"Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. If they call the foul on Dwyane Wade in overtime, Boston wins the series." - Celtics fans everywhere.
"Good defense by Allen. Off the deflection, they'll get it back - Rondo takes it away! Spins . . . puts it up - BANKS IT IN! Rajon Rondo putting on a show!" -Mike Breen, Game 3 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals.
After eight and a half years of mind-boggling highlights, the inevitable end has finally arrived. At one point, I thought Rajon Rondo would retire in green. Thursday, December 18th proved me wrong, and Rajon Rondo, the four-time All-Star, was finally traded from the Boston Celtics to the Dallas Mavericks, seven years and precisely 29 trade rumors later. Rondo, named Boston's captain last season, has endured his name being in the news constantly as rumored to be shipped off somewhere by trigger-happy general manager, Danny Ainge. "It's a way of life," Rondo said in reference to trade rumors after a win against the Orlando Magic.
That was his last post-game interview as a member of the Boston Celtics.
Why is Rondo so special anyway? He has a below-par perimeter game, his defense has waned in past years, and even in his defensive prime, he was more of a gambler on that end. He is known for "checking out" and "taking games off." Sometimes, it looks like he's only interested in winning basketball games when he's wearing a headband. Rondo's absurdly high rebound numbers for a point guard could possibly be inflated by the fact that a large number of them are uncontested and that no other big besides Jared Sullinger is interested in crashing the boards. He used to have a mercurial and reserved nature towards the media, with the former getting on the nerves of many media outlets and reporters. He's been accused of being a selfish player, despite sharing the ball at a sometimes historic clip. What's the big deal?
Well, maybe it's the fact that Rondo has knocked down some of the biggest jumpshots when they matter most. Maybe it's the fact that Rondo keyed crucial late-game stops and gambled correctly on multiple occasions to seal wins. Maybe it's because when he's "checked in," he becomes nearly unguardable, killing opposing defenses. Maybe it's because when he does wear a headband, he enters that killer mode. Maybe it's because when the team needs a crucial rebound, Rondo sacrifices his body to crash the glass. Maybe it's because Rondo has evolved to show his witty and fun side to the media in recent years. Maybe it's because he makes all of his teammates better. That might have something to do with it.
Rajon Rondo has been the best player on courts shared with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. Think about what that means for a second. While Rondo may not be a perfect or consistent player, he gets it done when "it" needs to be done. That it is winning. His new teammate, Dirk Nowitzki, acknowledged as much when he said "Rondo is a winner . . . That's exactly what you want."
So while Rondo will bring his winning ways to the Western Conference, what of his former dancing partners: the men in green?
Although Boston might be overwhelmingly disappointed with the package that the Celtics received in return for Rondo (Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, a heavily-protected 2015 first round pick that will likely be given up in 2016, and a future second-round pick), this was not a bad haul by any means. That said, Rondo could have gotten a bigger return . . . if this was 2013.
As Zach Lowe mentioned in his trade analysis here, trading Rajon Rondo three years before the end of his contract (in 2012) would have signified Boston giving up way too early. The perfect time would have been two years before the end of his contract. The only problem? Rondo tore his ACL right before the Trade Deadline. If he hadn't, Danny Ainge would have received a much larger return for his point guard. No one has wanted to mortgage their future for Rondo since then. Last year, everyone wanted to see how he'd play after recovering. His level of play no longer warrants what he may have gotten if he hadn't torn his ACL in 2013. In summary, this offer by Dallas is as good as it was going to get. The offers would have only gotten worse as the deadline for this season approaches.
Brandan Wright is the real keeper. Being the league-leader in FG% and having a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) that ranks in the top-10, Wright is certainly a piece to hold on to. The only immediate problem is the question of who is going to be putting him in great positions to score. Boston surely hopes that Smart can develop into a point guard who can set teammates up nicely. Wright becomes a free agent at the end of the season, and he's due for a huge raise.
Jae Crowder, a high-energy, Kenneth Faried-like reserve can do much damage off the bench, especially since added a 3-point shot to his arsenal. Jameer Nelson, once the starting point guard of the Orlando teams that went toe-to-toe with Boston in the "Big Four" era, is on the tail-end of his career. He can run a team efficiently enough, but he's clearly not a long-term piece. He has a $2.9 million player option at the end of this season.
Thrilling, isn't it? Well, actually, yes. Boston drafted Marcus Smart to combat this possible scenario, and now his development will have to speed up a bit. They clearly see him as a cornerstone, and he has that potential. Smart's defense is game-changing, and he attacks the rim with reckless abandon. His 3-point shot is decent, but it's already shown signs of improvement. If he can stay healthy, Boston will be able to deal with the loss of Rondo.
One extremely important element of the trade that people don't realize is that Boston has a massive $12.9 million trade exception. Wright, Crowder, and Nelson all fit into existing trade exceptions that Boston had, so basically, the Celtics traded Rondo's salary to get a similarly sized TPE (Traded Player Exception). This is undeniably valuable. If, somehow, a star becomes available in the next year, Boston will have this TPE and a war chest of draft picks (18 over the next five years) to offer.
The 2015 Draft, in particular, is full of gems who can protect the rim, an area in which the Celtics are sorely lacking (I'm looking at you, Karl-Anthony Towns). Losing an All-Star-caliber point guard (on most nights) will definitely make the team worse in the long term. Add that to the fact that Ainge will likely continue his stripping down of the roster by dealing Jeff Green, Brandon Bass, and Marcus Thornton next. With this upcoming draft, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Last year, Boston showed that they can be competitive and still lose a lot of games. By trading Rondo, they've chosen to extend the rebuilding period. However, if the Celtics do it right, it won't be extended by much. For now, though, it's all about development. Marcus Smart is the focal point now, and he needs to be given as many opportunities as possible to be able to be the leader of the next generation of Celtics trying to get that elusive 18th championship. The future is bright, but this is now.