The February trade deadline is fast approaching and as it draws near, the Boston Celtics might finally have to make a critical, franchise-altering decision: whether to fish or cut bait with Rajon Rondo.
The point guard has been inconsistent in his return, averaging 9.1 points and 7.4 assists while struggling mightily (even for him) as a shooter. Those ups and downs aren't unexpected for Rondo, who's still feeling his way through his first game action since a torn ACL shelved him last year.
While Rondo was out, Celtics president Danny Ainge stripped the team of most of its veterans, recent history and identity. It was a painful process, but one undertaken in an effort to accelerate a Boston rebuild.
The Celtics now have a highly regarded, highly intelligent coach in Brad Stevens who already looks like a long-term organizational pillar; the books will tidy up over the next couple of years and a pair of lottery picks in the 2014 draft (thanks, Brooklyn!) should hasten reconstruction.
But is the final step in what's been an efficient rebuilding process going to be another painful one? Will the Celtics really complete the transition between eras by trading the most significant remaining piece from the last one? And more importantly for our purposes, should they?
Rondo keeps popping up in trade rumors because he's probably more valuable to a team in contention than he is to the Celtics. Boston is another year or two away from completing its rebuild and Rondo is an All-Star with a championship ring. That's an odd match.
Unless Boston legitimately views him as a guy they want around to groom younger players and/or teach the lessons of winning to an inexperienced locker room (and maybe it does; more on that later), Rondo might not belong on this team.
Remember, Rondo is an aloof, introverted guy. He's never profiled as the sage elder statesman and it's difficult to imagine him embracing that role in the future.
Plus, he'll collect $13 million next year. If the Celtics could move him for an expiring contract this season, they could get their cap figure down toward the level where they could make a max offer to a free agent. We're about 19 levels too deep into hypothetical territory at this point, but it's worth mentioning the options a Rondo trade might create.
And Ainge loves him some options.
More practically, the Celtics might also believe Rondo simply isn't good enough to use as a foundational piece going forward. He's got a track record of success, is a terrific passer, a good defender and has shown the ability to step up in key games (see: 44 points in a postseason contest against the Miami Heat in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals).
The credentials are tough to ignore.
But there's also justifiable concern that Rondo's best days are already behind him. The knee injury is a factor worth considering, but the overall situation in Boston also warrants study.
Perhaps Rondo benefited from an ideal situation in the past. He came up in an organization that needed him to be little more than the fourth option for most of his early career. And even though he assumed more responsibility as he aged, Rondo still operated in a system with veteran safety blankets like Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
It's hard to know how he'll perform as "the man."
Perhaps the Celtics believe they've gotten all they can from Rondo as a player and now want to wring the final drops of value out of him as a trade asset. The problem is, Boston almost certainly can't get a fair return for him in a trade.
Building with Rondo
Teams aren't lining up to offer expiring contracts or younger, cheaper talent for Rondo. Instead, we're seeing ridiculous, largely unfounded proposals and rumors—like the one saying the New York Knicks would like to trade Amar'e Stoudemire to Boston in exchange for the point guard, per Sam Amick of USA Today:
Despite the consistent claims from Celtics general manager Danny Ainge that Rondo isn't available, the Knicks have a strong belief that he can be had if—in a nod to another show—the price is right. They can offer the likes of Amar'e Stoudemire (one season remaining after this one, at $23.4 million) while taking future money back (such as Gerald Wallace and/or Jeff Green) and helping Ainge clear the way for the summer of 2015 that is known to be a priority of his.
Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News also tossed out a handful of possible destinations without any substantive details of a workable deal:
Rondo probably isn’t going to accept a role in a rebuilding situation with a rookie coach, Brad Stevens, so look for Ainge to try to move him to the West, with Phoenix and Houston seen as two potential destinations. Dallas has always had interest in the four-time All-Star, who blew out his right knee last January, but Mark Cuban doesn’t have the assets to make it work.
There's no sense in Boston moving Rondo now unless it can get back a first-rounder or a potential star. No such offer has arisen yet and unless things change drastically between now and the trade deadline, one probably never will.
That's fine, because the Celtics can use other guys—like Jeff Green, Gerald Wallace and the expiring Kris Humphries—to either trim salary or make bigger, riskier moves. None of those players are integral to the team's future and all of them make at least $9 million this season.
Nobody is going to kick down the door to offer a lottery pick for those guys, but they're all more feasible trade candidates than Rondo.
It's always dangerous to put stock in what Ainge says, as he's notorious for misdirection when it comes to the Celtics' actual intentions. But when the logic behind a potential Rondo trade doesn't really compute, it's easier to believe him when he says Rondo is staying put.
Especially when he's been saying it since way back in November, per Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe:
People know that Rondo is a big part of our future and that we're not going to trade him. ...Guys that are starting All-Star players just don't come around. The special players, the transcendent players in our league, are very difficult to find and acquire. We believe Rondo is one of those guys. He's a very special player. We value him a great deal.
Perhaps anticipating the speculation he expected to see at the deadline, Ainge added: "What's real is, he's going nowhere. That's what's real."
Plus, for all of Rondo's quirks, he's the kind of player potential free agents should want to play with. He's the ultimate pass-first facilitator and might be an attractive playing partner to some of the young talent the Celtics hope to snare.
And he's only under contract through next year. So if it turns out Rondo isn't capable of being a centerpiece, the Celtics can try to deal him down the line. There's no urgency to make a move now.
In the end, Rondo isn't a perfect player. But he's on a reasonable deal, is still young enough to improve and might even have another level of development left when he gets a crack at the role of "unquestioned leader."
The Celtics can't get a dollar-for-dollar return in any deal, and they have enough flexibility and assets to improve the roster through other avenues. Maybe Rondo isn't an ideal building block, but he's the best one Boston has at the moment.
Until he proves unfit for the task, the sensible move is to construct a roster around him.