With the Kevin Love trade having gone from painstaking whirlwind of inevitability to completion over the weekend, there is a strange sense of emptiness floating around the NBA.
For the first time this decade, the superstar trade market seems dead.
In the past five offseasons, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and Love—all rightfully considered among the dozen best players in the league—have been traded. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, although on their last legs, were sent packing. LaMarcus Aldridge spent last summer agitating for a move to Chicago. The movement of Hall of Fame players—and the discussion of potential movement of Hall of Famers—has never been higher.
So why is it suddenly so quiet? In the aftermath of the trade winds, why aren't there speculative columns about the next superstar agitator to bite the hand that once fed him?
Because the most obvious one is only 19 months removed from a devastating knee injury.
On paper, the Boston Celtics and Rajon Rondo make no sense together. Rondo, heading into the last year of a bargain contract, turns 29 years old in February. He's on a completely different trajectory than the roster Celtics President Danny Ainge is building.
Boston is two or three years away from being relevant. Rondo has two or three years left in his prime. Plus, Ainge drafted Marcus Smart, who occupies Rondo's position, and signed Avery Bradley to a four-year, $32 million deal.
Ainge does not sound like a man prepping a max contract for Rondo. Yet neither Ainge nor Rondo is itching for a pre-October divorce.
Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe reported the Celtics are "anxious" to see Rondo in his post-surgery form, while the All-Star point guard seems curiously content. In fact, Washburn indicated Rondo is more than happy to let the situation play out with designs on taking the patented kiss-my-feet summer tour so often employed by free-agent superstars.
On the surface, again, this feels weird.
Ainge has proved himself nothing if not a forward-thinking opportunist. He coaxed a treasure trove of first-round picks out of a desperate Brooklyn team last summer for two stars on their last legs, one of whom has already departed.
He knows from experience there are only two ways to contend for a championship in today's NBA: collect enough assets to trade for a disgruntled superstar, or draft one yourself. With a potential Rondo trade assuredly netting more in the way of draft picks or young talent, you'd think he'd be working the phones like a cold-calling telemarketer.
Rondo has proved himself nothing if not an enigmatic personality whose surliness and disdain for losing are legendary.
He feuded with Ray Allen, Doc Rivers and multiple other people in the organization. He is known for his meticulousness, a basketball genius more intelligent than anyone this side of LeBron James and a competitiveness that is a step down from perhaps only Kobe Bryant. He also has the latter's mania when things are not going well.
"I just want to win," Rondo told reporters after a March loss. "I hate losing. I just hate losing."
It seems uncharacteristic that Rondo is willing to play this situation out. Because the Celtics are going lose next season. A lot. Boston enters 2014-15 only marginally better than it was a year ago. With the Eastern Conference stronger and deeper from top to bottom, the Celts could reasonably be more watchable and not improve from last season's 25 wins.
So, again, I posit, why is the market so quiet? Why aren't Ainge and Rondo at public odds, trading thinly veiled shots across the bow like Flip Saunders and Love? Why hasn't an instant secondary market opened up wherein teams that couldn't enter the Love sweepstakes start throwing offers Boston's way?
No one across the league knows quite where to place Rondo on the NBA's hierarchy anymore. He came back midway through last season and averaged his typical 11.7 points, 9.8 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game but was a lesser player in nearly every aspect. He shot just 40.3 percent from the field, including an abhorrent 32.7 percent outside five feet. He lost 7 percent from his jump shot conversion rate from 2012-13 to 2013-14.
Going further, underlying numbers indicate Rondo was even worse than the standard stats. Synergy Sports ranked him in the ninth percentile among players league-wide on a per-possession basis. He made 42.1 percent on shots out of the pick-and-roll, turning the ball over on more than 22 percent of his possessions.
While Rondo was never considered an elite scorer by any means, some expected the departures of Pierce and Garnett to unlock a heightened sense of aggressiveness. It didn't.
Much more distressing was Rondo's play on the defensive end, which oscillated between pretty bad and downright dreadful. Prone to fits of jumpiness and mistakes rooted in over-aggressiveness before his injury, Rondo was all over the place at times following his return. Opposing guards killed Rondo by coaxing him into poor position early in the possession and having him run right into screens on the pick-and-roll.
There are myriad problems with using lineup stats to judge an individual player's defensive impact, but the numbers are far from a coincidence. ESPN's DRPM metric had Rondo 361st among the 437 players ranked; he had the same defensive rating as Nick Young. His win shares per 48 minutes were the lowest of his career, per Basketball-Reference.
This is an understandable downturn. Rondo was coming back from a devastating knee injury and playing alongside the worst supporting cast of his career. An ACL tear is a two-year injury for a basketball player. Gerald Wallace is bad at basketball. Frustrations of the physical and mental sort were bound to bubble over.
But here's the thing: Other teams watched Boston Celtics basketball last season. They saw Rondo fighting his body and his mind nearly every time down the floor—and he was already a player whose style of play tends to age poorly.
He's a bad jump-shooter and an aloof scorer, cashing his paychecks on his All-Defensive selections, his otherworldly passing ability and his IQ. The latter will last forever (see: Miller, Andre), but the former eventually starts eroding for everyone.
Rondo is not a max player. Not even close. If I were an NBA general manager, I'd be afraid to approach the $11-12 million he's been making annually for the last half-decade. That is a slight problem, as Rondo is asking for max-level money, per Celtics color commentator Cedric Maxwell (via Yahoo Sports).
Given Rondo's struggles last season, his expiring contract and his next contract demands, Ainge won't find a trade partner willing to give up real assets. The Celtics could probably coax Sacramento into building a package around Ben McLemore, but Ainge also saw McLemore play basketball last season. Not pretty. And the Kings can't trade their draft pick either of the next two years, due to existing protections from previous deals.
The list of teams in need of a point guard, pushing to win now and equipped with young assets is infinitesimal. Houston is the only one that instantly comes to mind, though building around Rondo, James Harden and Howard seems...not especially intelligent.
The Celtics aren't attempting to trade Rondo, because they know they can't expect a reasonable return. Rondo isn't pushing for a trade, because he knows the best way to recoup his open-market value is by putting up gaudy stats and pushing this ragtag group of miscreants toward respectability.
Rondo wants superstar treatment. It's the one thing he hasn't received since entering the league. He was the little brother on those early Big Three Celtics teams. He signed a $55 million contract that initially looked like a massive overpay and soon became one of the NBA's best bargains. And just as the basketball collective was coming around to Rajon Rondo Superstar, his knee gave out.
So Rondo is back in a familiar place, wanting a spot at the adult table at a time he'd be lucky to catch an invite to Dave & Busters. The only way Rondo can garner $20 million-per-year consideration is by showing up in the best shape of his life, showing marked improvement in every facet of his game and avoiding injury. The only way the Celtics can expect to recoup significant value for Rondo—think, say, in January or February—is by him returning to All-Star form.
On paper, the Celtics and Rondo make no sense together.
In reality, they need each other. For now.
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