Rebuilding the Boston Celtics' Ideal Roster Around Rajon Rondo

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Rebuilding the Boston Celtics' Ideal Roster Around Rajon Rondo
Michael Perez/Associated Press

Rajon Rondo's future with the Boston Celtics is masked in uncertainty.

But what if it wasn't?

What if the Celtics knew his impending free agency wasn't an issue? That they would want him back and he would want to come back? That he would be their primary cornerstone for the next half-decade or more?

Well, like most teams tend to do, they would presumably tailor the roster to meet the needs of their only star. That's how rebuilds are supposed to work: Teams lay a foundation, then build on top of it.

And for all this hubbub about Rondo's future and the money Boston may or may not want to invest in him, he remains the team's only star. He's a top-five point guard when healthy and an established franchise face.

Building around Rondo is, regardless of cost and depending on health, the safe play. The Celtics already know what they have in him. They wouldn't be waiting around for one of their many (many) first-round draft picks to develop into the player Rondo already is.

The foremost challenge they would face with him would be assembling a supporting cast that adequately complements his skill set and retransforms them into the championship contender they used to be. 

 

What Rondo Needs

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Framing a roster around Rondo would be twofold. 

First the Celtics must cater to his strengths and on-court propensities. Then they'll have to address his weaknesses. 

Incoming players will ideally do both, though that's never the case. There will always be specialists—players that fill one hole rather than two. The goal, though, is balance. 

To start, we'll acknowledge Rondo's greatest weakness: shooting. Yes, it's still shooting. 

Paint Rondo's jump-shot acumen as you like. Call it improved or developing. Argue that it's easier on the eyes. None of that makes it a strength.

Rondo still cannot shoot threes. Last year's 28.9 percent conversion rate from deep was the second highest of his career. Though he's clearly more willing and comfortable launching rockets—his 90 three-point attempts last season set a new career high, despite the fact he only played in 33 games—there's still much to be desired. 

Mid-range consistency continues to allude him as well. There has been some movement on his perimeter game over the last few years, little of which has proved sustainable. 

Here's a look at how he's fared between eight and 24 feet since 2009:

Things don't get much better when we isolate the range to 10 and 16 feet, either:

Even the most encouraging improvements—like his 47.2 percent clip between eight and 24 feet in 2012-13—must be taken lightly. 

Appearances can skew the sample size in the wrong direction, but it's Rondo's shot selection that makes it difficult to draw profound conclusions. Over the last five years he's favored the area inside eight feet, and it's not even close:

Surrounding range is essential. The Celtics can ill afford to clog the paint and employ swingmen that aren't accustomed to jacking up threes. Their point guard needs room to operate. One can simply hope he changes, yet said change has now been nearly a decade in the making. The chances of Rondo morphing into some deadly perimeter marksman plummet with each passing season. 

Floor spacing is already an issue for the Celtics anyway. They ranked 27th in three-point efficiency last season, drilling only 33.3 percent of their long balls, according to NBA.com

Acquiring additional shooters does come with a caveat, though. They cannot be ball-brandishing scorers incapable of playing off the rock. Rondo prefers to dominate the ball. The Celtics need players who can move without it and thrive when spotting up.

Catch-and-shoot opportunities is an area they struggled in last season. They ranked 27th in spot-up efficiency for 2013-14, hitting only 36.3 percent of their shots in those situations, per Synergy Sports (subscription required), and they've done little, if anything, to address said problem this summer. 

Transition-savvy players should be targeted, too. The Celtics haven't really played uptempo with Rondo. Part of that is on him and his knack for over-dribbling, but the team has never really had the personnel that allows the quick and incisive Rondo to pilot fast breaks in volume.

Only twice have the Celtics ranked in the top half of possessions used per 48 minutes since Rondo entered the league—his rookie season, when he averaged slightly over 20 minutes per game, and last year, when he missed 49 of Boston's contests. 

The Celtics have finished in the bottom half of transition efficiency for each of the last three seasons as well, per Synergy. Fast-paced teams aren't the NBA's title-winning standard, but creating easy opportunities—and then making the most of them—is not unimportant; the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs ranked in the top seven of fast-break efficiency last year.

None of this offensive firepower should come at the expense of defense, mind you. The Celtics established themselves as defensive juggernauts prior to last season. They've finished in the top 10 of points allowed per 100 possessions four times since 2009, and in the top five three times.

Last season's squad was shaky amid the early stages of rebuilding; the team ranked 20th in defensive efficiency. Rondo isn't what you would call a liability on that end of the floor, but he gambles a lot and there's no predicting how effective he'll be in coming years following his ACL injury.

Pitting him alongside strong defenders who can clean up after his risks, help out on assignments and protect the rim—the Celtics ranked 19th in iron protection last season—in the event he's beaten off the dribble is most important.

 

Who's Staying?

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Now, with all the Celtics need in mind, it's time for president and general manager Danny Ainge to start working some overtime. 

Before doing anything, he has to figure out who's staying beyond next season. (Spoiler: The list isn't long.)

Avery Bradley is a must at this point. Investing $32 million in him over the next four years is a huge gamble, but it's one the Celtics had to make. 

Perimeter defenders like him don't grow on trees. Opposing guards averaged a combined player efficiency rating of 16.2 against him last year, per 82games.com. That's slightly above the league average of 15, but it's sound enough for someone who played on a rather poor defensive team.

The ability to defend either guard position is absolutely huge. He can face up against the more threatening backcourt scorer on a nightly basis, be they a 1- or 2-guard. 

This backcourt pairing also skyrockets in value if Bradley's offensive evolution continues. He averaged a career-high 14.9 points per game in 2013-14 while shooting a blistering 39.5 percent from beyond the rainbow. His three-point prowess—or lack thereof—has been something of a roller coaster ride these last four years, but he banged in a scorching 43.7 percent of his spot-up bombs last season, according to Synergy.

Off-ball scoring will, once again, come at a premium for the Celtics. Passing on Bradley's developing offensive game isn't something they can afford to do. Not when he's fresh off a season during which he shot over 40 percent on one of the most useful threats in basketball—the strong-side corner three:

Bradley's three-point shot chart via NBA.com.

Jared Sullinger won't be going anywhere for similar reasons. 

Not only is he a nightly double-double threat despite being undersized, but head coach Brad Stevens began grooming him to be a stretch forward. Enticing as the concept is, though, Celtics Blog's Evans Clinchy reminded us at the end of last season the results weren't pretty:

Except, of course, where efficiency is concerned. Sullinger's percentages fell off dramatically this year, and a lot of that can be attributed to him expanding his shooting range, firing 3-pointers with reckless abandon despite his...well, inability to make them. Sullinger attempted 208 treys this season, and he made just 26.9 percent of them. Only five players in the league were over 200 attempts with under 30 percent makes in 2013-14 - Michael Carter-Williams, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Jimmy Butler. In other words, the five worst high-volume distance shooters in the league were an untested rookie, two defensive specialists and Josh Smith. And Sullinger. It's not good company to keep.

Bad company, indeed.

At the same time, this is a process. Sullinger isn't going to turn into Kevin Love overnight. That he missed 78.7 percent of his spot-up threes last season isn't concerning now because of how early it is. He didn't enter the NBA as a perimeter-skulking 4. If the Celtics wait this out and push forward, the return could be huge.

Not to mention they need his scrappiness. Size has been hard to come by for them. Last year was the first time they didn't rank in the bottom five of rebounds per game since 2009, and they still finished 18th. Someone like Sullinger, who battles on the glass—height be damned—is a must.

So, too, is Kelly Olynyk, another big man—who, unlike Sullinger, is actually big—with three-point range.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Olynyk shot an impressive 35.1 percent from deep last year on 114 attempts. Only five other players standing at 7'0" or taller, who were no older than 22, have ever hoisted at least 110 three-pointers in a single season. One of them was Dirk Nowitzki. Another one was Andrea Bargnani. Make of that—along with his mercurial summer-league stint this year—what you will. 

His main attraction is the range itself and the circumstances under which he uses it. More than 20 percent of Olynyk's offensive touches came within spot-up opportunities last year, per Synergy, so working off the ball isn't unusual. He boasts size and a versatile, Rondo-friendly offensive skill set, two attributes the Celtics need.

Moving forward without him—in this universe we're building—should not be an option.

 

Targeting the Rest

John Minchillo/Associated Press

Everyone else on the roster can pack their bags. Kind of.

Players such as Gerald Wallace and Jeff Green shouldn't factor into the Celtics' long-term future. If they want to keep them through the end of their contracts for the cap space that follows, fine. But we're operating under the assumption that—in this ideal world of ours—they might not be around.

That holds true for rookie Marcus Smart. Assembling a team around Rondo means he can't be there. It's one or the other.

Smart and Rondo have overlapping skill sets. Both of them prefer to act with the ball in their hands, and neither of them can shoot especially well. If Rondo stays, Smart needs to go.

Bradley, Rondo, Sullinger and Olynyk would be the guaranteed core. Depending on cost, others—like James Young—might stick around. For now, it's these four.

And that brings us to cost. 

Bradley, Sullinger and Olynyk combine to make roughly $12.2 million leading into 2015-16, the season we're most concerned with. The league's salary cap increased to more than $63 million this past year, so going off that number, the Celtics would have more than enough wiggle room to make free-agency splashes next summer even after factoring in minimum cap holds. 

One such splash will have to be re-signing Rondo. 

Brian Babineau/Getty Images
It will cost the Celtics to keep Rondo.

Former Celtic and current analyst Cedric Maxwell previously told Yahoo! Sports Radio (via Ben Rohrbach of WEEI.com) Rondo was seeking a $100 million contract. In all likelihood, he's not going to get one.

Point guard is a deep position. Rondo isn't worth a max, cap-clogging deal to the Celtics. It would be surprising to see any team dangle one in front of him, especially after his ACL injury. If he plays out of his mind this year while remaining healthy, his value increases significantly. But a max contract remains unlikely regardless.

Signing an extension would be the most ideal scenario, as ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg laid out in January: 

This summer, Boston has two potential extension options for Rondo. The team can tack on a three-year, $44.8 million extension to the final year of his current deal without a signing bonus, which would pay him the scheduled $12.9 million in 2014-15, $13.9 million in 2015-16; $14.9 million in 2016-17; and $16 million in 2017-18. Or, if Boston can stomach a signing bonus payment of $6.6 million, those annual salaries would drop to $11.7 million, $12.5 million and $13.4 million in the extended seasons.

Everyone should know by now Rondo isn't signing that extension. Not if he's seeking a max deal that could pay him $20-plus million in 2014-15. 

In the name of idealism, let's say he and the Celtics meet somewhere in the middle. Between $15 and $16 million with annual raises seems fair. That would put their financial commitment in their Core Four at $27.2 million for 2015-16—beyond rough numbers—leaving them with ample flexibility still. 

Here's where we'll have to get super creative, which isn't to be confused with ridiculous.

It would be great to see LeBron James or Love leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to play in Boston. It would be great to hear Kevin Durant is forcing a trade to Boston.

It would also be cool to breed flying possums that you flip for working magic carpets.

Ideal doesn't mean absurd. The Celtics are unlikely to land a top-10 superstar in one of the next two summers.

Not that they don't need another star. They do. But let's be a little more real.

Gus Ruelas/Associated Press

Available free agents in 2015 will include a number of talented players. If the Celtics can create cap space by shedding salary—specifically those of Green and Wallace—they could have enough to pursue top-flight names such as Marc Gasol or LaMarcus Aldridge.

Or, say, DeAndre Jordan. He's slated to reach free agency next summer and would be perfect as an athletic, durable, rim-protecting big man for these theoretical Celtics. 

Cost will be an issue—along with attainability—but Jordan's only earning $11.4 million next season. If the price isn't a max contract, the Celtics should be in play.

Paul Millsap is another affordable name that springs to mind. He's developed into a dangerous stretch 4 who had success draining weak-side corner threes last season.

Millsap's three-point shot chart via NBA.com.

Picking him up in free agency, along with Jordan, would be difficult. But the Celtics could have enough young talent, expiring contracts and first-round draft picks to get trade talks—or sign-and-trade talks—rolling sometime next year.

Nothing out there suggests the Hawks are ready to unload Millsap. Let's make that clear. There's also no guarantee they want to pay him whatever he commands next summer, either. Plus, you know, we're being green-tinged idealists and stuff.

To round out a starting five already consisting of Rondo, Bradley, Millsap and Jordan, the Celtics would need a small forward. A pretty cheap one, too. We're already stretching Ainge's cap-navigating abilities wafer thin by entertaining the arrivals of Jordan and Millsap, along with the retention of Rondo.

How about a reunion with Gerald Green? The 28-year-old has found his scoring touch with the Phoenix Suns, remains an athletic freak and valuable defender and might not demand much more than the $3.5 million he's making next season.

After all that pipe-dream actualizing, the Celtics' starting lineup would be set. They would also have Sullinger and Olynyk ready to come in and wreak havoc off the bench. It's now a matter of filling out the rotation.

Matt York/Associated Press

Looking at backup point guards such as Mo Williams and Jameer Nelson would be a good start. Perhaps seeking relief on the wing in Dorell Wright would be a good course of action.

Here's what a contention-worthy roster built around Rondo could potentially look like: 

Ideal Celtics 12-Man Depth Chart Leading into 2015-16
PG SG SF PF C
Rajon Rondo Avery Bradley Gerald Green Paul Millsap DeAndre Jordan
Mo Williams James Young Dorell Wright Jared Sullinger Kelly Olynyk
Phil Pressey Vitor Faverani

ShamSports.

Incredibly unlikely? You bet.

Perfect? Not at all. 

The second unit could have defensive issues and the Celtics have to create the means to sign or trade for all these players. But this is what a serious contender around Rondo should look like—a blend of talent that meets different needs and allows Rondo to be Rondo.

Forming the supporting cast is a fluid task. Names could, names will change. The core of the team he's headlining is what's most important. The starting five here—unrealistic as it may be—provides a nice balance between offense and defense, speed and calculated pace, inside and outside acuity. 

Those are the player-types Boston will want to put around Rondo if it wishes pilot a rebuild in the right direction.

 

Separating Real From Whimsical

USA TODAY Sports

All this is pure conjecture. 

There's no telling how much cap space the Celtics can legitimately create or how much unwanted talent they can unload by next summer. There's no telling which talent they even want to move forward with yet, and that includes Rondo.

Rebuilds take time as well. Completing it in one summer rarely happens if you're not the Miami Heat or Cavaliers. 

Should the Celtics rebuild around Rajon Rondo?

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The point is retooling around Rondo is not impossible. It may take some time, but it's feasible; it requires the Celtics follow a very specific path, but it's something they can attempt.

"I want to win a championship-I want to win another championship," Rondo said in an interview with Hoop China (via Red's Army). "I want to get back to being a contender and compete for a championship.”

Rondo may win another championship. It may even be with the Celtics.

It all depends on what they have planned for him next, and what that plan ends up looking like if there is actually one at all.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited. Salary information via ShamSports.

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