Is Rajon Rondo Entering His Final Season with the Boston Celtics?

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Is Rajon Rondo Entering His Final Season with the Boston Celtics?
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A bitter breakup doesn't appear to be in the works for Rajon Rondo and the Boston Celtics, but an amicable split could still be in their future.

The 28-year-old mercurial point guard is quickly approaching a career crossroads, and he may find that his goals won't mesh with those of the rebuilding franchise.

That is, however, a call that will likely need to be made over time. Both Rondo and the Celtics will enter the 2014-15 campaign with far more questions than answers hanging above their heads, so there is no incentive to rush this decision.

Before anything else happens, Rondo will need to restore his value across the NBA landscape. That might seem like an easy task for a four-time All-Star, but his surgically repaired right knee could complicate the matter.

After returning from a torn ACL, he slogged through 30 games last season. While he still managed to flirt with a nightly double-double (11.7 points and 9.8 assists per game), the stat sheet cast an unrelenting glare on his struggles.

His field-goal percentage plummeted to a career-low 40.3. His turnover rate per 36 minutes was well ahead of his career pace (3.6 and 3.1, respectively). He lost nearly six full percentage points from his jump shot conversion rate (34.2, down from 40.1) and wrestled with inconsistency from nearly every angle at the offensive end of the floor.

Courtesy of NBA.com.

His problems, of course, caught no one by surprise.

Not only was Rondo adjusting to a new reality that no longer included former Boston mainstays Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers, he was also setting out on that uncomfortable journey of rebuilding strength, agility and, most importantly, trust in his knee.

To many observers, Rondo's comeback was more appetizer than entree. As he continues putting distance between himself and that calamitous January 2013 injury, some feel as if the stage is only now set for his real return.

"I think Rondo’s going to have a great year next year," said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, via Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe. "I think he’s going to have the best year of his career. Watching Rondo right now and watching him develop as a player I feel like he’s headed towards the best year of his career."

Ainge isn't alone in that assessment. With Rondo's contract set to expire next summer, his best could still be yet to come.

"If Contract Year Rondo (who we've never seen before) is anything like Playoff Rondo or National TV Rondo, Boston could soon experience a surge of triple-doubles," wrote Jay King of MassLive.com.

Whether those takes are realistic or optimistic remains unclear. Chances are they're a combination of both.

What is certain here is the importance of Boston getting the old Rondo back. The Celtics can't properly gauge his value—either as a building block or a trade chip—and he won't have a feel for his likely free-agency venture until that happens.

With so many variables in play, it's hardly a shock that Washburn reports Boston's plan for Rondo is steeped in patience:

While the Celtics are trying to figure out ways to clear roster space before training camp, moving Rondo is not a high priority. First off, Rondo will be a free agent next summer and fully intends on taking the LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony tour of teams and extending the negotiation process deep into next summer. It is highly unlikely Rondo would sign an extension this season with an interested team, especially the Sacramento Kings. Second, the Celtics don’t feel pressed to deal Rondo because they are still trying to determine if he’s part of the future and they are intrigued to see him in action a full 18 months following ACL surgery.

With hopes of championship contention and plans for a max-contract payday, it isn't hard to imagine Rondo's days in Boston are numbered.

He has admitted he's intrigued by the NBA's ritual of free-agent courtships.

"It's kind of like, I would say, maybe college recruiting," he said, via ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg. " ... I've heard stories, guys getting called right at midnight. It's something that I haven't experienced. I may want to go through it."

Despite the brutal reception point guards received on the 2014 free-agent market (see: Bledsoe, Eric), next summer could be different. That's when floor generals could find the key missing ingredients that soured this offseason's recipe: teams with money to spend and vacancies at the position.

One potential Rondo suitor has already been offered up by ESPN Los Angeles' Arash Markazi:

The Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks might also be after the stat sheet-stuffing setup man.

And that brings us back to the original inquiry: Is Rondo heading into his final season in Beantown?

The answer to that question may hinge more on the Celtics than Rondo himself. They must not only decide whether they are in a position to invest major funds in a prime-level performer, they also have to find out if the right pieces are in place for Rondo to succeed.

With X-ray court vision and a willingness (eagerness?) to share the rock, Rondo has the gift of eliciting greatness out of really good players. But Boston's 25-57 record last season didn't distort reality. This team is short on talent, let alone the championship-level talent with which Rondo enjoyed his most productive seasons.

His perimeter problems (career 25.2 three-point percentage) are potentially compounded by the shared struggles of his backcourt mates. Rookie Marcus Smart had a hard time finding range at the collegiate level (29.5 percent). Avery Bradley sandwiched 39-plus-percentage campaigns around a dismal 31.7 percent three-point performance in 2012-13.

Unless Jeff Green finds the consistency that has eluded him to this stage of his career or Evan Turner rediscovers the magic that made him the second overall pick in 2010, Rondo could wind up shouldering the heaviest distributing and scoring loads more often than not. Given that he's never averaged even 14 points a night, he could have a hard time sparking an offense that finished tied for 27th in efficiency last season.

Michael Perez/Associated Press

Maybe Boston's young guns are ready to rise. Perhaps Brad Stevens can draw up some more impactful designs during his second time around.

Still, how many things would have to break the Celtics' way for them to be convinced that their recent self-assessments have been nothing more than side-view mirror illusions, that their future really is closer than it appears?

Yes, they should be better next season. But, save for a handful of teams, that could be the slogan for the entire Eastern Conference.

If Boston doesn't have a roster ready to win, what purpose can a win-now player like Rondo really serve? He's feuded with teammates (and coaches) before, so the role of veteran leader might be an awkward fit at best.

Rondo needs to play for something. There's a reason that Playoff Rondo and National TV Rondo bring specific images to mind. When the stakes are at their highest, he's done some pretty incredible things.

Barring the type of blockbuster deal the Celtics didn't have the ammunition to pull off this summer, when will the stakes rise in Boston? Assuming that is dependent on the development of young players—the Celtics have never been a destination franchise for free agents—what kind of player will Rondo even be by that point?

Things could change before next summer, but his departure feels more like a matter of when than if.

Even in the NBA, divorces don't have to be messy. But if the relationship has run its course, there's no reason to belabor the point.

Rondo finding his way to a contender and the Celtics bringing along his replacement could represent the best possible outcome for all parties involved.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.

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