Rajon Rondo seems to be in the twilight of his career. (Dennis Wierzbicki/USA Today Sports)
When the Celtics finally traded Rajon Rondo in December 2014, his value was at a nadir. The mercurial point guard was in the final year of his contract and coming off a mysterious hand injury that took longer to heal than anticipated. With that in mind, Danny Ainge was lauded for extracting any value from the Mavericks in return for him.
But as it turns out, the trade was a heist.
The Mavericks’ package for Rondo centered around a 2016 first-round pick (Guerschon Yabusele), 2016 second-round selection (Demetrius Jackson) and a then-little-known forward named Jae Crowder. Though the picks received much of the attention at the time, Crowder has turned into perhaps the team’s best all-around players. This revelation is hardly breaking news, but it was especially on display Sunday, when Rondo spent the majority of the contest on the bench while the Celtics shellacked the Bulls.
Despite only being 1.5 games out of the playoffs, the Bulls are preparing to rebuild. Maybe the most telling moment of their futile season came in late January, when Rondo called out his running mates, Jimmy Butler and Dwyane Wade. In an Instagram post, Rondo lambasted their leadership style after they had publicly called out some of their teammates.
“My vets would never go to the media,” he wrote. “They would come to the team. My vets didn’t pick and choose when they wanted to bring it. They brought it every time they stepped in the gym whether it was practice or a game. They didn’t take days off. My vets didn’t care about their numbers. My vets played for the team. When we lost, they wouldn’t blame us. They took responsibility and got in the gym. They showed the young guys what it meant to work. Even in Boston when we had the best record in the league, if we lost a game, you could hear a pin drop on the bus. They showed us the seriousness of the game. My vets didn’t have an influence on the coaching staff. They couldn’t change the plan because it didn’t work for them. I played under one of the greatest coaches, and he held everyone accountable. It takes 1-15 to win. When you isolate everyone, you can’t win consistently. I may be a lot of things, but I’m not a bad teammate. My goal is to pass what I learned along. The young guys work. They show up. They don’t deserve blame. If anything is questionable, it’s the leadership.”
Playing for his fourth team in three seasons, the 31-year-old Rondo is far from being the max contract player he once thought he was. That was obvious Sunday. He logged just 18 mins in the Celtics’ 100-80 victory, scoring two points with six assists, three rebounds and three steals. Even though Rondo is healthy, he hasn’t started a game since Nov. 30.
Contrast that with Crowder, who’s become a key cog on the Celtics. While he struggled offensively Sunday (five points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes), his performance will play a large role in Boston’s postseason fortunes. Last year, Crowder’s production down the stretch was hampered by a sprained ankle.
According to ESPN, Crowder, 26, has the eighth-highest real plus-minus among small forwards this season. As a tenacious defender who can play four positions, his value to the team is irrefutable. This year, Crowder has also dramatically improved his three-point rate, shooting a career-high 39.7 percent from beyond the arc (nearly seven points higher than his percentage last season).
Crowder, who’s in the second season of a five-year, $35 million contract, seems poised to be around for the Celtics’ next championship push. The same can’t be said for Isaiah Thomas, who has only one year remaining on his deal and saw Ainge once again bypass a chance to improve at the trade deadline. Crowder could outlast Thomas in Boston by a couple of seasons –– at least.
Ainge pulled off a number of brilliant trades from 2013-15, most notably the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce deal. Getting Crowder, a lynchpin of this team, for an over-the-hill point guard will go down as one of his finest. We just didn’t know it at the time.