Rajon Rondo's Resurgence Leaves Rebuilding Celtics with Difficult Decisions

Howard Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterNovember 19, 2014

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

BOSTON — Rajon Rondo fills the box score and, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the box score brings Rajon Rondo, in all his dazzling eccentricity, to life.

Click on Rondo's assist column on the NBA's website, and watch the wizardry unfold:

The two-handed overhead bounce pass in transition.

The no-look, behind-the-back flick.

The running, underhand lob, placed perfectly at the rim.

The ball fake at the hip, setting up the overhead hook pass.

And the results: Driving layup. Jump shot. Dunk. Layup.

This was not a highlight reel from 2012, and those baskets were not scored by Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.

These were four of Rondo's 16 assists against Cleveland last Friday, and those plays were completed by Kelly Olynyk, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green and Tyler Zeller.

Times change and legends move on, but Rondo remains the Boston Celtics' constanta darting, driving, whimsical, whirring assist machine, turning ordinary sets into extraordinary plays.

Check the rankings. The Celtics, with a roster of neophytes, and not a single ace scorer among them, have the NBA's sixth-leading offense, in points per 100 possessions. They are No. 1 in assist ratio (19.2 per 100 possessions) and No. 2 in points created by an assist (60 per game).

Two years after the breakup of the Big Three, a year removed from the jettisoning of Pierce and Garnett, the Celtics are a team in transition—and that transition is defined, indisputably, by the feisty point guard with the Stretch Armstrong limbs and the Madame Tussauds visage.

This is Rondo's time and Rondo's team, however long the arrangement may last.

Two years after breaking up their Big Three, the Celtics face the possible departure of the last key link to that team, Rondo, in free agency.
Two years after breaking up their Big Three, the Celtics face the possible departure of the last key link to that team, Rondo, in free agency.Matt Sayles/Associated Press/Associated Press

The Celtics are at a crossroads and so, too, is Rondo, now 28 years old and approaching free agency for the first time in his career. For the next several months, they will be mutually assessing one another, the franchise and the franchise player, each party trying to determine the intentions and capabilities of the other.

Do the Celtics view Rondo, a four-time All-Star, as the foundation of another title contender?

Does Rondo see enough potential in this rosterand in the draft picks and salary-cap room being hoarded by team president Danny Aingeto believe in a Celtics revival?

And if they do ultimately decide to stay together, can the Celtics and Rondo agree on contract terms next July, when Rondo will almost certainly be seeking a maximum salary?

These are the questions that may come to define the Celtics' season, or at least the period between now and the Feb. 20 trade deadline. Rival executives say that Ainge has been firm in his stance that Rondo will not be dealt. But many of those same executives believe that Ainge has to trade Rondo, to avoid losing him for nothing next summer.

"They're definitely bravely saying they won't trade him at this point," said one general manager, who nevertheless added, "I definitely think it's the right thing to trade him. I think Danny knows it."

Rondo's representatives are said to be pursuing a max contractfive years and an estimated $106 million if he stays in Boston, four years and about $79 million if he signs elsewhere. His resume justifies the demand. Rondo has been one of the NBA's top point guards for the last seven years, and one of the few who can dominate a game with his passing alone.

And though his status was in doubt after tearing a knee ligament in February 2013, Rondo has recovered beautifully. Through eight games, he is averaging a league-leading 11.6 assists per game, along with 10.6 points and 8.4 rebounds. His bounce and his dexterity have returned.

After struggling to find his rhythm last season, Rondo has started this year averaging a league-leading 11.6 assists per game for Boston's surprisingly effective offense.
After struggling to find his rhythm last season, Rondo has started this year averaging a league-leading 11.6 assists per game for Boston's surprisingly effective offense.Brian Babineau/Getty Images

"My body feels a lot better, my legs are a lot stronger," Rondo said, comparing his play now to last season, when he was just making his way back. "I can get into the paint a lot easier now, this year. Last year, I was pretty slow. So this year I'm a step faster."

Those who know him best say this Rondo looks pretty much like the Rondo who helped anchor that 2008 title team, and the one who steered the Celtics to within one game of the NBA Finals in 2012.

"Without a doubt," Pierce told Bleacher Report. "He looks like he's finally healthy now. He looks like the floor general. He's moving well. He looks stronger, finishing. I mean, he looks great out there, man. He's one of the top five point guards, man, if he's healthy."

Seven years ago, after years of frustration and futility, the Celtics had a similar decision to make on Pierce: trade him and start over, or find a suitable surrounding cast and keep building. Ainge held on to Pierce, then struck gold that summer, landing Garnett and Allen in two blockbuster trades.

It's unreasonable to bank on another Garnett-Allen haul, but it's also risky to simply let Rondo walk away and count on landing another foundational star. Pierce, for one, believes Rondo could be the centerpiece for another Celtics powerhouse.

"People think those players grow on trees, when they don't," Pierce said. "When you get those types of players, you've got to keep them. And then you've got to try to find other players of that caliber to go with them."

Elise Amendola/Associated Press

No team is better positioned than the Celtics to make another blockbuster trade. Ainge is sitting on a cache of first-round draft picksup to eight in the next four yearsthanks to the trades of Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn last year, along with the deal that let coach Doc Rivers leave for the Los Angeles Clippers. Ainge has also assembled a raft of young, reasonably priced talent that could be packaged in a deal, or a series of deals, as he did in 2007.

The question becomes one of timing, a sort of chicken-and-egg puzzle: Can the Celtics find a worthy co-star for Rondo before Rondo decides to go find his co-star elsewhere?   

Or could Rondo take a leap of faith on the Celtics next summer, in the belief that he'll attract the help he needs?

"Philosophically, we know who the players are, we know who the guys are that we would love to get," Ainge told Bleacher Report. "But we also know that certain players don't make as much of a difference. We can't sell our stockpile of assets just to appease one player. We've got to be smart in rebuilding. And we do have to remain patient. And yet at the same time, be ready to jump into the fray and pay a high price for special players, transcendent players."

Ainge targeted one such player this past summer, pursuing Minnesota's Kevin Love after Love demanded a trade. But Love steered his way to Cleveland, to join LeBron James, and just as critically, the Cavaliers had a prime assetNo. 1 pick Andrew Wigginsthe Timberwolves coveted.

Superstars don't hit the market often, and a blockbuster trade can't be manufactured out of thin air. So while Rondo's free agency creates an urgency for the Celtics front office, there also isn't much Ainge can do until another All-Star in another city demands a trade.

Ainge has indicated a desire to re-sign Rondo. Rondo has indicated, on multiple occasions, his desire to stay. It doesn't necessarily mean it will happen. Again, the Pierce situation in 2007 is instructive.

"A player like Paul, and a player like Rondo, I think they're willing to do what's best for the franchise for a certain period of time," Ainge said. "But I think there is a window in that sort of process as well. So we're in a situation right now where Rondo, we're trying to decide, is he worth a contract that he wants this summer? And he's trying to decide, is this where I want to stay?

Kelly Olynyk is one of a handful of intriguing young players the Celtics must decide whether to build around or package in a trade should a star become available.
Kelly Olynyk is one of a handful of intriguing young players the Celtics must decide whether to build around or package in a trade should a star become available.Randy Belice/Getty Images

"Now, we know that this is where he wants to stay, assuming that we are a competitive team. We believe that. It's a place he would like to stay. But what sort of team we can put together may be a factor in that in the offseason."

There is intrigue, as well, in the pieces Ainge has already assembled—for their promise as supporting players and as potential trade chips. Rookie Marcus Smart has the look of a lockdown defender. Jared Sullinger, now in his third season, is developing into a solid inside scorer. Avery Bradley is a defensive menace. Green and Bass are reliable veterans who could fill a need for any number of playoff teams.

And then there is Olynyk, the lean, lithe 7-footer drafted with the 13th pick in 2013. Olynyk is shooting a team-high .478 from three-point range, .592 overall and averaging 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds. Team officials consider him a future star.

At present, none of the Celtics' young prospects merit that labelbut then, few people predicted that Al Jefferson would become a dominant post scorer when the Celtics shipped him to Minnesota as part of the package for Garnett seven years ago.

And, of course, the decision to draft Smart was widely viewed as a statement on Rondo: either as a hedge against Rondo leaving, or as an outright plan to replace him. Smart also has the size (6'4", 220 lbs) to play alongside Rondo.

The Celtics (3-6) lack the talent to win many games this season, but they move and pass and compete, all of which makes them quite enjoyable to behold. Rondo, after years of quietly playing the role of fourth star on a team defined by the Big Three, is embracing the chance to be the ringleader of this young crew.

Marcus Smart and Jared Sullinger are finding playing with Rondo requires adjusting to the speed at which he processes the game, according to coach Brad Stevens.
Marcus Smart and Jared Sullinger are finding playing with Rondo requires adjusting to the speed at which he processes the game, according to coach Brad Stevens.Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

"I think they're still learning to play with him," coach Brad Stevens said. "He makes passes and plays that other guys don't see, or it happens quicker. So sometimes it's a little bit of a surprise, and they have to get used to that. But he raises all ships with his passing."

Stevens said this team is "still very much in a building and growth stage," with necessarily modest goals. The Celtics defense, he notes, needs drastic improvement.

For now, the Celtics are simply looking for steady, measurable progress. Will it be enough to convince Rondo to stick around for the next phase? Are the Celtics convinced he's the one to lead them forward? The answers to those questions, more than anything else, will determine the franchise's future.

"This is going to be his best year of his career, I think," Ainge said, though not because Rondo is on any sort of salary drive. "Knowing Rondo, he just wants to show that he's one of the elite point guards in the NBA again. But yeah, he is a foundational piece that we already have that's right there. But there is uncertainty for this upcoming offseason."

On Ainge's desk is an oversized version of the 2008 championship ring, serving as a paperweight. Over his shoulder is the 2008 Larry O'Brien trophy. All around the team offices are posters and mementos of the franchise's glorious past. The Celtics' history is one long series of builds and rebuilds and banner ceremonies.

"I enjoy where we are right now," Ainge said. "Everybody wants to go out and win 60 games a year. We've had our stretch of that. But we're working toward that again."

Statistics courtesy of NBA.com.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.


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