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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.

The NBA's Last High School Class

By the middle of the 2000’s, the enthusiasm for drafting high school players had all but evaporated. A sure-fire star like LeBron James or Dwight Howard would still go No. 1 overall, but teams were becoming increasingly unwilling to invest a lot of money in younger guys who wouldn’t be able to contribute right away. If a teenager would need several years to develop physically, the team that drafted them was essentially paying to develop a guy for someone else.

The 2005 draft was the last one to allow high school players and it didn’t feature anyone like Dwight or LeBron. The eight guys from the high school class of 2005 who were drafted that season became the final group of prep-to-pros for at least a generation. In many ways, they were a lost generation, caught between two eras. They were lost in the shuffle as soon as they came into the league, not ready to play right away and not drafted high enough to build around.

No. 6 - Martell Webster

No. 10 - Andrew Bynum

No. 18 - Gerald Green

No. 34 - CJ Miles

No. 40 - Monta Ellis

No. 45 - Lou Williams

No. 49 - Andray Blatche

No. 56 - Amir Johnson

Talent was never the issue for any of these guys. Ten years later, six of the eight are still in the NBA, playing big roles on their teams. However, none are still on the team that drafted them and most had to bounce around the league for awhile before finding a home. Gerald Green ended up spending a few years overseas while Andrew Bynum and Andray Blatche, probably the two most talented players, aren’t even in the league during what should be their prime.

It wasn’t obvious right away, as none got much playing time as rookies. Chris Paul, who spent two seasons at Wake Forest, ran away with the Rookie of the Year Award and most of the guys on the All-Rookie teams had played a few years in college. The high school guys were essentially taking a redshirt year, building up their bodies and watching from the sidelines. Since they went later in the draft, they were going to teams who didn’t have much available playing time.

In their second season, three guys - Monta, Bynum and Green - moved into the starting line-up. For the most part, an under-20 player who starts in the NBA has a lot of talent and those three are no exception. Monta is one of the fastest players in the league, Bynum is one of the biggest and Green is one of the most athletic. All three were capable of taking over a game and all three had the potential to be perennial All-Stars, if things had worked out differently.

Green was the most glaring example of a guy who wasn’t ready to play in the NBA. He had spent his whole career dunking on people whenever he felt like it, so he had no real idea how to operate within a team concept on either offense or defense. An NBA coach was just not going to put up with that from a young player, no matter how talented. Green played on four teams in his first four seasons in the NBA and was out of the league by the age of 24.

The same thing happened to Blatche, although it was slower because he was a big man. He never learned how to become a professional, either on or off the court. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be in the league - he’s coming off a season where he averaged 11 points and 5 rebounds on 47% shooting in only 22 minutes. In the last two seasons, he had PER’s of 21.9 and 18.8. The fact that no one has given him a job says it all about his reputation around the league.

Monta was way too good a player to fall out of the league, but there wasn’t a ton of interest when he entered the market last season, at the age of 28. He took a lot of bad shots for a lot of bad teams, which may or may not have been a coincidence. He sat out there for a few weeks before winding up with the Dallas Mavericks, who have been able to resurrect his career. Even in Dallas, though, his inability to defend or run point limits the line-up options around him.

Lou Williams was available for practically nothing last summer, when the Raptors acquired him and Lucas Noguiera for the price of John Salmons. After tearing his ACL in 2013, a slow recovery had made Williams expendable. He had never developed into anything beyond a scorer, so he had a hard time impacting the game without his typical burst. He has been reborn in Toronto, where he has a chance to be 6th man of the year, if they win enough games.

Amir Johnson is the longest-tenured member of the Raptors, one of the leaders of the team with the best record in the East. He wound up in Toronto after spending four years as an understudy to Ben and Rasheed Wallace in Detroit, a situation similar to what happened to Jermaine O’Neal in Portland. Johnson isn’t on that level, but he’s just now coming into his own, a 27-year old two-way big man who should be able to start well into the foreseeable future.

That might be the biggest benefit of coming into the league at such a young age - time is on your side. If a college senior needs some time before he gets comfortable with the NBA game, he could be coming up at 30 real fast. Amir Johnson has been in the league 10 seasons and is 27. Taj Gibson, in contrast, has played 6 seasons and is 29. So while Amir will be an unrestricted free agent at 28, Gibson won’t hit the market until 32, when he will already be in decline.

Miles, on his third team in the last four seasons, is getting the biggest chance of his career in his 10th season in the league. He was signed to be one of the guys to replace Lance Stephenson, but the Pacers ended up having to replace Paul George too, opening up a ton of playing time for Miles. Indiana, like Chicago over the last few seasons, still has good big men and a culture of winning, so there’s a chance for Miles to carve out a role as a starter on a playoff team.

Green, who had to spend three seasons in Russia and the D-League in his mid 20’s, is finally getting a chance to shine in the NBA at the age of 28. He is the perfect fit for the Phoenix Suns uptempo system, capable of scoring points in bunches and single-handedly taking over games. In the last few weeks alone, Green has had 24 points in 26 minutes against the Nuggets, 23 points in 22 minutes against the Pacers and 26 points in 28 minutes against the Clippers.

Over the next few seasons, the six remaining guys from the class of 2005 - Monta, Green, Williams, Amir, Miles and Webster - all have a chance to have big roles on playoff teams. With the exception of Webster, who hasn’t played all season due to injury, they are in the best situation of their careers. It took them a long time to get where they were going, but they ended up in good places. How many 10-year NBA veterans can say their best days are ahead of them?

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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