Let’s face it: This is the season of Rajon Rondo. As interesting as it is to evaluate the frontcourt progress of Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley‘s offensive potential and Jeff Green‘s surprising consistency, the biggest questions the Celtics must answer all involve Rondo. Just how good is he? Will he be traded? What can they get in return? In a weekly feature on Green Street, we’ll take stock of the Celtics captain’s status every Tuesday.
RAJON RONDO TRADE VALUE
Eight appearances into his contract season, the Celtics captain remains equal parts brilliant and baffling. In one breath, we can confidently say there’s never been another NBA player like Rajon Rondo, and in the next we rail against his three straight missed free throws in the final seconds of a two-possession game.
Rondo is averaging 11.6 assists, 10.6 points and 8.4 rebounds for a Celtics (3-6) squad that arguably should have won its last six games. The only player to produce those numbers over a full season was Oscar Robertson, who did so twice for a middling Cincinnati Royals team as a 6-foot-5 point guard in a league featuring just nine teams in the 1960s. Half a century later, a 6-foot-1 Rondo leads all 30 teams in assists per game, assist opportunities per game (21.6) and points created by assists per game (27.1), according to NBA.com’s stat tool.
Yet, it’s somehow reasonable to expect even more from Rondo. His 30 percent free throw shooting (6-20 FT) is the league’s worst among players who have attempted 10 or more free throws this season. While his jump shooting from the elbows had risen well above the league average prior to his ACL surgery, he’s seemingly reverted to the version of himself who was timid attempting jumpers earlier in his career.
All of that adds up to this: The Celtics are scoring 110.6 points per 100 possessions with Rondo on the court and 110.7 without him, according to Basketball Reference. In other words, they would own the NBA’s sixth-most efficient offense regardless of whether the four-time All-Star was on the court. Likewise, the C’s defensive rating without their captain (111.2) is slightly better than with him (113.8), and both numbers would rank among the league’s five worst.
So, we’re left with lines like his 14-point, 10-rebound and nine-assist effort in a 118-114 loss to the Suns on Monday night. Except, he a) committed a game-high five turnovers, leading to 13 Phoenix points; b) missed eight of 10 free throw attempts, including all three with two seconds left in a four-point game; c) took just three shots outside 10 feet (missing two), despite opponents playing an average of seven feet off him; and d) shared the defensive load against a starting backcourt of Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic, who combined for 37 points (on 63.6 percent true shooting), 14 assists (against six turnovers), 11 rebounds and five steals, effectively negating Rondo’s near triple-double.
It’s important to remember the Celtics are nine games into the season, and Rondo missed the entire preseason with a broken bone in his left hand, so it stands to reason his performance should continue to improve on both ends.
Still, in the C’s last three games — collapses against the Thunder, Cavaliers and Suns — Rondo has been countered by Reggie Jackson (28 points, 8 assists, 3 rebounds), Kyrie Irving (27-5-4) and Dragic (22-7-6), all of whom have signed or are expected to sign deals worth millions less annually than the Celtics point guard’s potential maximum deal.
RAJON RONDO TRADE IDEA
Few NBA teams are in desperate need of a point guard, which makes it all the more difficult for the Celtics to deal Rondo should they choose to go that route. Even fewer of those teams are close enough to contention to be willing to take on Rondo for half a season while possessing enough cap space to keep him around long-term and make a trade worthwhile. And even fewer of those teams have the assets to swap in return. So, Ainge would need to get creative.
And how’s this for creative?
The Thunder seem set at the point guard position, what with Russell Westbrook signed through the next three seasons, but isn’t it possible Westbrook and Rondo could make one helluva backcourt? Rondo’s pass-first approach seems more likely to complement Westbrook’s scorer’s mentality than Jackson’s similar shoot-first mindset, and a starting lineup featuring Rondo, Westbrook, Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka is a fascinating force.
Of course, Oklahoma City must be willing to pay Rondo his money this summer, a tall task with Westbrook, Durant and Ibaka slated to make a combined $49.25 million next season. Still, the league’s latest television deal and a soon-to-be skyrocketing salary cap will make that a whole lot easier, and trading for a name of Rondo’s caliber might help convince Durant the organization means business before the reigning MVP’s own contract comes up in 2016.
The Thunder are among the few teams with enticing enough assets to land Rondo. Let’s say OKC general manager Sam Presti offered Celtics counterpart Danny Ainge a package of Jackson, old friend Kendrick Perkins‘ $9.4 million expiring contract and a 2015 first-round draft pick that projects to be the Thunder’s lowest selection in years. The Celtics would effectively replace Rondo with a point guard four years younger and roughly two-thirds the cost, adding a third first-round pick to the mix this June and maintaining cap flexibility for the summer.
“He is one of these guards that can attack you downhill, attack your bigs and score on them like the Kyle Lowrys of the world, Monta Ellis, guys like that,” C’s coach Brad Stevens said prior to last week’s loss to OKC. “With the ball, he’s a great rhythm player. He’s obviously being asked to do a lot, and he’s obviously very capable of doing a lot.”
Idea: Long shot
It’s time now to ask the Magic 9-Ball.
RAJON RONDO TRADE ODDS
Both the Celtics and Rondo are still in a feeling-out process, determining whether each wants to spend the next five years with the other, and the first few weeks of this season haven’t provided many more answers than the previous seven.
Suns backup point guard Isaiah Thomas‘ admission on Monday that Ainge was the first person to call him at 12:01 a.m. on July 1 — the moment free agency opened this past summer — at least hints at the possibility the Celtics are preparing for life without Rondo in the future.
While they’ve remained competitive, the Celtics have begun to slip in the standings. If they start trending toward another 25-win season with a healthy Rondo in the mix, it seems more likely Ainge would start shopping his point guard rather than seek another star to pair with him.
On the other hand, should Rondo and Stevens right the ship and compete for a playoff spot, as appeared to be the case in Friday’s battle against the Cavaliers, the reverse seems a safer bet. So, while we may be one week closer to February’s trade deadline, the event horizon remains an awful long ways away.