Are the Boston Celtics quietly embarking on a championship chase that no one from the outside can see?
Then—and only then—would the drafting of point guard Marcus Smart impact the future of point guard Rajon Rondo. If this was, say, a 52-win team instead of a 25-win one, the Celtics might have to be concerned with the apparently overlapping skill sets.
But this isn't a burgeoning contender. It's a group that finished the 2013-14 campaign 13 games out of a playoff dance that didn't even require a winning record to attend.
Things are bad in Boston right now, and shipping out the team's most talented player wouldn't change that.
Rondo is the most important piece of the Celtics' rebuilding puzzle. The 28-year-old has an elite set of skills, starting with telescopic court vision, disruptive length and some of the most massive mitts in the business.
As talented as he is, the market for his services is hard to gauge. He's played just 68 games over the past two seasons, losing a majority of that time to the torn ACL he suffered in January 2013.
He has 30 games under his belt since that injury, but Celtics fans—and any potential trade partners—are still waiting for the real Rondo to return.
The 47.5 percent career shooter hit only 40.3 of his field goals this past season. Despite the departures of longtime teammates Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce last summer, Rondo didn't take on a bigger chunk of the scoring (11.7 points per game, 13.7 the season prior).
The four-time All-Star just looked a little off, and trade partners need to see him back at his best before they'll pay a premium to acquire him, as one general manager told Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald:
You’re not going to get a bidding war over Rondo. He’s a great player, and teams have interest in him, but they’re not going to rearrange their world to make a run at him like they would for some people.
Now, if he comes back next season and takes another step forward after the surgery, that could change things.
Regardless which direction the Celtics went on draft night, there wasn't going to be one that increased the motivation to move Rondo. Whether president of basketball operations Danny Ainge takes a long-term or short-term look at his rebuild, either method involves restoring Rondo's on-court value.
Now, the clock has started on Ainge's evaluation period for Rondo. The versatile point guard has one year and $12.9 million left on his contract, via ShamSports.com, so the executive will need to decide sooner than later what role Rondo will play in Boston's future: cornerstone or trade chip.
Smart, a 20-year-old combo guard with a shooting stroke in need of repair, won't accelerate that decision. Ainge said as much after bringing him on board with the sixth overall pick, via Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe:
No matter how ready the Celtics think Smart is, he's not prepared to take over Rondo's floor-general role just yet.
Smart averaged more rebounds (5.9) and nearly three times more field-goal attempts (12.5) than assists (4.8) his sophomore season at Oklahoma State. Few NBA point guards can match Rondo's playmaking ability, and Smart may never join that group.
Even if the Celtics envision Smart as their point guard of the future, surely they wouldn't mind him picking up some tricks of the trade from Rondo over the next year. Smart looks further along than some of his draft classmates, but he's far from being a finished product.
Not to mention that keeping Rondo around will allow the Celtics to see if he could share the floor with Smart. The rookie has already signed off on the idea, per Alex Kennedy of Basketball Insiders:
Ainge has also expressed confidence that Smart and Rondo can coexist in the same backcourt, via ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg:
Absolutely. No question. And [Smart] and Avery [Bradley]. No question. He’s a very versatile player. He can play off the ball. He can handle the ball. With his length and his size, he can probably play against a lot of small forwards -- 6-3, long wingspan, 230 pounds. He’s a very versatile player. Easily those guys can play together, and I think they would really thrive playing together, all of them.
That's the other layer to this story: the uncertain future of Avery Bradley.
The team announced that it recently issued the fourth-year guard a qualifying offer, meaning the market could wind up determining his price tag. If the bidding gets too rich for Boston's liking, it could pass on matching his offer now that Smart and fellow rookie shooting guard James Young are around.
The fact that neither Smart nor Rondo can currently stretch a defense is concerning, but that same worry was being raised after Bradley shot just 31.7 percent from deep in 2012-13. Bradley bumped that number to 39.5 this past season, but the Celtics could hope for a similar hike from Smart.
Coach Brad Stevens already told reporters that Smart might be a better shooter than his numbers—29.5 percent from three during his college career—suggest:
Marcus is a guy that I think his shooting is much better than his percentages. He can still improve in that area but unlike a lot of shooters that struggle in college, depth is not going to be an issue with him. He’ll get good range on his shot. He’s got good arc on his shot. He’s got pretty good mechanics. He’s worked hard on it. In our last workout with him, he reeled off about four or five in a row in live competition from three, with the games on the line. So, shooting is something he will improve and get better at.
If the Celtics have hope for Smart's shooting, then that's reason enough to quiet the Rondo trade talks for now.
In Rondo, Boston has an elite player already on its roster. While a rebuilding club might stock its cupboard by moving a top-shelf talent, the problem is the league doesn't see Rondo as such at the moment.
Trading the floor general for a pennies-on-the-dollar return won't fuel the Celtics' rebuilding efforts. Plus, if the team is eyeing another superstar—Kevin Love perhaps?—Rondo is the biggest recruiting chip they have to bring one on board.
This team has never been a free-agent destination. Its biggest additions in recent memory have come by way of the draft (Rondo, Pierce) or the trade market (Garnett, Ray Allen). Considering that shipping Rondo out would only likely delay the club's rebuilding effort, there's no real incentive to let him go.
Over time, the Celtics could decide that a Rondo-Smart pairing simply is not sustainable. Or they might discover that a disruptive defensive backcourt with a pair of willing-and-able passers will ease their ascent on the road back to relevance.
Either way, Rondo's future shouldn't immediately be decided by Smart's arrival. Both can be big-time assets, and rebuilding clubs don't part with those easily.
Not the rebuilding clubs that get the process right, at least.
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