The rumours never end. Ever. Rajon Rondo has been the point guard of the Boston Celtics since 2006, and has repeatedly attracted trade speculation over the bulk of his career. And yet, here he is, a rarity in the league as a player who has remained with the same team since his rookie year, eight years on.
Then you realise why the rumours have been around for so long. To put it simply, he has immense talent, an NBA championship, and plays the game to make his teammates better by sharing the ball – an uncommon trait for point guards in the NBA. Then when you dig even further, you are reminded of his ability to step up his game in the postseason, of his drive to win at all costs, to sacrifice life and limb (literally) for his team. Of course other teams would be interested, there’s no doubt about that.
When you put all of this together, you really wonder why ‘experts’ are so keen to offload a player of this calibre. Allow me to analyse exactly why the captain of the most storied franchise in the game will remain in Boston not only for this season, but long enough to see that number 9 hanging in the rafters next to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
The Mutual Attraction
In any long-term relationship, both parties need to remain interested and enthusiastic about one another. Firstly, Rajon himself has repeatedly stated that he loves the Celtics, the city of Boston and the fans that occupy it. Here are some of his more recent quotes;
“The fans, the people here make me want to stay,” Rondo said at that time. “The organization has been great. I can’t say enough about Danny (Ainge, Boston’s president of basketball operations) and Wyc (Grousbeck who co-owns the team), but when I walk down the street the fans have embraced me from Day One. These people know the game; you can’t fool them. The love I get is kind of overwhelming. I want to stay here.”
“Regardless of what’s going on with the season, my position hasn’t changed,” Rondo said on Wednesday. “I love being a Celtic.”
It’s always encouraging when the player loves the team he plays for, however the feelings need to be shared by those running the organisation too. When the owner, GM and coach all like what you bring to the table, I’d say that’s a pretty good sign that the organisation would like to see you stick around.
The relationship between coach Stevens and captain Rondo is as strong as any Rondo has had with any coach. Mostly it seems as though the reports of Rondo being hard to coach are blown way out of proportion, but we’ll get to that later. NBA.com’s David Aldridge outlined the kind of rapport shared by the duo before the season began, exploring Rondo’s appreciation for how Stevens is the most positive coach he’s had in his entire career, and the values of playing hard and the will to win are shared between the pair. Having analytical minds and confidence in your star player to execute the plays drawn up in timeouts, are attributes any coach would love to have in their point guard.
With salary cap restrictions, pending free agency, and a team in rebuild mode, the final year of Rondo’s contract was always going to draw attention from reporters. While we won’t delve too far into the financial side of basketball, it actually makes sense to wait until the end of the season to re-sign him.
Due to the Collective Bargaining Agreement rules, Boston is unable to offer a five-year extension to Rondo until the end of the season. The Celtics are the only team able to offer a contract with the length of 5 years as they hold Rajon’s Bird Rights. In addition, the team can’t offer anywhere near the same amount of (possibly maximum) money until season’s end as well. Also in the Celtics’ favour is their ability to offer higher increments of pay per season than other teams once free agency does hit. It appears both Danny and Rondo are on the same page already, when Ainge was quoted on media day agreeing that a player set to reach his prime is probably worth the big dollars:
“I think a four-time All-Star by the time he’s  years old would qualify for max based on what we’ve seen in the marketplace,” Ainge said. “If I were Rajon and I were Rajon’s agent, I would definitely say that.”
While a maximum contract may sound a bit steep to Rondo critics, there is one very important thing to remember where the salary cap is concerned. The NBA is set to triple their national TV revenue in their next television rights deal for the season beginning 2016-17. While there is still this season and next to get through, this deal is expected to increase team salary caps by $25.8 million per year.
What this means for Rondo is that a maximum contract signed next year, won’t actually hurt the team’s cap room nearly as much after the first season. To put it simply, the current salary cap’s maximum will pay Rajon handsomely for the next five years, but it won’t destroy the Celtics’ long-term spending on other pieces. The percentage of his contract next to the salary cap will actually be comparable to his current team-friendly deal.
There are many stars in the NBA, but how many of those play alongside someone who could actually make them even better? Building a roster that is strong right to the end of the bench is becoming increasingly important to building a championship team. Rondo is a distributor by nature, and has proven his ability to put the ball to his teammates that amplify their strengths. So the question is; why would you trade someone that can make their teammates better, and be appealing to potential star recruits?
One of the knocks on Rondo was that his productivity would drop off once his star teammates in Pierce, Garnett and Allen left. Overall his statistics point to someone that has remained just as effective in scoring and passing, while his rebounding numbers have actually improved since the departures of the Big Three. His maturity levels have increased, and he seems to be excelling as a leader since their departures.
If anything, he has become more of a focal point on offense, and finally plays with teammates young enough to play the running game he has always craved. Last season the Celtics ranked 12th for possessions per game while posting 96.2 points. Through this year, they rank 8th in the league for possessions while posting 104.6 points – good enough for 6th in the league. A fit Rondo is showcasing how easily he can run an offense that plays his style of run-and-gun basketball.
From an individual perspective, Rondo’s performance through 6 games this year has yielded averages of 10.8 points, a league-leading 11.3 assists, 8.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game. The man is almost averaging a triple-double. While it’s a small sample, not many players in the league can point to those numbers.
Looking into the history books, Rondo has demonstrated that he can take his game to another level once the playoffs hit. First there was holding the keys to the 2008 championship team (of course), but it was over the next few years he really began to shine. The 2009 series against the Bulls was a coming out party for Rondo, playing a starring role in the 7 game series. He almost single-handedly took his team of stars to the championship in 2010 with the way he played in the Finals, and he played out the series against Miami in 2011 despite a dislocated elbow. Then in 2012, he helped take the soon-to-be champion Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals, including that 44-point game that almost ripped Miami’s heart out.
He has proven to the league that he is capable of stepping up when it matters most in the postseason, something his contemporaries have no doubt noticed, but also respected immensely. Keeping in mind that the Celtics are primed to make a charge at the 2015 offseason, in both free agency and trades, Rondo is a pretty handy individual to help sell the Boston Celtics franchise to prospective players.
The Silencing of Detractors
Where to begin? Rondo is in the final year of a contract, which makes him an easy target for trade speculation, even by his standards. We often see players step up their games when playing for another contract, then drastically dropping off in the following season. Danny Ainge summarises where Rondo would fit into this topic:
“I don’t think that’s what drives Rajon. I think that he’s motivated because he didn’t play to his standards coming off the knee injury. He doesn’t like to not be good. He doesn’t like not being considered one of the best point guards in the game. I think that’s what drives him, that’s what motivates him, and that’s what drove him to hard work this summer.”
Even if the C’s were looking to offload Rondo, the issue of placing a value on such a unique player opens up a whole new can of worms. People say he’s a hard individual to deal with, which would automatically be used against the Celtics in any negotiations to trade for anyone of equal talent – especially when the team is taking a risk to convince him to stay if he’s only been there for half a season. I believe a trade is even more unlikely now than it was at any point last year.
The perception that Rondo is a tough personality to deal with is unfounded. He’s the ultimate competitor who loves to win, and I can only recall one occasion in his entire career where there has ever been any issues with teammates. That teammate happened to be Ray Allen, who was more upset with Doc Rivers’ decision to put the ball in Rondo’s hands more than Rondo as a person. Kobe Bryant, one of the fiercest competitors to ever play in the NBA, has had his fair share of issues with teammates – but I don’t see anyone kicking him out of LA, and he’s had several more indiscretions than Rondo ever will. I’m not comparing the two from a basketball level, as Rondo is more a likely to form a star duo, but it’s a good comparison when it comes to competitive personalities.
If anything I would say Rondo is one of the more loyal individuals when it comes to his teammates, when you consider his lasting friendships with past Celtics such as Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Keyon Dooling, Jason Terry and Kendrick Perkins, just to name a few. With these players now all departed, Rajon can seek advice from his former teammates about parting from such a great place. If he values Kendrick Perkins’ guidance, then we shouldn’t be worried about the number 9 leaving any time soon
“I think it’s a great place for him. I think he wants to stay here. We talk on the regular, and I think he should stay,” said Perkins. “If I was him, I’d stay.”
The current roster is shaped by a strong guard rotation of Rondo, Avery Bradley and rookie Marcus Smart. On draft night, many people began pointing at Boston’s selection of Smart as the end of Rondo’s time in a green uniform. While Smart has already shown his potential as a capable player, it would actually seem that these three guards could co-exist with one another as the C’s build a deep roster. Who’s to say the Celtics won’t look to offload one of Bradley or Smart if the right deal presents itself? It’s never nice to think about, but there is always the possibility.
Lastly, our friend John from Red’s Army made a great point about a potential Rondo trade at this season’s deadline:
“I don’t think Danny Ainge is going to lesson, lower his price, I don’t think he wants to become the GM that becomes known as the guy who lowers his price when his back’s against the wall.”
The Final Word
All dialogue from both Rajon and the Celtics organisation appears to be heading to a contract extension in the summer of 2015. Again, Danny Ainge has prepared for the Celtics to make a full tilt at this year’s free agency, and has a ridiculous amount of young players and draft picks at his disposal via trades, to get this team back to the top end of the Eastern conference. If Boston is looking to attract big names to the city next year, having a player as special as Rondo waiting to play alongside you has to make the team more appealing. Four-time All Stars and NBA champions don’t grow on trees, trading away a player at the peak of his powers doesn’t make sense to me.
Rajon Rondo is a loyal person, and I have no doubt he wants to become a Celtic for life. He is the captain of the team for a reason. He is respected right around the league, and I believe he is a key component to bringing banner 18 to the city of Boston. Thank you for reading.
– Michael Tarran