The Boston Celtics are in a quandary.
Their asset column features one name, Rajon Rondo, surrounded by a number of question marks.
Moving Rondo, a four-time All-Star and two-time assists leader, would be the easiest way to replenish their resources. A transcendent talent like him can make a franchise cough up draft picks, part with prospects, eat bad salary or any combination of the three.
If the Celtics want pieces for their rebuilding project, a Rondo deal would be the quickest, most lucrative way to add them.
There's only one problem—no one would be better equipped to lead those pieces than Rondo himself.
Forming a supporting cast is key, but people aren't watching the Channel 4 Evening News without Ron Burgundy being there to anchor the broadcast. Boston's engine needs work, but what if it loses its driver in the process?
Of course, what good is a championship-caliber driver when the motor is shot? There are two sides to this tricky situation, neither of which lends itself toward a rapid rebuild for the Celtics.
The Celtics could choose to build something substantial around him, and if they did, they'd have a player so uniquely skilled that it's hard to properly find his position in the NBA hierarchy.
If you freed your mind of all preconceived notions, someone could probably talk you into plugging Rondo into your top 10 while another could convince you he's not worthy of a top-25 spot. His supporters say he elevates the play of his teammates; his critics call him over-reliant on the players around him.
This is about the extent of what we know—there is only one Rajon Rondo.
On the floor, two things immediately jump out of his game film: disruptive length and court vision.
Put a roster willing to defend and capable of scoring with consistency around him, and you're following the championship blueprint.
Over Rondo's first seven seasons, the Celtics had five top-five finishes in defensive efficiency. Four of those seasons ended with Boston sitting inside the top two, twice pacing the entire NBA (2007-08 and 2011-12).
One man cannot set a defensive tone by himself, though. Boston is in dire need of more defensive-minded players and whatever rim protection it can find.
When Brandon Bass (1.0 blocks per game) and Kris Humphries (0.9) are as intimidating as a defense gets, the lane becomes a runway with all opponents cleared for takeoff.
First-year coach Brad Stevens places an emphasis on the defensive end, and Rondo is better physically equipped to thrive at that end than anyone at the point guard spot. There are logical reasons supporting making this pair the co-faces of the retooling franchise.
If Rondo is going to be around for good, then the Celtics need to find more players who complement his game.
This roster is short on shooters and slashers. Rondo can set the table, but he can't force anyone to eat. As Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge gets deeper into the design of his architectural plans, he has to plug in more players capable of converting clean offensive chances:
The executive will be getting more tools for his turnaround shortly.
Between Humphries ($12 million) and Jerryd Bayless ($3.1 million), the Celtics will be shedding more than $15 million off their books this summer, via ShamSports.com. Boston could also be holding as many as five first-round picks over the next two drafts combined.
This team has plenty of holes to fill but several different avenues to bolster strengths and shore up weaknesses.
That's assuming, of course, that Ainge sticks to his vision of Rondo as a centerpiece. While he publicly quieted trade talks around his point guard and ultimately held onto him through the deadline, insiders say Rondo was in fact available at a premium price:
"The Celtics put Rondo out there, per several league sources," Grantland's Zach Lower wrote, "but they did so quietly and in a targeted fashion, and demanded a very large return."
In other words, Ainge played this perfectly.
With Rondo's expected venture into an unrestricted free-agent market in 2015, Ainge had to keep his options open. There's a cloud of uncertainty hanging over his floor general, so he needed to at least check if a no-brainer offer was available.
Nothing less would be worth his time. Teams don't typically improve by moving a superstar, so Ainge has to ask for a king's ransom in return for the superstar on his roster.
The trade window hasn't closed for Rondo. His value, if effected at all, will only increase by Ainge's public protection of him, even if something doesn't smell right about this partnership from the outside, as ESPN.com's Jack Hamilton noted:
Ainge keeps reassuring that Rondo is the future, but the longer you tentatively hold that pill in your mouth the harder it becomes to swallow, and years of Ainge snuffing out trade rumor flare-ups while pointedly never entirely extinguishing the blaze has made him hard to trust.
This situation isn't so simple.
The 28-year-old Rondo is still in the prime of his career. Given his All-Star status, he's working on one of the most financially friendly deals in the league ($11.9 million this season, $12.9 million for 2014-15). He plays a leadership position and works to improve the overall play of the team.
If you're keeping score on the franchise centerpiece checklist, there isn't a blank box in the group.
I'm not convinced Ainge could find anything better on the trade market than what he has with Rondo now.
That could change if Rondo has visions of a max-contract raise in his future. For as talented as he is, he clearly needs other serviceable pieces around him. There has to be money left in Boston's bank to bring those players on board.
If Ainge can find a middle ground that respects Rondo's talent but doesn't handcuff the franchise, then the foundation for this reclamation project should be officially in place.
The Celtics might be sitting between a rock and a hard place, but they have two of the game's greatest guides in Ainge and Rondo to lead them out of this mess.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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