but down after the Feb. 20 trade deadline.
Rondo's production could improve—scratch that, it will improve. Time isn't on Boston's side, though. As Rondo's numerical value climbs, his contractual value decreases.
Should Celtics explore trading Rondo this season?
Offers will be even less impressive if the Celtics wait. It doesn't matter if Ainge shops him this summer or the middle of next season, waiting changes things for the worse just as much as Rondo's return to form changes proposals for the better now.
"I think that Rondo will demand quite a bit in the open market," Ainge said of Rondo's free agency, per ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg. "The competition for Rondo in free agency will be very high."
High enough that Rondo could leave the Celtics for nothing.
By next season, or this summer, the Celtics will be desperate, electing to trade Rondo because they know he's a flight risk. Currently, they're in a position of power. They have control. They have all the leverage—leverage that should at least be explored now before it dissipates into nothing later.