Collateral damage is a staple of every NBA rebuild, something the Celtics and their fans understand after Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce were shipped to the Brooklyn Nets last summer. Five years removed from their 2008 championship, it was time to start anew, to restructure and retool, to build a new, modern-day title contender from the ground up.
Through it all, Rondo's status has been uncertain. And it remains uncertain. Is he the superstar around whom the Celtics will assemble their next contender, or will his ties to the team, much like Pierce's and Garnett's, become a casualty of organization and player moving in two different directions?
When in doubt, go with the latter. As the Boston Herald's Steve Bulpett reminded us, we continue to hear "Rondo may be more available now than ever before," an ominous string of repetitive chatter that, despite the most earnest denials, makes too much sense to be considered completely engineered babble that is not at all true.
Peculiar Fit, Odd Happenings
There's still this tendency to think of Rondo as a flowering prospect who has yet to reach his potential, which is unusual for a 28-year-old with three All-Star appearances (four selections) already on his resume. But it's nonetheless true in Rondo's case.
Most of his career was spent in the shadows of Pierce and Garnett. They were Boston's leaders, the Celtics' emotional and statistical windfalls. As they aged and Rondo developed, that didn't change. They were, at their lowest point, still his safety net.
The point guard still hasn't shown he can anchor the Celtics on his own, as their primary superstar, without Pierce and Garnett. He only appeared in 30 games this season courtesy of his ACL injury, a small, underwhelming sample size that did little to quell questions surrounding his ability to lead.
And there are still questions.
“I’m not concerned about that. I mean, it is what it is," general manager Danny Ainge told Bulpett. "I think there’s a lot of great players that aren’t great leaders. But Rajon’s getting better.”
This is new territory for Rondo. Maturity-wise, he's not where he needs to be. That's not an insult; it's a fact. It was true before Garnett and Pierce left, it was true this season when Rondo missed a trip to Sacramento without permission and it's true now.
Let's assume the Celtics are willing to overlook all that, though, which isn't unreasonable. They're a young team that needs to grow. They have time for their not-so-young cornerstone to grow with them.
Rondo isn't a kid. He isn't a prospect. He's 28 and barreling toward free agency next summer. The Celtics will still be rebuilding by then; Rondo will be 29 then. Should a point guard closing in on 30 with a history of knee issues really be the centerpiece of a rebuilding team? Will a floor general closing in on 30 even be interested in remaining with a non-contender?
Consider what CBS Sports' Ken Berger wrote in January:
If Rondo is going to stay, he must be willing to endure some pain first. He must be willing to tolerate losing, which is something he does not accept willingly. He also must understand that the team around him is going to change again -- dramatically, and he would hope, for the better. Gerald Wallace and Brandon Bass are clogging up the Celtics' cap room.
On more than one occasion, as Berger also notes, Rondo has indicated he can withstand the losing, turnover and revolving uncertainty. Not once has he sounded like someone who wants to leave. But that guarantees nothing. Things change when players hit the open market, and Rondo is going to reach free agency.
Signing an extension before next summer doesn't benefit him. The collective bargaining agreement makes it so he stands to make more money by inking a new deal in free agency. All the loyalty in the world won't stop him from looking, from seeing what else is out there.
He can't say he'll re-sign in Boston with absolute certainty. Nor can Ainge. Guesswork continues to be involved. At some point, if the Celtics don't get that promise—the promise they're not going to get—moving him is something they have to entertain.
It's something they have entertained.
Ahead of the 2014 trade deadline, Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears said Rondo nixed a deal that would have sent him to the Sacramento Kings, so it's not as if he's been untouchable. He's never been untouchable.
If the Celtics were truly confident in a future headlined by Rondo or 100 percent sure he plans to re-sign, those talks wouldn't happen. The fact that the Celtics had him appraised says a lot.
The Oklahoma City Thunder wouldn't gauge Kevin Durant's value if they didn't have to. The Los Angeles Clippers wouldn't consider offers for Chris Paul. The Golden State Warriors wouldn't actively take phone calls about Stephen Curry.
Something is off here.
Draft-day drama is on the way.
Interest in Australian draft prospect Dante Exum only complicates matters between Rondo and the Celtics:
Exum plays point guard. Standing at 6'6", the belief is he can play alongside another point guard, stepping in as something of a combo guard who can man the 1 and 2. But while at the draft combine, he said his preference was to play point guard, according to MassLive.com's Jay King.
Then there's his jump shot. "The book on Exum is that he can create shots and has great athleticism, there’s a lot of potential, but his jump shot needs considerable work," Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin wrote. "He’s a bit of a project."
Eight years into his NBA career, Rondo's jumper remains a project. Flashes of accurate shooting surface from time to time, but he continues to have limited range. We're supposed to believe the Celtics will build their backcourt of the future around two ball-dominant point guards who can't shoot? Good stuff.
There are, of course, exceptions.
One exception, really.
His name is Kevin Love.
Per Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the Celtics are emerging as aggressive suitors for Love, who has reportedly let the Minnesota Timberwolves know he has no plans to play for them beyond next season:
The Boston Celtics have emerged as an increasingly intriguing destination for Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star forward Kevin Love, and the Celtics' draft position coming out of Tuesday night's lottery could be telltale in determining the feasibility of a trade, league sources told Yahoo Sports.
If the lottery percentages hold to form, Boston would draft in the No. 5 slot, which could hold appeal to Minnesota in this talent-rich draft. If Boston moves up and cracks one of the top three spots, general manager Danny Ainge would have a more difficult decision to make on using the pick in a deal for Love.
Trading for Love changes everything. Rondo's future in Boston looks a whole lot brighter—for both the Celtics and himself—if another superstar is brought in. The Celtics would become instant contenders, their seemingly lengthy rebuild nearly complete ahead of schedule.
But if they whiff on Love, or—more tellingly—if they decide against dealing their top pick for him, there's a whole different set of conclusions to be drawn.
Retaining the pick reiterates the Celtics' plan to wait. Remember, it was Ainge who downplayed the talent of this year's draft class.
"If Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was out there to change your franchise forever, or Tim Duncan was going to change your franchise for 15 years? That might be a different story," Ainge told Sports Illustrated's Ian Thomsen. "I don't see that player out there."
Sounds like a guy who would be willing to deal his top pick for an actual, franchise-changing star who would help him keep his current star—unless the Celtics aren't as seriously invested in their point guard as some thought.
Look, the Celtics won't give Rondo away. That's not what we're saying.
Dealing him is the next logical step in Boston's rebuild if they're not going to speed up the process. But that doesn't mean he can be had a discount. Like CSNNE.com's A. Sherrod Blakely pointed out in February, it's going to take a ridiculously enticing deal to get him out of Boston:
It's going to have to be a Brooklyn Nets-type of deal, one that is just too irresistible to pass up. It's going to have to be better than that deal. It's going to have to include some type of young, talented up-and-coming player, probably is going to have to involve multiple first round picks, they're probably going to have to be unprotected, it has to be one of those deals that Danny Ainge looks at and says, 'There's no way I can turn this deal down.'
Don't buy into all the hype. Even those who expect the Celtics to deal Rondo—like myself—can see the hilarity in certain reports. Stephen A. Smith of ESPN New York caused quite a stir when he revealed that Carmelo Anthony knew the New York Knicks "snubbed a trade that would've brought Rajon Rondo to New York."
Imagine a combination of players the Celtics wanted that the Knicks were unwilling to trade. It's difficult, nigh impossible.
"People don’t know that, so it’s just people speculating on Rondo’s free agency next summer," Ainge told Bulpett of Smith's report. "That’s all that you’re hearing. You’re not hearing any facts from anybody. Those conversations haven’t even been discussed, so that’s just speculation.”
As is everything here. This is all conjecture.
The difference between last season and now is urgency. The Celtics don't have another year to fall back on. They have this season, until the February trade deadline, to make a decision.
Do they keep Rondo, fastening their future to a point guard who may or may not be worth building around, who may or may not re-sign? Or do they trade him, decidedly delving deeper into their forward-looking rebuild that has continuously emphasized tomorrow over today?
"I don't put too much on the future," Rondo said in January, per Berger.
Ainge does, because the Celtics must, and the future they're positioning for looks to be one that Rondo and the team will inevitably realize doesn't include him, if they haven't already.