Is the mercurial point guard better as a cornerstone piece of their rebuilding project or as a trade chip flipped for future assets?
Neither path comes free of question marks. Both options leave Boston likely looking at a lengthy road to recovery.
The decision ultimately rests with Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, but Rondo could have the loudest voice in the room. Not with his words, but through his actions as the unquestioned face of his franchise.
Guiding a club is about more than just having a jersey adorned with a captain's crest.
It's establishing a set of standards for teammates to follow. It's piloting a ship through turbulent times. It's convincing everyone that the sky isn't falling, even when they all can see it crashing down around them:
#Celtics Avery Bradley cited influence of "our leader (Rajon) Rondo" for keeping team positive during recent downturn ... So there's that.— Scott Souza (@scott_souza) January 4, 2014
Unrest is unavoidable in a rebuild. If a franchise has shifted its focus to the future, that's because the present is somewhere between poor and putrid.
The Celtics are in dire need of talent.
Boston (23-46) is assured of having its first losing season since 2006-07. The Celtics are atrocious at the offensive end (98.9 points per 100 possessions, 29th in the league) and mediocre on the opposite side (103.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, 14th).
"The proof is in the pudding," coach Brad Stevens said earlier this season, via Jay King of MassLive.com. "Whatever we are record-wise, we’re not a very good basketball team. ... It’s not a knock on anybody. It’s just where it is. It’s where we are right now."
That's left the roster facing a difficult dynamic. It's forced Rondo to attempt to rally the troops who almost certainly won't be a part of Boston's future battles.
Everybody is not going to buy in, because all they hear is that they’re all getting traded because they’re in the middle of a rebuild," former Celtics coach Doc Rivers told Rondo, via Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe. “So you’re going to go in there and talk about, ‘Hey, let’s buy in as a team,’ and half of them are going to say, ‘I’m not even going to be on this team.’
Rondo himself may not even be a permanent piece in Ainge's plan. Trade rumors swirled around the 28-year-old at the deadline, but the executive opted to keep his enigmatic point guard around. For now, at least.
Even amid the uncertainty, Rondo hasn't let his game—or his leadership—be affected:
Ainge: "KG wants him on his side, Gerald Wallace wants him on his side. Every guy -- Sullinger, those guys will go to war w/ Rondo anytime."— Jay King (@ByJayKing) March 5, 2014
"He’s the type of teammate that everybody would want — that everybody should want," Celtics forward Gerald Wallace said, per Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald (via MassLive.com). "He cares about losing. It hurts him to lose."
But that passion for his profession is something that can't be taught.
"Everything I tell guys or any advice I give is for the betterment of them and the team," Rondo said, via Holmes. "I don’t benefit from it — well, maybe from getting an assist — but I want them to be in the right rotation defensively. I want us to all be on the same page. And then when we win, we all win."
Rondo is still less than 15 months removed from the torn ACL that ended his 2012-13 campaign. He needs a full offseason of training and rest to get his legs back under him.
Yet, the talent is unavoidable. The production, while understandably spotty, is still some of the finest in the business.
He has appeared in 12 games since the All-Star break. He's tossed out double-digit assists in eight of those contests, dropping 14-plus dimes three different times during the stretch.
He's compiling All-NBA assist totals with a single 15-point scorer (Jeff Green, 17.1) at his disposal.
He makes the players around him better. That's the definition of a superstar—the very type of player most rebuilding teams are looking to land.
The Celtics already have one, who just so happens to be in the prime of his career. One who just might stay within that prime longer than most of his elite-level peers.
"Rondo's game is fundamentally premised on virtually unmatched basketball IQ, the kind of thing that ages like fine wine," Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb wrote.
You build around someone like Rondo. You don't try to tackle the construction plan without him.
With a physical game that just might stay young forever and a mental approach wise beyond his years, he's more than ready for the job at hand.
Ainge's franchise-defining decision has already been made. Rondo has made sure of that.