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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.

Forced To Learn On The Job, Solomon Hill Showing Promise

By the middle of November, Solomon Hill will have already played more minutes this season than he did in his rookie year. Not needed with Lance Stephenson, Paul George and George Hill on the perimeter, Hill appeared in 28 games and played just 8.1 minutes per game in 2013-14.

That’s what you’d expect from a late first-round pick on a championship contender, but things changed very quickly this offseason.

Just a few weeks after the Indiana Pacers lost to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals (for the second-straight season), the 23-year-old’s role with the club began to grow. Stephenson left for the Charlotte Hornets as a free agent, making Hill at the very least a rotation player under Frank Vogel.

The Pacers signed C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey to help fill the void left behind by Stephenson, which put Hill in position to blossom in due time, but everything changed when George’s right leg collided with that basket stanchion in Las Vegas. Suddenly, Vogel needed Hill to show his game was ready much sooner originally expected.

“They just told me that they believed in my ability to play the game and that I should continue to play the game the way I’m supposed to play it,” Hill told RealGM when asked about conversations he had with Vogel and the front office heading into the season.

“We knew there could possibly be an opportunity, but we didn’t know it would be like this with Paul [George] out. As a guy that just loves to play the game, I’m trying to step up and make the most of it.”

Hill has started each of Indiana’s first six games. His minutes, shot attempts, rebounds, assists, steals and turnovers have all at least tripled (in some cases quadrupled). There isn’t a huge sample size to study from either this season or last, but Hill’s shooting percentages look good early on.

Despite a significant increase in touches, Hill has seen his field goal (.425 to .455), three-point (.304 to .400) and True Shooting percentages (.545 to .579) all increase.

“He’s being asked to do more than he probably should be asked to do, but he is a confident young man,” Vogel said. “He’s a mature young man and he’s rising to the challenge and enjoying every bit of the opportunity.”

As the Pacers worried about Miami and the top seed in the East, Hill looked for ways to get some playing time in his first professional season. He agreed to a brief stint with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the D-League, but returned after a mixed two-game stint. He averaged 17 points, 3.5 rebounds and three assists in nearly 30 minutes per game, but was unhappy with how minutes were given out.

Hill looks back on the experience much more fondly now that he’s had time to digest it all.

“Confidence. That was the main thing,” he said of the benefits of a D-League assignment. “Just the confidence to go out there and score, being able to see the ball go in the hoop as opposed to just watching from the bench. It helped me know that I could still do it, so that was definitely a good experience for me.”

Seeing the ball go in the basket hasn’t been an issue for Hill so far. He failed to score in 15 of the 28 games he played as a rookie and entered this season having never reached double-digits. He has scored 10 or more points four times already and set a career-high with 14 in an overtime loss to the Washington Wizards on Wednesday night.

 “[He] is continuing to grow every single game he’s out there. He’s showing more confidence and more ability on both ends of the court,” Vogel said of the second-year wing. “He’s got a chance -- like we believe -- to be one of our best two-way players.”

The Pacers pride themselves on defense, which has made that end of the floor a high priority as Hill develops. Vogel has had to rely on questionable defensive players like Chris Copeland more this month because of a mounting injury report, but Hill’s ability to defend on the perimeter has been his most consistent NBA trait. He even spent time guarding John Wall in the Washington game. As Vogel hinted, Hill is being asked to become a complete player much sooner than the organization planned.

“I don’t think I’m really confident more on one side of the ball than the other. I think one or the other gets me going,” Hill said.

“The ability to use offense and defense to get you going as a player is great because you aren’t relying on one thing. You aren’t just relying on a shot falling, on scoring. You can go get a stop and change a game that way. I feel like that allows me to play more minutes because one side of the ball can feed into the other.”

The one thing you can’t teach or practice is experience, something Hill pointed to as Indiana’s biggest issue as they look to endure a 1-5 start.

“I think collectively, as a group, we’re making up for what we’ve lost, but the one thing that we can’t reproduce are those veteran NBA guys that have been in the trenches of games,” Hill admitted. “I think we’re learning how to try to do that. We’re doing better every game.”

Less will be asked of Hill when C.J. Watson (foot), David West (ankle) and George Hill, (knee) eventually return, but there will still be minutes available and Solomon Hill will be ready for them.

Rondo Injury Leads To Experiment At Point Guard

The Boston Celtics will be without Rajon Rondo to begin the season for the second time in as many years following last week’s much-discussed left hand injury. Rondo suffered a left metacarpal fracture last Thursday night when he slipped in the shower.

There had been reports that Rondo injured himself at a local trampoline park, a visit he made with his children at least twice last week, but he was adamant that his story was legitimate during the team’s annual media day on Monday. 

Rondo expects to miss 8-10 weeks, which means the Celtics will be without their starting point guard for at least the first few weeks of the regular season. Danny Ainge said the club would be “cautious” with Rondo even though the injury is to his off-hand.

Regardless of whether Rondo is out for two weeks or more than a month, Brad Stevens will be forced to improvise. That means more ball-handling duties for two newcomers -- rookie Marcus Smart and free-agent addition Evan Turner. 

“Marcus being a rookie, it’s very important for him not to feel like he has to fill Rondo’s shoes. We’ll do that as a team and we’ll do that collectively,” Ainge said at the team’s practice facility in Waltham. “Evan will probably play some point guard, those are questions you can ask Brad. Phil [Pressey] can play some point guard.”

Boston has never had a ton of depth behind Rondo in terms of a true point guard, but this year the cupboard is more empty than usual. Avery Bradley spent a decent amount of time running the point with Rondo recovering from a torn ACL in each of the last two seasons, but wasn’t listed by Stevens as a potential option this time around. 

“We have multiple primary ball-handers on this team. I’ve always been a guy that thinks you can play two point guards together and you can play two combo guards together,” Stevens said. “We’ve just got to figure out who can best get the most out of everyone else and at the same time get the most out of the position as they can. 

“It’s an opportunity for Marcus. It’s an opportunity for Phil Pressey; it’s an opportunity for Evan Turner. It’s an opportunity for all those guys. The answer to that is only time will tell, I think that’s the best way to go about it.”

No mention was made of Bradley, who the coach raved about as a fill-in for Rondo prior to last season. Stevens told the Boston Herald in September 2013: I don’t think there is any doubt that Avery has elite ability in a lot of ways as a point guard. He’s an elite defender at the position. He’s an elite athlete at the point guard position. I think he’s a guy that’s gotten better. I think he’s a guy with more confidence, and I think he’s excited about the challenge if Rajon is out [in reference to Rondo’s ACL injury].

“As I’ve watched it, I didn’t think the struggles [at the point last season, which referred to 2012-13] were as bad as they were made out to be. The other thing is he did that midstream. He had to make that adjustment within a system already created. Maybe we do things that fit him a bit better early that you can tweak when Rajon comes back. You know, Bradley is still going to play. He’s still going to play a lot. He’s going to play off the ball and with the ball.”

It could very well be that Bradley hasn’t been considered because Rondo’s absence should be short. While not proven, Stevens has options worth looking at for the 8-to-16 games Rondo is expected to miss.

Pressey carries experience from last season, his first as a professional, when he played 15.1 minutes per game and started 11 times. His usage rate was low, 14.3%, but he showed an ability to distribute the ball effectively -- accounting for 44.3% of Boston’s assists when on the court.

It’s odd to think of him as the best option, but that may only be because he went undrafted 16 months ago.

Turner has the most NBA experience of the three -- having logged 306 games, mostly with the Philadelphia 76ers -- but could be third on the point guard depth chart when the season begins.

The No. 2 overall pick in 2010, Turner hasn’t played much point guard in the NBA, but the Indiana Pacers did experiment with him at the position sparingly during his brief tenure with the club. Ironically enough, the Celtics were one of the teams against which Frank Vogel played Turner at the point. I wrote about Indiana’s experiment here -- Pacers Show New Wrinkle With Turner At Point Guard -- in March.

Vogel made the decision to have Turner run the point -- which was forced by a brief injury to George Hill -- because the former National Player of the Year did so for a season at Ohio State. Stevens also referenced that when I asked him about his lack of professional experience running an offense.

“I think the [lack of] experience way, way, way outdistances any [lack of] success. I don’t think he’s played a lot of point, but maybe I’m wrong,” Stevens said. “I do know that he played point one year in college and was the National Player of the Year.”

The results weren’t bad in the limited time Turner spent at the point for the Pacers, but the situation was vastly different than the one in Boston. Hill, Indiana’s starting “point guard” is really one in name only, while Rondo carries much more responsibility. The cast of characters around Turner with Indiana was also more talented. Turner’s stat line was impressive in the aforementioned March game against the Celtics, which may have Stevens more optimistic than he should be about his skills as the primary ball-hander.

To his credit, Turner expressed a desire to do whatever Stevens asks him to do for the Celtics. “I’ve played the perimeter lately, and I’ve guarded the one-through-three,” he said. “I just want to do whatever is best to help the team.”

Regardless of how comfortable he is handing Turner the keys to the offense, Stevens seems most inclined to give Smart a chance to win the job outright. He made a point of emphasizing that he won’t restrict the sixth overall pick from starting simply because he’s a rookie.

“Marcus is going to get a ton of opportunity on and off the ball. I think he is physical, mentally and emotionally ready for those,” the coach said. “He doesn’t have any experience yet, but that will come quick.”

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