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The Long Rajon Rondo Goodbye

Rajon Rondo has spent the better part of his eight-plus years with the Boston Celtics on the trade block. He wasn’t considered good enough to start at point guard for a club that dealt for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett as a second-year player, but then helped lead the Celtics to the 2008 title.

Rondo had to be corralled and directed by Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, Allen and Garnett, but the core spent another four seasons together after winning banner No. 17 until Allen left as a free agent after the 2011-12 season and a crack in the foundation formed.

Rivers, Pierce and Garnett departed a season later, leaving Rondo by himself as the Celtics transitioned slowly away from contention. Danny Ainge remained in control of the organization’s future, along with underrated executive Mike Zarren, which until Thursday night remained clouded by Rondo’s presence.

Rondo is undoubtedly a mercurial guy, on and off the court, but for all intents and purposes he played the role of good solider in the post-Big Three era. Injuries have made it difficult for him to play at full-strength, but he publicly supported Brad Stevens when he could easily have undermined the rookie coach. The only possible visible indication that Rondo wasn’t “all-in” this season was erratic play, something that wasn’t entirely new.

It carries value, even if is doesn’t in terms of wins and losses, but Rondo was better in the community than most realize. He spent his last few hours as a member of the Celtics at Boston’s Children’s Hospital handing out Christmas gifts. He didn’t seek out attention for altruistic acts, which runs in line with his personality. Anyone who has been around the Celtics knows that Rondo doesn’t like to talk about much.

For all the good Rondo has brought to the organization since his draft rights were acquired from the Phoenix Suns in 2006, a trade was long overdue.

We fixate on folklore and hyperbole in sports and Ainge has benefited from both during his lengthy tenure in Boston’s front office. He was named the club’s President of Basketball Operations on May 9, 2003 and over the next four seasons the team compiled a 138-190 record.

He used the fifth overall pick and some spare parts to land Allen in a draft night deal with the now extinct Seattle Supersonics in 2007 and a few weeks later worked with former teammate Kevin McHale on a blockbuster trade that brought Garnett to Boston.

The Celtics, who won just 24 games in 2006-07, went on to beat the Los Angeles Lakers in six games the following June. The idea of three stars aligning in one place was born thanks to the strongest month of Ainge’s career as an executive. 

To his credit, Ainge did a good job of finding pieces to put around Allen, Garnett, Pierce and Rondo as the first three lost steps to age. That incarnation of the Celtics didn’t win another title, but they were successful nonetheless. They lost at the hands of the Lakers in the 2010 NBA Finals and made an improbable run to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2012, drawing the best out of LeBron James and the Miami Heat in seven games. 

Intoxicated by unexpected success, Ainge missed signs pointing to the end after that season. The Celtics weren’t good enough to win a title in 2011-12, but somehow came within five wins of another championship. Allen left that summer, infuriating the remainder of the core for betting against more success going forward. He turned out to be smarter than they were. 

Allen left feeling disrespected, which may or may not have been a fair assessment of how the Celtics valued him as a free agent. With Pierce and Garnett seemingly on borrowed time in Boston, rumors began to surface that the future Hall of Famers would eventually be traded.

Ainge took his time, but after a first-round playoff exit in 2013 he dealt the pair to the Brooklyn Nets in an eight-player trade that netted Boston three future draft picks. The first of those was the No. 17 pick this past June, used on James Young. The Celtics still have first-round picks coming in 2016 and 2018 from the trade that keeps on giving.

It would have made sense for Ainge to seriously consider moving Rondo at any point in time from when Allen left to when the Brooklyn trade occurred, but he was reluctant to completely strip the Celtics down. That philosophy has been ridiculed in Philadelphia, but in keeping Rondo at least 18 months too long (probably two years too long) the point guard’s value dwindled. 

There are three reasons why Ainge wasn’t able to get more than he did from the Dallas Mavericks -- Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson and a future first- and second-round pick and a $12.9 million trade exception -- than he would had he moved Rondo sooner. 

  • Rondo is only under contract through the remainder of the season, decreasing his value to a club that isn’t confident they’ll be players to sign him as a free agent this coming summer. Most teams won’t give up much for a rental player and since he has All-Star-level talent acquiring him for a half-season only makes sense for a contender. 
  • He hasn’t been able to stay healthy long enough to string together a lengthy stretch of spectacular play. He missed 13 games during the lockout-shortened season and appeared in just 68 across the next two campaigns. His recent injury history not only kept the Celtics from showcasing him, but it also placed doubt in some minds about how his 28-year-old body would hold up into his 30s.
  • When Rondo has been on the floor for Boston over the last three seasons, the Celtics haven’t been very good. In fact, they have been better without him (43-53, .448) than with him (32-58, .356) since the start of the 2012-13 season. You can blame many of those losses on a transitioning roster, but if nothing else we’ve learned that Rondo can’t be the best player on a winner. His trade value was at it’s highest when he was playing alongside a handful of other very good players.

It hard to pinpoint exactly what Ainge could have gotten had he pulled the trigger on trading Rondo sooner. There were rumors that they could have traded for Isaiah Thomas, Ben McLemore and two first-round picks from the Sacramento Kings during last season, which would have represented a much better haul. If nothing else though, the Kings have been picking much higher than the Mavericks for quite some time and that figures to remain true over the short term.

You can’t fault Ainge solely on what was rumored to be on the table in the past, but it’s obvious that Rondo was less valuable on Thursday than he was several months ago. If you are interested in reviewing some of the chatter surrounding Rondo over the last seven years Mike Prada of SB Nation has compiled an excellent list of the 29 Rondo trade rumors that didn’t come true.

He has been mentioned in rumors so often throughout his career that when the Dallas whispers began on Wednesday afternoon there was almost a boy-who-cried-wolf reaction. Members of the media have a love/hate relationship with trade talk, but rumors can spark interest over the slog of an 82-game season. There wasn’t much “buzz” in the press room at the TD Garden in the hours before, during or after the Celtics beat the Orlando Magic.

Excuse us for thinking this was just an addition to a long line of dead-end speculation.

A rigid grade won’t be assigned to the Celtics, or the Mavericks for that matter, in this space. The more important thing is that Ainge can finally move forward and put together a concrete plan for the team’s future. Rondo’s pending free agency no longer hangs in the balance and signing him to a maximum contract in July is now out of the question (just ask Red Sox fans how trading a star and then “attempting” to re-sign him works out).

Ainge used the sixth overall pick in June to draft Marcus Smart, who will become the full-time starter with Rondo in the Western Conference. Ainge will have substantial time to assess whether or not Smart can be the team’s point guard of the future. It’s worth nothing that Smart has had injury woes of his own. He’ll have to stay on the court in order for a true evaluation to take place.

The Celtics won’t have any expectations over the remainder of the season, allowing for more experimentation and evaluation. It’s not as though Boston is lighting the league on fire at 9-14, but they had won five of eight prior to the trade.

Dealing Rondo officially opens up the Celtics for business through the Feb. 19 trade deadline. Jeff Green could be next, although initial reports indicate that Boston is in no rush to move him. He has a player option for next season at $9.2 million, which seemed much worse two years ago than it does currently.

Ainge would love to find a taker for Gerald Wallace’s contract, but that may take some black magic. Avery Bradley is the only other player on the roster with a concrete contract commitment past this season at more than $3.5 million. He signed a four-year, $32 million deal with the Celtics this past summer.

Smart and Young are only in their second full month as NBA players and Kelly Olynyk seems to have become a favorite of Stevens, but beyond those three no one on the roster should be untouchable. They have a host of young players on cheap contracts, which equates to good assets for the future or a trade.

Wright, who will earn a total of $5 million this season, will be a free agent. Crowder is making less than $1 million and Nelson has a player option for $3.25 million that could become a non-factor if he’s waived as has already been rumored. In addition to all the financial flexibility Ainge will have going forward, Boston now has nine first-round picks over the next four drafts. 

Only time will tell if those picks are used properly. A perfect mix of trading and executing those selections would put the Celtics on the fast track back to the postseason.

Now that Ainge has finally let go of the past, the Celtics can begin an uninhibited rebuilding process. Rajon Rondo may have been part of the present for too long in Boston, but at least now we know he’s no longer the future.

Danny Goes To Market: Is Rondo In Tow?

The period between now and the NBA trade deadline on February 19 is one of unusual importance for Danny Ainge and the Boston Celtics. The Celtics are being rebuilt, so marshalling assets, managing the salary cap, and accruing young talent and future no. 1 picks is the name of the game. Some believe Ainge should use some of these assets to grab a quality veteran and make a play for the playoffs. My belief is Ainge is playing the long game, and is willing to be patient to get the talent necessary to be a legitimate contender. That means getting a genuine superstar by hook or by crook.

For that reason, I see the Celtics as sellers above all else. Ainge therefore faces some critical decisions before February 19th, in particular with four players who can become unrestricted free agents in July. 

If Ainge does not think the four players are part of the team’s future, it is in his interest to trade them, ideally for expiring contracts and young prospects or, better yet, future draft choices. There is no reason to keep them the balance of the season, taking time away from players Ainge regards as part of the team’s future.

Two of the four players with expiring deals are Brandon Bass and Marcus Thornton. These are both solid rotation-caliber players in their prime, but it is unclear if there is much of a market for them. If Ainge can move either of them they are as probably as good as gone. Dream scenario in both cases: the Celtics move each of them along with one or two of the no. 2 choices they have stockpiled for expiring contracts and a future protected no. 1 draft choice. One could see a team like Miami needing Bass or Toronto needing Thornton, due to injuries.

Ainge has proven very adept at locating these types of deals—Tyler Zeller, anyone?—so if there is a market out there Ainge will find it...or create it. 

Jeff Green is next. He has a year remaining on his contract but can opt out in July and it seems likely that he will. Green is having a good year and is a legitimate starting 3 in the NBA. At age 28 he probably has a good four quality seasons still in the tank. Were he under contract at his current $9.2 per annum for another four years I suspect Ainge would be happy to have him on board.

But it is another matter to sign a new contract for four or five years at what may well be more like Rudy Gay or Chandler Parsons money, say $13-15 million per annum. The league has grown short of quality 3s, so Green may even do better than that on the open market. In that case Green is swallowing up a lot of space under the salary cap. For a guy who is never likely to be more than the fourth best player on a genuine contender, he may be a luxury the Celtics cannot afford. Better to move him to a team that could use him right now—Toronto and Memphis both come to mind, and there are others—in exchange for expiring deals and one or two future no. 1 picks. 

In the short term the Celtics have Evan Turner to play the 3 and they can work James Young into the rotation by the end of the year. The whole idea the rest of the season should be to give as much of the playing time as possible to players who might be part of the future. 

Finally, there is the main attraction, the Celtics' best player, Rajon Rondo. What Ainge does with him by February 19 is the single great and defining issue before the team. I believe the Celtics came into the season with the hope that Rondo would play his best season to date and make the prospect of giving him a massive extension a no-brainer. Were that the case, an article on the Celtics in the trade market would not include Rondo. But instead Rondo’s season to date has been a disappointment. The Celtics must be having second thoughts about whether they want to sign him to a huge deal, one which would markedly reduce any possibility of entering the free agent market in a serious manner for the visible future.

So how is Rondo a disappointment? He remains the best passing point guard in the game, and in the first tier of best passers in NBA history. There are very few who are his equal. It is sheer pleasure to watch him make passes almost every game that no one else can make.

He is also an exceptional rebounder, perhaps the greatest 6-1 rebounder in NBA history.

That is one hell of a foundation for an NBA player, and all of this was evident with Rondo by his third season in the league, at age 23, when he destroyed the Bulls in the 2009 playoffs. Or in 2010 when he outplayed Dwight Howard and LeBron James in the playoffs and led the Celtics to the 7th game of the NBA Finals.

He was also an annual all-defense team player in those days.

But despite those virtues, Rondo was still an unfinished product. As great as he was in the playoffs in 2009 and 2010, he also disappeared and was largely ineffectual for many games. To become a genuine superstar, Rondo had to develop in two areas. First, he had to use his spectacular handle and quickness and savvy to initiate contact, draw fouls and get to the free throw line, in classic point guard style. Former coach Doc Rivers put it bluntly early in Rondo’s career when he said that if Rondo got to the line 10 times per game, he would be one of the all-time greats. Basically that is what Tiny Archibald did. Before injuries ravaged him, Archibald was a perennial league leader in scoring based on a good 10 trips to the line per game in the early-mid 1970s.

Second, Rondo had to be able to bury open jump shots, and eventually become a passable, even solid, three-point shooter when left wide open.

Both of these were realistic goals. It is what most great point guards have to do when they enter the league, from Magic Johnson to John Wall. 

If Rondo had mastered one of those two areas, he would be a top 10-12 player in the league, and arguably capable of being the best player on a championship team.

If Rondo had mastered both of those areas, he would be a top-5 player and in the annual debate over league MVP. He arguably would be the third best player in Celtics history. 

In either scenario, Rondo gets a five-year max contract offer from the Celtics this summer. The Celtics only pray that he accepts it.

Ray Allen once commented how he and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce would watch Rondo routinely do amazing offensive moves in practice and want to say to him, “Dude, do you realize how good you could be?” Most Celtics fans have thought the same as they watched Rondo’s periodic dazzling, even breathtaking, performances, typified by his penchant for “triple doubles.” What if he rounded out his game like nearly all other great point guards and became a scoring threat? 

Alas, it has not come to pass. Indeed Rondo has regressed. Rondo has always been dreadful at getting to the line and making free throws compared to other NBA point guards, but his career high 3.7 free throw attempts per 36 minutes in 2010 now looks like Moses Malone on steroids. This season Rondo is getting to the line at a career-low 1.9 times per 36 minutes, well below any other starting point guard.

And that doesn’t even begin to plumb the depths Rondo is exploring: In his rookie season of 2006-07, Rondo made a career-high 64.7 percent of his free throw attempts. That is a reasonable figure for a rookie and one would think that like many great guards he would see it climb towards 75 or even 80 percent as his career progressed. Instead, this season Rondo is only making 33 percent of the free throw attempts those extraordinarily rare times he does get to the line. No other player in NBA history playing 31.8 minutes per game—which is what Rondo is playing this season—has ever shot this low of a percentage. Only six NBA players who averaged more than 10 minutes-per-game and played at least 68 games in a season ever shot free throws this poorly—and the list is entirely comprised of notorious big man bricklayers like Andris Biedrins, Larry Smith, and Olden Polynice. Shaq’s worst year at the line looks like Larry Bird in his prime by comparison. 

To put it another way, prior to this season, in the entire 69 year history of the NBA, not a single player who played 31.8 minutes per game has ever made as few free throws as Rondo is making this season. For a point guard, not to mention a superstar, this production is a farce. 

At this point, Rondo appears to refuse to initiate contact and draw fouls because he is petrified of bricking free throws. It means he has taken a major weapon he needs to be an effective player out of his arsenal. That makes it much easier for teams to defend the Celtics.

Rondo’s aversion to getting to the line could be mitigated to a significant extent if he developed into a reliable shooter when left wide open. Jason Kidd had a similar game to Rondo’s when he came into the league, and Kidd never did develop much of a taste for getting to the line, usually only making 4 or 5 trips to the line per game even at his peak. After he turned 30, like most star players, Kidd stopped going to the line as much and was full Rondo by the time of his superb late-career stint with Dallas. But Kidd compensated for his free throw attempt inadequacy by becoming a solid shooter, especially from three-point land. 

A better example is Steve Nash, who only once in his storied career ever averaged as many as four free throw attempts per game. He simply did not draw fouls. But Nash became a dead-eye shooter, especially from long distance. And, like Kidd, when he did get to the line, he made his free throws.

It looked like this might be Rondo’s pattern as well. When he returned from his ACL operation early in 2014 he seemed to shoot with more authority if not a great deal more success. But this season has been regression as he is shooting only half the number of three-pointers per 36 minutes as a year ago, and at a lower percentage, just 24 percent . It just isn’t happening. He is not better at shooting today than he was early in his career.

For Rondo this offensive incompetence translates into the lowest scoring average of career per 36 minutes—9.1 points per game—around 40 percent lower than his scoring average per 36 minutes in his peak years. And this is when the Celtics do not have Paul Pierce or Ray Allen or Kevin Garnett; the team desperately needs him to score to succeed and he isn’t doing it. 

For a guy about to turn 29 and pretty much at the age where he should be peaking, this is disconcerting. Especially so since this is his contract year. If Rondo can’t get it together now, when he as much as $100 million on the line, it defies credulity to imagine he is going to suddenly get it together when the ink has dried and he is in his 30s. Just as likely, what you see now is what you are going to get.

And this Rondo can be a fine complementary piece, but he cannot be the best player on championship team, or, with the regression, the second best player on a championship team.

For these reasons I can imagine that Ainge is hesitant about building the next five years of the Celtics around Rondo. For the Celtics to be genuine contenders the team needs to get at least one player that will be a superstar and better than anyone they have at present. It will also require Ainge to draft well the next two or three years and for Brad Stevens to “coach up”  players like Smart, Young, Olynyk and Sullinger. And it will take luck. The odds of getting lucky go down if there is little capspace to play with. With capspace, young players, and oodles of future no. 1 picks, Ainge has a vast array of resources to use to draft, trade for, or sign in free agency a prospective superstar.

It might be better to clear capspace—letting these four players go would put the Celtics very far below the salary cap immediately. In the short term the team is obviously weaker—but then the no. 1 pick is higher in 2015!—but the possibility for getting back to the very top improve.

Now even if Ainge decides that the Celtics cannot afford to give Rondo a max deal and decides to trade him before the deadline, that does not mean he can find much of a deal. Other GMs see what is going on and they are unlikely to want to pay much for half a season of Rondo. His market value has dropped. And this is a golden age for great point guards in the NBA; no one would place Rondo in the top 5 and not many in the top 10. He is a middle-of-the-pack player at this point.

The sort of place where Rondo would be a perfect fit is Houston. The Rockets have a superstar scorer in James Howard and a backline defender in Dwight Howard. Rondo would be able to neutralize the truly great point guards the Rockets will likely encounter in every round of the Western Conference playoffs—Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, Mike Conley, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, or Damian Lillard. He could make Houston absurdly unstoppable on offense. Houston is one team where Rondo could be the difference between an NBA title and a first or second round exit. With two superstars in their prime, there is no tomorrow for the Rockets. The supporting cast would cover Rondo’s flaws, much like the Big Three did in the Celtics recent glory days.

But it takes two to tango and other teams, including Houston, may be unwilling to give much of value for Rondo. It may get so low that it is just as well for Ainge to keep him, and let Stevens have an experienced floor general to develop the young players over the course of the season. Then just let Rondo walk come July. Sometimes teams are better off just letting players leave in free agency. Ask Atlanta if they miss Josh Smith or the Bulls if they missed Ben Gordon.

And then again, there is the possible outcome that the Celtics re-sign Rondo in the summer of 2015 at a much lower rate than anyone thought possible just a few months ago.

Recent reports have indicated Danny Ainge is burning up the phone lines in his trade negotiations with GMs across the league. This is his playoffs, and what he does before February 19th may prove to be decisive for determining the future of the franchise. Who wouldn’t love to be a fly on the wall in Celtics headquarters?

Coach's Corner: Stagnant Suns; Let 'Em Shoot

Stagnant Suns

Fresh off their surprising playoff push last season, the Phoenix Suns made some interesting alterations to their roster. Channing Frye, an invaluable perimeter threat in the frontcourt, was allowed to leave to sign with the Orlando Magic and reserve guard Ish Smith, arguably the team’s most willing passer, was released. The Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus, are now splitting minutes that went to fry while Isaiah Thomas was signed this offseason to be the team’s sixth man. In effect, the Suns replaced floor spacing and passing with more scoring.

The result is a Phoenix team that started off the season with a noticeable lack of ball movement. According to SportVU data, the Suns rank 25th in the league in total passes per game, 27th in secondary assists -- a category designed to track the “extra pass” -- and 27th in assist opportunities (an open shot that doesn’t go in). To top it off, NBA.com has them ranked 27th in assist ratio.

Seven games is on the tiny end as far as small sample sizes and part of that is reflection of the Suns offensive philosophy. Head coach Jeff Hornacek wants his team to play fast and find 3’s or layups early in the possession. That type of mandate isn’t going to produce a lot of staggering passing totals that teams like the Spurs or Heat (with LeBron at least) based their lethal offenses on.

But those numbers do also reflect the subjective assessment of the team before the year began. Players like Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, the Morris twins, Thomas and reserve guard Gerald Green all possess a score-first mindset. In any system, it would take a heavy emphasis on ball movement in (limited) practice and walkthroughs, along with some continuity to curb those players natural tendencies. So far, Phoenix hasn’t been able to do that and in the opening games of the season, the offense has had a very “My turn, your turn” flow to it -- particularly in the second unit where Green and Thomas seem to alternate dominating possessions in search of a shot.

Scoring efficiently without the ball pinging around the perimeter like the Spurs is certainly possible, it’s just a lot harder to do and requires a lot individual brilliance. The Thunder teams in recent years have mastered the art of scoring with limited ball movement but have also been heavily criticized for their over reliance on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook creating offensive brilliance without much help -- an issue that becomes magnified against better competition. It’s been linked to the team’s downfall (though not even close to the sole cause) during some of their recent playoff exits.

According to our very own RealGM stats, Phoenix currently sits 15th in offensive efficiency. That ranking is hardly a worrisome number as the young Suns are integrating some players into new roles and (in theory) the offensive production and ball movement should only get better as the team gains experience together. But for a team with their eyes on a playoff spot, the question is how much?

Dragic, Bledsoe and company, while good, can’t manipulate defense like a healthy Durant and Westbrook. Add in the fact they play in an insanely deep and competitive conference, and the inability to max out the team’s offensive potential with consistent ball movement could mean the difference between a playoff berth and living in high-end of the lottery limbo for the next few seasons. It’s still early, so there’s plenty of time for the Hornacek and the Suns to figure things out, but it’s certainly an issue to keep an eye on.

Let ‘em Shoot

No matter how often we tend to think otherwise, every player in the NBA is really good at basketball. So when an opposing head coach brazenly ignores one of the five on the court in attempt to thwart another part of a team’s offense, it’s particularly noteworthy. One of the many reasons we admire Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is for his willingness to go to extremes like this an attempt to give his team an edge. Brad Stevens of the Celtics has shown a willingness to do the same.

Though they have sputtered of late, the Mavericks offense is going to be really difficult to deal with all season long. The Celtics found that out the hard way, giving up 118 points when they played early last week. But in that game Stevens employed a tactic that will be something to file away for not just if (when?) his team makes the playoffs, but when teams play Dallas in the postseason as well.

There’s a lot that happens in that short segment, so let’s unpack. In order to deal with Dirk Nowitzki in pick-and-pop, Stevens opts to switch it first -- having Avery Bradley and Jeff Green swap assignments. Since Nowitzki posting up Bradley isn’t a fair fight, Stevens has Kelly Olynyk, rotate off Brandon Wright will Bradley fronts the post. At the same time, Marcus Smart drops onto Wright, leaving Monta Ellis all by his lonesome in the far corner. It’s this end result -- leaving Ellis unattended -- that was a common theme when it came to stopping other parts of the Dallas offense as earlier in the game, Rajon Rondo rotated off Ellis while he was in the corner to stop Dirk from shooting in another pick-and-pop

Like Popovich, Stevens is just playing the odds and being rather bold about it. Though Ellis is an extremely threatening scorer, any Nowitzki shots is far more efficient than one from Ellis -- no matter where either is located on the floor. Ellis is both a middling 3-point shooter (33 percent last year) and catch-and-shoot player (ranking in the 66th percentile per Synergy data) while Nowitzki is, well, Nowitzki

Even when it comes to historically great shooters, it’s never easy to tell players to leave a player with Ellis’ reputation as a scorer, which is why it’s interesting (and ballsy) for a coach to do it. In the grand scheme of things, Stevens saw his defense get shredded, but that doesn’t mean this tactic didn’t have merit. It’s certainly something that may pop up again for either his teams or the ones facing off against Dallas in a playoff series.

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