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?