Is Rajon Rondo soon to be on the move…or isn't he?
Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has repeatedly dismissed trade rumors involving Rondo. Yet practically every NBA executive outside of Boston I've spoken to says Ainge has made Rondo available to them. Rondo, meanwhile, has repeatedly said how much he treasures being a Celtic, but he's never hid the fact that if the franchise doesn't want him he'd be OK going elsewhere.
Can all these things be true?
Strangely enough, yes, and the reason is fairly simple: Ainge and Rondo, whose only predictable characteristics are their unpredictability. Ainge is a quirky combination of Celtic Pride traditionalist and restless spitballer. Rondo can be equally confounding, giving his all to lead his team in turbulent times and yet going AWOL, physically or emotionally, at other times.
"We love Rondo and Rondo loves us," Ainge told Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald (subscription required) last spring.
While that may be accurate, it still raises the question: Are they made for each other or are they simply not ready to break up?
If nothing else, this should be the season they pull the trigger or the ripcord.
Rondo is in the last year of a five-year, $55 million deal. He will turn 29 this season, which means his next contract should be his last of any significance. If the Celtics are going to build around him, it's now time to commit to that; if not, it's time to move him.
"There's no one who is a bigger fan of Rondo than Danny Ainge," says one of Rondo's former Celtics teammates. "What better guy to build around? But it's more about the timing of the situation. He really doesn't fit in with Brad Stevens' approach—everyone touches the ball, everyone's equal. Rondo is like Chris Paul or Steve Nash, he can't play off the ball. And coming into a contract year, he wants to be in a million pick-and-rolls to prove he's worth a max contract."
Ainge, as is his way, defied the notion that the college and pro games have veered too far apart for a coach from the former to succeed in the latter, plucking Stevens from Butler University and going all-in by signing him to a six-year, $22 million deal at a time when more proven coaches were lucky to sign for half that.
Ainge had to know how challenging the relationship between Stevens and Rondo would be. Aside from importing his egalitarian philosophy with the Bulldogs, there's no way Stevens could learn on the fly and satisfy Rondo's exacting nature at the same time. Rondo not only wants to know the thought process behind every drill, offensive set or defensive scheme, but it had better make sense to him. Consistent, unerring sense.
"He will remember exactly what you told him on Oct. 10," the former teammate says, "and if you tell him something different in February, he will say, 'That's not what you told me in October.' If you don't know your stuff, you're done."
That is no secret within the league's coaching ranks, which is why, despite Rondo having all the tools of a point guard worth building around—great handles, a pass-first mentality, exceptional court vision and the wingspan and agility to defend either guard position—opposing teams have been reluctant to give Ainge the promising young prospect and/or high first-round pick to build around instead. The thinking seems to be that if a first-rate communicator such as former Celtics coach Doc Rivers and a disciplined veteran such as Ray Allen found Rondo aggravating at times—and they both did—it's almost a certainty they'll have trouble with him.
There's also the lingering question of exactly how good Rondo is without Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the three Hall of Fame-caliber teammates he collaborated with to win the 2008 title. Last year was his first without them, and a torn knee ligament limited him to 30 games. Just how much the knee injury took from him remains a concern as well, seeing as the Celtics were 6-24 in the games he played, a .200 winning percentage, vs. 19-33 (.365) without him.
One Eastern Conference GM listed Ainge's demands, Rondo's health post-ACL tear and questions about his temperament and coachability as the offsets to teams that would love to acquire a pass-first point guard with Rondo's defensive abilities and the mental toughness to run point for a championship-caliber squad.
"If you polled the league, my guess is two-thirds of the GMs would say they'd love to have Rondo and one-third would say, 'I'm not so sure,'" one Eastern Conference GM said. "Then it comes down to, 'But at what cost' and it finally reverts to, 'What is perception vs. reality when it comes to his personality' and 'How is he going to behave not surrounded by three Hall of Famers.' If your coach isn't sure he wants to deal with him, that might be enough to convince you he's not worth it."
There is a belief around the league that had the Celtics been able to move up from sixth to third in the draft and land Kansas center Joel Embiid, Ainge would've been ready to commit to Rondo as the yin to Embiid's yang. That didn't happen, of course, so now Rondo simply remains more valuable to the Celtics than what the market will bear for him.
Add it all together—the hiring of Stevens, the exploration of Rondo's value, the overall youth of the Boston roster—and it seems pretty clear Ainge has positioned himself to move Rondo for the right price; he simply hasn't come anywhere close to getting it.
Rondo, conversely, would be far better served at his age to join a team where his postseason experience and distribution skills would have far more value.
Hence the trade rumors that neither completely go away nor reach fruition. They won't, either, until Ainge or Rondo acknowledge that while they might love each other, they're not exactly soulmates. Shared traits aren't always a sign of compatibility. Sometimes they're simply a sign that both parties are equally capable of driving each other crazy.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.