It’s easy to understand why an NBA team wouldn’t want to rebuild. Attendance—and all the revenue that comes with it—takes a plummet. You get made fun of in the press. It’s possible that free agents would want to avoid your losing team—or, maybe, that you’d have to pay a lot more than a winning team for the services of the same player. And even if you have the smartest front office in the game, there’s no guarantee that things will ultimately work out in your favor. Freak injuries happen. Plans go awry. Your rebuilding project just might segue directly into the next rebuilding project.
That said, a team could end up losing a lot more games in the long run if it decides not to rebuild. For instance, which fan base has more hope for the future: Philadelphia 76ers fans, or New York Knicks fans? The answer is Philly’s fans, and by a mile. Even though the Knicks are a skosh ahead of the Sixers at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings (leading the “race” 4–20 to 2–19), Philadelp
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As recently as this summer, it looked like the Milwaukee Bucks were in a worse situation than any other NBA franchise. Two years previously, in 2012–13, they entered the playoffs—as the eighth seed in the East, with an uninspiring 38–44 record. Last year, they managed a league-worst 15–67 record. Yes, worse than even the vigorously rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers. And then, over the summer, they unceremoniously ousted their head coach, Larry Drew, to install the flashier name Jason Kidd at the end of the bench; and only because, it seemed, that Kidd was a friend of the new owners.
While the Bucks’ 11–12 record thus far might feel totally inspiring, keep in mind that the Bucks are on pace to improve upon last season’s record by an astonishing 26 wins, a truly dramatic turnaround. This record is also good enough for the sixth seed in the East, were the postseason to start today. Even better: they are only positioned to get better in the future, with their best two players are not …
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Syracuse is in trouble.
That could have been the headline last season just after the No. 1 Orange, at 24-0, escaped Pittsburgh’s Oakland Zoo with a win on a Tyler Ennis three-point miracle.
At the time, Syracuse was riding high after an overtime win against Duke at the Carrier Dome. Three games later, Ennis’ three-point heave gave the Orange the win but showed that Syracuse might be a little more talk than chalk.
One game later, the Orange escaped North Carolina State on a C.J. Fair layup in the closing seconds at home, and the story was not indicative of the top-ranked team in the land.
“Syracuse Survives NC State, 56-55,” told the story to the rest of the country that on the right night, the Orange could be had. Additionally, without the Orange’s knowledge, a scoring drought was about to take place.
Against Duke, Syracuse scored 91 points in overtime. After that game, the Orange would score more than 62 points only one time in the 10 remaining games on the schedule.
On February 19, just four days after outlasting NC State, unranked Boston College came into the Carrier Dome and stopped the No. 1 Orange with a three-point win in overtime. Word was out that the team that had such stars as Fair, Ennis and Jerami Grant could not find a way to score.
Syracuse lost four of its last six scheduled games, with its efforts crumbling in a 55-53 loss to Dayton in the third round of the NCAA tournament to put the icing on the cake.
A great mystery unfolded. Syracuse forgot how to score.
The Orange’s defense remained tough throughout, but for the first time in a generation, Syracuse fans were left wondering where their scoring would come from.
Fast forward to this season, and not much has changed. Syracuse is still in trouble.
With Fair, Ennis and Grant gone, players such as Trevor Cooney and Rakeem Christmas were left to carry the mantle of the once-potent Syracuse offense. Christmas, for his part, has established himself as the most improved player in the nation. He’s averaging nearly 17 points and 10 rebounds per game after spending the last two seasons being content with five and five.
Cooney, on the other hand, hasn’t been able to pull of the same trick.
Cooney spent the beginning of last season as one of the nation’s best three-point shooters, but after running himself ragged trying to create open shots for himself, the shots stopped falling, and he fell from being a 50 percent three-point shooter to just a pedestrian.
Cooney has been touted as a three-point marksman since his arrival at Syracuse three years ago. After a redshirt freshman year, he only averaged 11 minutes per game but showed promise from the outside regardless of his .267 shooting percentage.
Even after his struggles at the end of last season, Cooney had a respectable .375 shooting percentage from beyond the arc, giving a glimmer of hope that in his third year in an Orange uniform, he could still live up to expectations.
Eight games in, Cooney has connected on just 13 of his 46 three-point attempts. Almost every aspect of his game—scoring, steals, free-throw percentage, etc.—has declined from last season. It’s understandable that a player who lost Fair, Ennis and Grant as teammates would struggle a bit, but Cooney’s struggles seem to run deeper.
It goes far beyond Cooney, but Orange fans must understand the reality of this season. This is a rebuilding year.
“Rebuilding” tends to be a bad word in the world of sports, but for the Orange, it’s not as glum as it sounds. It means this team has watched a multitude of talent pass through its program, and it’s difficult to overcome early departures on a yearly basis. This team has great talent, but it is very young, and time and patience will be necessary to bring it along.
The hope for this team is to turn its fortunes around and hopefully get an NCAA tournament bid. The reality could be an NIT bid. That is the definition of rebuilding for Syracuse.
Syracuse fans are used to having a team near the top of the rankings and Final Four aspirations. They’re used to seeing a balance of youth mixed with veteran leadership. This season, the hopes of a top ranking have already been dashed, and while on paper the team seems to have a mix of youth and experience, that experience hasn’t translated to leadership—at least not on the court.
As far as scoring goes, Christmas is the de facto team leader. He’s taken coach Jim Boeheim‘s direction and goes to the basket on nearly every touch. He’s added a hook shot to his repertoire and has been a pleasure to watch. But Christmas has never been an on-court vocal leader. This is not a criticism of Christmas; it’s just not the type of player he is.
Cooney appears to want the mantle of the team’s vocal leader, especially after Chris McCullough was on the receiving end of a flagrant foul from St. John’s Rysheed Jordan. McCullough bounced up and got in the face of Jordan, and a minor scrum broke out. Cooney appeared to be in the ear of McCullough, directing him to look at the scoreboard and keep his head in the game.
Cooney’s demeanor in this situation is encouraging, but with him struggling to score, especially in moments where a timely three could be the difference in a game, the leadership title may escape him.
Perceived leadership issues aside, Syracuse’s struggles come from a few areas.
Freshman point guard Kaleb Joseph was handed down the keys to the offense from Ennis. It was hoped that Joseph could be the understudy to Ennis, but the NBA came calling, and Joseph was left to his own devices.
Joseph’s game is far different than Ennis’, as with most freshman point guards. Ennis was a phenom who took care of the ball, hit timely shots and had great court vision.
Joseph is too green to criticize for much of his play, as he’s been thrust into an impossible situation that only time will improve. He’s struggled with turnovers, taken too many bad three-point shots and has difficulty delivering the ball to his teammates in positions where they can score. Joseph can turn all of this around, but in the meantime, Coach Boeheim had Joseph sitting next to him on the bench for the majority of the second half against St. John’s.
Boeheim exasperated about Joseph after the game, telling the media, via Donna Ditota of Syracuse.com, “He’s gotta learn that he’s a point guard and not a three-point shooter.”
To Joseph’s credit, just eight games into the season, he seems to be the only member of the youth movement, save for McCullough, who deserves extended playing time. Ron Patterson, B.J. Johnson, Tyler Roberson, Chinonso Obokoh and company are the next generation for this team, but their progress is not as far along as Orange fans would like. Again, time and experience should fix this issue.
The starting lineup is also a work in progress. The usual lineup of Christmas, McCullough, Joseph, Cooney and Johnson was tweaked, with Michael Gbinije supplanting Johnson. Gbinije likely earned this roll after his solid performance against Michigan, where he was the most energetic and athletic player on the court. He played well against St. John’s, but a few turnovers marred his performance.
Gbinije’s insertion into the starting five is significant, as he played 37 minutes. This was fourth on the team behind Christmas, McCullough and Cooney, who each played the full 40 minutes. Patterson and Joseph split the point guard time, and Johnson played just seven minutes.
That’s it. No other players stepped foot on the court. This was fueled by the fact that the Orange stayed out of foul trouble, but as the season presses forward, Syracuse will have to find a way to get meaningful minutes for its youth or the rebuild could take longer than just this season.
Another change for the Orange is the aforementioned Cooney. Cooney, by default, is the best three-point shooter on this team. He is also the only three-point shooter on this team. Gbinije, Patterson and a few others might have their moments, but Cooney is on the top of the list in the outside shooting department.
Since the midpoint of last season, opponents have been keying in on Cooney as the key to defeating the Orange. He spent much of the season running around the court trying to create his own screen for just long enough to get an open look.
Cooney’s spent all of this season doing the same thing. Joseph and whoever happens to be on Cooney’s side of the court have to do a better job of setting him up. This could come in the form of screens or Joseph penetrating and kicking the ball out. Neither has happened much this season.
On the bright side are Christmas and McCullough. The bigs for Syracuse are an imposing force for the Orange. They combine for 31.3 points, 18.6 rebounds and 4.9 blocks per game. If the Orange ever get DaJuan Coleman back, who is recovering from knee surgery, Syracuse could end up with an impenetrable frontcourt.
There’s also the 2-3 zone. Boeheim’s trademark defense seems to be in good hands, and players such as Cooney, who find themselves struggling on offense, can create ample opportunities for the team on the defensive end.
Overall, the rebuild will be time-consuming but not futile. Syracuse has been lucky over the past several years having players who developed quickly and contributed positively. This is still a talented, albeit youthful, team. If Cooney can get back on track, Gbinije continues his growth and Joseph cleans up his game, the tracks should be laid for the younger players to get minutes and develop on the court.
If none of those aspects improve, the rebuild could turn into a recession.
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BOSTON — Rajon Rondo fills the box score and, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, the box score brings Rajon Rondo, in all his dazzling eccentricity, to life.
The two-handed overhead bounce pass in transition.
The no-look, behind-the-back flick.
The running, underhand lob, placed perfectly at the rim.
The ball fake at the hip, setting up the overhead hook pass.
And the results: Driving layup. Jump shot. Dunk. Layup.
These were four of Rondo’s 16 assists against Cleveland last Friday, and those plays were completed by Kelly Olynyk, Brandon Bass, Jeff Green and Tyler Zeller.
Times change and legends move on, but Rajon Rondo remains the Boston Celtics‘ constant—a darting, driving, whimsical, whirring assist machine, turning ordinary sets into extraordinary plays.
Check the rankings. The Celtics, with a roster of neophytes, and not a single ace scorer among them, have the NBA’s sixth-leading offense, in points per possession. They are No. 1 in assist ratio (19.2 per 100 possessions) and No. 2 in points created by an assist (60 per game).
Two years after the breakup of the Big Three, a year removed from the jettisoning of Pierce and Garnett, the Celtics are a team in transition—and that transition is defined, indisputably, by the feisty point guard with the Stretch Armstrong limbs and the Madame Tussauds visage.
This is Rondo’s time and Rondo’s team, however long the arrangement may last.
The Celtics are at a crossroads and so, too, is Rondo, now 28 years old and approaching free agency for the first time in his career. For the next several months, they will be mutually assessing one another, the franchise and the franchise player, each party trying to determine the intentions and capabilities of the other.
Do the Celtics view Rondo, a four-time All-Star, as the foundation of another title contender?
Does Rondo see enough potential in this roster—and in the draft picks and salary-cap room being hoarded by team president Danny Ainge—to believe in a Celtics revival?
And if they do ultimately decide to stay together, can the Celtics and Rondo agree on contract terms next July, when Rondo will almost certainly be seeking a maximum salary?
These are the questions that may come to define the Celtics’ season, or at least the period between now and the Feb. 20 trade deadline. Rival executives say that Ainge has been firm in his stance that Rondo will not be dealt. But many of those same executives believe that Ainge has to trade Rondo, to avoid losing him for nothing next summer.
“They’re definitely bravely saying they won’t trade him at this point,” said one general manager, who nevertheless added, “I definitely think it’s the right thing to trade him. I think Danny knows it.”
Rondo’s representatives are said to be pursuing a max contract—five years and an estimated $106 million if he stays in Boston, four years and about $79 million if he signs elsewhere. His resume justifies the demand. Rondo has been one of the NBA’s top point guards for the last seven years, and one of the few who can dominate a game with his passing alone.
And though his status was in doubt after tearing a knee ligament in February 2013, Rondo has recovered beautifully. Through eight games, he is averaging a league-leading 11.6 assists per game, along with 10.6 points and 8.4 rebounds. His bounce and his dexterity have returned.
“My body feels a lot better, my legs are a lot stronger,” Rondo said, comparing his play now to last season, when he was just making his way back. “I can get into the paint a lot easier now, this year. Last year, I was pretty slow. So this year I’m a step faster.”
Those who know him best say this Rondo looks pretty much like the Rondo who helped anchor that 2008 title team, and the one who steered the Celtics to within one game of the NBA Finals in 2012.
“Without a doubt,” Pierce told Bleacher Report. “He looks like he’s finally healthy now. He looks like the floor general. He’s moving well. He looks stronger, finishing. I mean, he looks great out there, man. He’s one of the top five point guards, man, if he’s healthy.”
Seven years ago, after years of frustration and futility, the Celtics had a similar decision to make on Pierce: trade him and start over, or find a suitable surrounding cast and keep building. Ainge held on to Pierce, then struck gold that summer, landing Garnett and Allen in two blockbuster trades.
It’s unreasonable to bank on another Garnett-Allen haul, but it’s also risky to simply let Rondo walk away and bank on landing another foundational star. Pierce, for one, believes Rondo could be the centerpiece for another Celtics powerhouse.
“People think those players grow on trees, when they don’t,” Pierce said. “When you get those types of players, you’ve got to keep them. And then you’ve got to try to find other players of that caliber to go with them.”
No team is better positioned than the Celtics to make another blockbuster trade. Ainge is sitting on a cache of first-round draft picks—up to eight in the next four years—thanks to the trades of Pierce and Garnett to Brooklyn last year, along with the deal that let coach Doc Rivers leave for the Los Angeles Clippers. Ainge has also assembled a raft of young, reasonably priced talent that could be packaged in a deal, or a series of deals, as he did in 2007.
The question becomes one of timing, a sort of chicken-and-egg puzzle: Can the Celtics find a worthy co-star for Rondo before Rondo decides to go find his co-star elsewhere?
Or could Rondo take a leap of faith on the Celtics next summer, in the belief that he’ll attract the help he needs?
“Philosophically, we know who the players are, we know who the guys are that we would love to get,” Ainge told Bleacher Report. “But we also know that certain players don’t make as much of a difference. We can’t sell our stockpile of assets just to appease one player. We’ve got to be smart in rebuilding. And we do have to remain patient. And yet at the same time, be ready to jump into the fray and pay a high price for special players, transcendent players.”
Ainge targeted one such player this past summer, pursuing Minnesota’s Kevin Love after Love demanded a trade. But Love steered his way to Cleveland, to join LeBron James, and just as critically, the Cavaliers had a prime asset—No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins—the Timberwolves‘ coveted.
Superstars don’t hit the market often, and a blockbuster trade can’t be manufactured out of thin air. So while Rondo’s free agency creates an urgency for the Celtics front office, there also isn’t much Ainge can do until another All-Star in another city demands a trade.
Ainge has indicated a desire to re-sign Rondo. Rondo has indicated, on multiple occasions, his desire to stay. It doesn’t necessarily mean it will happen. Again, the Pierce situation in 2007 is instructive.
“A player like Paul, and a player like Rondo, I think they’re willing to do what’s best for the franchise for a certain period of time,” Ainge said. “But I think there is a window in that sort of process as well. So we’re in a situation right now where Rondo, we’re trying to decide, is he worth a contract that he wants this summer? And he’s trying to decide, is this where I want to stay?
“Now, we know that this is where he wants to stay, assuming that we are a competitive team. We believe that. It’s a place he would like to stay. But what sort of team we can put together may be a factor in that in the offseason.”
There is intrigue, as well, in the pieces Ainge has already assembled—for their promise as supporting players and as potential trade chips. Rookie Marcus Smart has the look of a lockdown defender. Jared Sullinger, now in his third season, is developing into a solid inside scorer. Avery Bradley is a defensive menace. Green and Bass are reliable veterans who could fill a need for any number of playoff teams.
And then there is Olynyk, the lean, lithe 7-footer drafted with the 13th pick in 2013. Olynyk is shooting a team-high .478 from 3-point range, .592 overall and averaging 12.8 points and 6.2 rebounds. Team officials consider him a future star.
At present, none of the Celtics’ young prospects merit that label—but then, few people predicted that Al Jefferson would become a dominant post scorer when the Celtics shipped him to Minnesota as part of the package for Garnett seven years ago.
And, of course, the decision to draft Smart was widely viewed as a statement on Rondo: either as a hedge against Rondo leaving, or as an outright plan to replace him. Smart also has the size to play alongside Rondo.
The Celtics (3-6) lack the talent to win many games this season, but they move and pass and compete, all of which makes them quite enjoyable to behold. Rondo, after years of quietly playing the role of fourth star on a team defined by the Big Three, is embracing the chance to be the ringleader of this young crew.
“I think they’re still learning to play with him,” coach Brad Stevens said. “He makes passes and plays that other guys don’t see, or it happens quicker. So sometimes it’s a little bit of a surprise, and they have to get used to that. But he raises all ships with his passing.”
Stevens said this team is “still very much in a building and growth stage,” with necessarily modest goals. The Celtics defense, he notes, needs drastic improvement.
For now, the Celtics are simply looking for steady, measurable progress. Will it be enough to convince Rondo to stick around for the next phase? Are the Celtics convinced he’s the one to lead them forward? The answers to those questions, more than anything else, will determine the franchise’s future.
“This is going to be his best year of his career, I think,” Ainge said, though not because Rondo is on any sort of salary drive. “Knowing Rondo, he just wants to show that he’s one of the elite point guards in the NBA again. But yeah, he is a foundational piece that we already have that’s right there. But there is uncertainty for this upcoming offseason.”
On Ainge‘s desk is an oversized version of the 2008 championship ring, serving as a paperweight. Over his shoulder is the 2008 Larry O’Brien trophy. All around the team offices are posters and mementos of the franchise’s glorious past. The Celtics’ history is one long series of builds and rebuilds and banner ceremonies.
“I enjoy where we are right now,” Ainge said. “Everybody wants to go out and win 60 games a year. We’ve had our stretch of that. But we’re working toward that again.”
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.
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Head coach Jim Boeheim doesn’t see it as rebuilding, but rather bringing in new talent.
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RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Taking on LeBron James isn’t the biggest concern for the Miami Heat in Rio de Janeiro. The team is still trying to figure out how to incorporate all the new faces that have replaced him.
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There is no perfect victory awaiting the rebuilding Celtics once Rondo’s Boston-bound fate is determined. Not even the best-laid plans can protect them against the compromises that will come with “winning.” There’s no blueprint that safeguards them against an outright loss, either.
This situation is that delicate. The Celtics can only hope the solution they reach will be enough to limit the collateral damage they’re forced to endure.
Sifting through Rondo-related trade rumors has become a full-time job.
Conflicting reports are filed almost daily. One day Rondo has never been more available; the next day he’s not going anywhere.
Most recently, ESPN Boston’s Jackie MacMullan (via Mass Live’s Jay King)—during a behind-the-scenes video for ESPN’s Around The Horn, which has since been removed but lives on courtesy of Deadspin—reported that Rondo “wants out” of Boston and that a trade “will happen.”
Like all other things Rondo, MacMullan’s findings were later refuted. Rondo and his agent Bill Duffy quickly pumped the brakes on trade talk, according to Boston Herald insider Mark Murphy, and Celtics president Rich Gotham did the same, per The Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn:
Smoke—suggesting fire—still lingers, though.
General manager Danny Ainge remains a half-open book. Each time he’s asked about Rondo’s availability, he passes on the opportunity to declare him untouchable. A recent appearance at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Worcester, Massachusetts proved to be no exception.
“The truthful answer is I really don’t know,” Ainge posited when asked if he was going to deal Rondo, per the Worcester Telegram and Gazette‘s Bill Doyle. “I have no intention. I’m not trying to trade Rondo, but because he’s a free agent this summer, he assured me that he wants to stay in Boston. We’d love to keep him in Boston.”
If nothing else, Ainge and the Celtics seem open to anything. Such is the stance many rebuilding teams wish to maintain. The Celtics aren’t just looking at next year or the year after; they’re thinking about three, four and five years from now. And beyond.
It’s important to consider all options when looking that far ahead. Rondo may not fit the Celtics’ long-term model at 28 years old and approaching free agency. Trading him would allow Boston to move on while capitalizing off his departure.
Moving Rondo won’t be an easy decision for the Celtics to make. Bidding farewell to a four-time All-Star (three appearances) won’t sit well with the organization and its fans, no matter the circumstances or return.
Yet the return itself is an issue. Having appeared in just 68 games over the last two seasons and still working his way back to form after suffering an ACL injury, Rondo’s value isn’t what it was before.
Flashes of his wily incisiveness and preeminent playmaking were scattered throughout 2013-14, but Rondo has yet to show he’s actually back or that career-long weaknesses—his still-developing jump shot—are, without question, trending in the right direction.
Teams won’t relinquish top-flight assets for his services unless his recovery is complete. Even then, with free agency looming, finding takers willing to pillage through their stable of assets will be difficult.
“I don’t see how you get 80 cents on the dollar for him,” MacMullan said, via King. “Tell me where.”
On the off chance the Celtics negotiate that ideal trade, that balanced packaged headlined by draft picks, promising prospects and cap relief—which Rondo, as of right now, is no longer worth—they’re still left to pick up the pieces his exit leaves behind.
Dealing him prolongs their rebuild. It doesn’t matter who or what they get back. Flipping superstars usually results in additional transition.
Shipping out Kevin Love for a king’s ransom hasn’t expedited the Minnesota Timberwolves‘ rebuild. It’s no different with Rondo. It’s actually worse because, again, Rondo won’t net the Celtics that kind of return.
Sending him on his merry way only pins them to an even more extensive project that wouldn’t include an established star.
Avoiding the cons that come with trading Rondo isn’t difficult. The Celtics could, you know, just keep him.
Assuming that Rondo, like Ainge said, wants to remain in Boston, re-signing him next summer is the easiest course of action. All the Celtics must do is commit a substantial amount of money to him for the next five years.
So, it’s not easy.
Gauging Rondo’s market value is impossible at this point. For the same reasons trading him would be a trying endeavor, his worth inside and outside Boston is incalculable.
Clarity should be provided as next year wears on and Rondo’s play defines his individual standing. But how he fares in 2014-15 will only say so much.
Talented floor generals are everywhere, and the price of bringing one in has dropped dramatically. Kyle Lowry—the Eastern Conference’s best point guard last year—landed just four years and $48 million from his incumbent Toronto Raptors. Isaiah Thomas was a steal for the Phoenix Suns at $27 million over four years. Eric Bledsoe isn’t still battling restricted free agency because he thinks it’s fun.
During an interview with Yahoo Sports Radio (via Ben Rohrbach of WEEI.com) in June, Celtics radio analyst Cedric Maxwell alleged that Rondo is after a $100 million contract. Committing that much coin to him would be an active admittance that Rondo is still in the same class as Paul. It would hamstring the Celtics financially as well.
But comparisons to Paul, Stephen Curry and the rest of the NBA‘s top point guards cannot be made until Rondo plays through a good portion of next season. Determining his worth—inside and outside Boston—is dependent on his performance.
In the Celtics’ case, it’s also about him meshing with the rest of his teammates. There’s little point in building around Rondo if he doesn’t fit alongside fellow cornerstones Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk.
That means more waiting—waiting to see if Smart and Rondo’s overlapping skill sets can be adapted for them to succeed alongside one another, waiting to see if Sullinger is the floor-spacing forward Rondo has never played with, waiting to see if there’s pick-and-pop chemistry between Rondo and Olynyk.
Not even Bradley—four years Rondo’s teammate—can be considered familiar. The two have appeared in just 68 games together since 2010-11, according to NBA.com.
Before re-signing Rondo, before paying him anything at all, the Celtics must be sure what’s in place can work. And like Tom Ziller of SB Nation noted in February, they must be equally certain Rondo’s ready to see their experiment through:
The question is whether Ainge thinks he can pull off that switch quickly, and how much patience he thinks Rondo has left. Remember, Rondo is one of the smartest and most brusque players in the league. Observers might take that to mean that he’s an a–hole, but that’s uncharitable. He does not like wasting effort or a team, and he knows how NBA rosters work. I’m totally convinced that Rondo and Stevens are a good match and that they will get along. I’m not sure Rondo and a dilapidated roster will co-exist long before things get prickly.
Indeed, Rondo’s morale—however high it may or may not be in the interim—is a bigger concern than his health or production. He’s an emotional player with poignant opinions who isn’t afraid to voice concerns or displeasure. The Celtics know this. Co-owner Wyc Grousbeck openly admits it.
“He’s super stubborn,” Grousbeck said during an appearance on WBZ-TV’s Sports Final Overtime, per Boston.com’s Adam Kaufman. “I don’t know how coachable he really is.”
Grousbeck isn’t belly-aching or being malicious. He’s stating facts—truths the Celtics, if we’re to believe they really want Rondo back, are perfectly comfortable with.
At the same time, they have a future to worry about.
Stubborn players aren’t exactly a boon for business. Free agents won’t flock to Boston if Rondo’s perceived as uncontrollably bullheaded and incapable of playing nice with others.
Recruiting outside talent is hard enough. The Celtics aren’t known for staging free-agency coups as it is. Developing in-house talent is only one ingredient to their rebuild. They’ll need to attract players through various channels. It helps their cause if they’re building around a star others want to join.
And there’s no way of knowing right now if Rondo is that player. There’s no way of answering any of these questions.
Unless that changes between now and next summer, it will be difficult to see investing in Rondo as anything more than an expensive dice-roll.
Waiting for Clarity
Don’t bother searching for an easy solution to Boston’s Rondo conundrum. There isn’t one.
Keeping him has its burdens. Trading him has its disadvantages. Letting him walk for nothing in return next summer won’t make this situation any better.
Allowing next season to unfold should offer some valuable insight, but it’s just one year. Direction-shaping decisions drawn from small sample sizes of players leading lottery-doomed teams aren’t made without risk.
For the Celtics, no matter what they decide, there is only this game of chance that, for better or worse, will come to define their rebuild.
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If Brad Stevens gets things his way, Rajon Rondo will be around for a while. Despite all the trade rumors, the Boston Celtics head coach sees his star point guard as a centerpiece in the team’s rebuilding efforts. “I love him. I really think he’s a big part of what we’re doing,” Stevens told The Berkshire Eagle. “Hopefully, he can have a great year right from the get-go. I thought last year was tough from the standpoint that he never did have a chance to do any drill work or to rebuild habits. He just had to be thrown into the fire.” Stevens also mentioned that Rondo has “been in and around Boston most of the summer” to train and that the team is starting to work out together. “That’s been something I’ve known ever since I walked in here, that this was going to be something that if we can invest all of our time helping all of our guys get better and putting together a group that will play the right way, continue to grow and continue to hopefully take advantage of opportunities,” he s
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To trade or not to trade? Rajon Rondo’s looming free agency is the key for the Celtics.
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But what if it wasn’t?
What if the Celtics knew his impending free agency wasn’t an issue? That they would want him back and he would want to come back? That he would be their primary cornerstone for the next half-decade or more?
Well, like most teams tend to do, they would presumably tailor the roster to meet the needs of their only star. That’s how rebuilds are supposed to work: Teams lay a foundation, then build on top of it.
And for all this hubbub about Rondo’s future and the money Boston may or may not want to invest in him, he remains the team’s only star. He’s a top-five point guard when healthy and an established franchise face.
Building around Rondo is, regardless of cost and depending on health, the safe play. The Celtics already know what they have in him. They wouldn’t be waiting around for one of their many (many) first-round draft picks to develop into the player Rondo already is.
The foremost challenge they would face with him would be assembling a supporting cast that adequately complements his skill set and retransforms them into the championship contender they used to be.
What Rondo Needs
Framing a roster around Rondo would be twofold.
First the Celtics must cater to his strengths and on-court propensities. Then they’ll have to address his weaknesses.
Incoming players will ideally do both, though that’s never the case. There will always be specialists—players that fill one hole rather than two. The goal, though, is balance.
To start, we’ll acknowledge Rondo’s greatest weakness: shooting. Yes, it’s still shooting.
Paint Rondo’s jump-shot acumen as you like. Call it improved or developing. Argue that it’s easier on the eyes. None of that makes it a strength.
Rondo still cannot shoot threes. Last year’s 28.9 percent conversion rate from deep was the second highest of his career. Though he’s clearly more willing and comfortable launching rockets—his 90 three-point attempts last season set a new career high, despite the fact he only played in 33 games—there’s still much to be desired.
Mid-range consistency continues to allude him as well. There has been some movement on his perimeter game over the last few years, little of which has proved sustainable.
Here’s a look at how he’s fared between eight and 24 feet since 2009:
Things don’t get much better when we isolate the range to 10 and 16 feet, either:
Even the most encouraging improvements—like his 47.2 percent clip between eight and 24 feet in 2012-13—must be taken lightly.
Appearances can skew the sample size in the wrong direction, but it’s Rondo’s shot selection that makes it difficult to draw profound conclusions. Over the last five years he’s favored the area inside eight feet, and it’s not even close:
Surrounding range is essential. The Celtics can ill afford to clog the paint and employ swingmen that aren’t accustomed to jacking up threes. Their point guard needs room to operate. One can simply hope he changes, yet said change has now been nearly a decade in the making. The chances of Rondo morphing into some deadly perimeter marksman plummet with each passing season.
Floor spacing is already an issue for the Celtics anyway. They ranked 27th in three-point efficiency last season, drilling only 33.3 percent of their long balls, according to NBA.com.
Acquiring additional shooters does come with a caveat, though. They cannot be ball-brandishing scorers incapable of playing off the rock. Rondo prefers to dominate the ball. The Celtics need players who can move without it and thrive when spotting up.
Catch-and-shoot opportunities is an area they struggled in last season. They ranked 27th in spot-up efficiency for 2013-14, hitting only 36.3 percent of their shots in those situations, per Synergy Sports (subscription required), and they’ve done little, if anything, to address said problem this summer.
Transition-savvy players should be targeted, too. The Celtics haven’t really played uptempo with Rondo. Part of that is on him and his knack for over-dribbling, but the team has never really had the personnel that allows the quick and incisive Rondo to pilot fast breaks in volume.
Only twice have the Celtics ranked in the top half of possessions used per 48 minutes since Rondo entered the league—his rookie season, when he averaged slightly over 20 minutes per game, and last year, when he missed 49 of Boston’s contests.
The Celtics have finished in the bottom half of transition efficiency for each of the last three seasons as well, per Synergy. Fast-paced teams aren’t the NBA‘s title-winning standard, but creating easy opportunities—and then making the most of them—is not unimportant; the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs ranked in the top seven of fast-break efficiency last year.
None of this offensive firepower should come at the expense of defense, mind you. The Celtics established themselves as defensive juggernauts prior to last season. They’ve finished in the top 10 of points allowed per 100 possessions four times since 2009, and in the top five three times.
Last season’s squad was shaky amid the early stages of rebuilding; the team ranked 20th in defensive efficiency. Rondo isn’t what you would call a liability on that end of the floor, but he gambles a lot and there’s no predicting how effective he’ll be in coming years following his ACL injury.
Pitting him alongside strong defenders who can clean up after his risks, help out on assignments and protect the rim—the Celtics ranked 19th in iron protection last season—in the event he’s beaten off the dribble is most important.
Now, with all the Celtics need in mind, it’s time for president and general manager Danny Ainge to start working some overtime.
Before doing anything, he has to figure out who’s staying beyond next season. (Spoiler: The list isn’t long.)
Avery Bradley is a must at this point. Investing $32 million in him over the next four years is a huge gamble, but it’s one the Celtics had to make.
Perimeter defenders like him don’t grow on trees. Opposing guards averaged a combined player efficiency rating of 16.2 against him last year, per 82games.com. That’s slightly above the league average of 15, but it’s sound enough for someone who played on a rather poor defensive team.
The ability to defend either guard position is absolutely huge. He can face up against the more threatening backcourt scorer on a nightly basis, be they a 1- or 2-guard.
This backcourt pairing also skyrockets in value if Bradley’s offensive evolution continues. He averaged a career-high 14.9 points per game in 2013-14 while shooting a blistering 39.5 percent from beyond the rainbow. His three-point prowess—or lack thereof—has been something of a roller coaster ride these last four years, but he banged in a scorching 43.7 percent of his spot-up bombs last season, according to Synergy.
Off-ball scoring will, once again, come at a premium for the Celtics. Passing on Bradley’s developing offensive game isn’t something they can afford to do. Not when he’s fresh off a season during which he shot over 40 percent on one of the most useful threats in basketball—the strong-side corner three:
Jared Sullinger won’t be going anywhere for similar reasons.
Not only is he a nightly double-double threat despite being undersized, but head coach Brad Stevens began grooming him to be a stretch forward. Enticing as the concept is, though, Celtics Blog’s Evans Clinchy reminded us at the end of last season the results weren’t pretty:
Except, of course, where efficiency is concerned. Sullinger‘s percentages fell off dramatically this year, and a lot of that can be attributed to him expanding his shooting range, firing 3-pointers with reckless abandon despite his…well, inability to make them. Sullinger attempted 208 treys this season, and he made just 26.9 percent of them. Only five players in the league were over 200 attempts with under 30 percent makes in 2013-14 – Michael Carter-Williams, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Jimmy Butler. In other words, the five worst high-volume distance shooters in the league were an untested rookie, two defensive specialists and Josh Smith. And Sullinger. It’s not good company to keep.
Bad company, indeed.
At the same time, this is a process. Sullinger isn’t going to turn into Kevin Love overnight. That he missed 78.7 percent of his spot-up threes last season isn’t concerning now because of how early it is. He didn’t enter the NBA as a perimeter-skulking 4. If the Celtics wait this out and push forward, the return could be huge.
Not to mention they need his scrappiness. Size has been hard to come by for them. Last year was the first time they didn’t rank in the bottom five of rebounds per game since 2009, and they still finished 18th. Someone like Sullinger, who battles on the glass—height be damned—is a must.
So, too, is Kelly Olynyk, another big man—who, unlike Sullinger, is actually big—with three-point range.
Olynyk shot an impressive 35.1 percent from deep last year on 114 attempts. Only five other players standing at 7’0″ or taller, who were no older than 22, have ever hoisted at least 110 three-pointers in a single season. One of them was Dirk Nowitzki. Another one was Andrea Bargnani. Make of that—along with his mercurial summer-league stint this year—what you will.
His main attraction is the range itself and the circumstances under which he uses it. More than 20 percent of Olynyk‘s offensive touches came within spot-up opportunities last year, per Synergy, so working off the ball isn’t unusual. He boasts size and a versatile, Rondo-friendly offensive skill set, two attributes the Celtics need.
Moving forward without him—in this universe we’re building—should not be an option.
Targeting the Rest
Everyone else on the roster can pack their bags. Kind of.
Players such as Gerald Wallace and Jeff Green shouldn’t factor into the Celtics’ long-term future. If they want to keep them through the end of their contracts for the cap space that follows, fine. But we’re operating under the assumption that—in this ideal world of ours—they might not be around.
That holds true for rookie Marcus Smart. Assembling a team around Rondo means he can’t be there. It’s one or the other.
Smart and Rondo have overlapping skill sets. Both of them prefer to act with the ball in their hands, and neither of them can shoot especially well. If Rondo stays, Smart needs to go.
Bradley, Rondo, Sullinger and Olynyk would be the guaranteed core. Depending on cost, others—like James Young—might stick around. For now, it’s these four.
And that brings us to cost.
Bradley, Sullinger and Olynyk combine to make roughly $12.2 million leading into 2015-16, the season we’re most concerned with. The league’s salary cap increased to more than $63 million this past year, so going off that number, the Celtics would have more than enough wiggle room to make free-agency splashes next summer even after factoring in minimum cap holds.
One such splash will have to be re-signing Rondo.
Former Celtic and current analyst Cedric Maxwell previously told Yahoo! Sports Radio (via Ben Rohrbach of WEEI.com) Rondo was seeking a $100 million contract. In all likelihood, he’s not going to get one.
Point guard is a deep position. Rondo isn’t worth a max, cap-clogging deal to the Celtics. It would be surprising to see any team dangle one in front of him, especially after his ACL injury. If he plays out of his mind this year while remaining healthy, his value increases significantly. But a max contract remains unlikely regardless.
Signing an extension would be the most ideal scenario, as ESPN Boston’s Chris Forsberg laid out in January:
This summer, Boston has two potential extension options for Rondo. The team can tack on a three-year, $44.8 million extension to the final year of his current deal without a signing bonus, which would pay him the scheduled $12.9 million in 2014-15, $13.9 million in 2015-16; $14.9 million in 2016-17; and $16 million in 2017-18. Or, if Boston can stomach a signing bonus payment of $6.6 million, those annual salaries would drop to $11.7 million, $12.5 million and $13.4 million in the extended seasons.
Everyone should know by now Rondo isn’t signing that extension. Not if he’s seeking a max deal that could pay him $20-plus million in 2014-15.
In the name of idealism, let’s say he and the Celtics meet somewhere in the middle. Between $15 and $16 million with annual raises seems fair. That would put their financial commitment in their Core Four at $27.2 million for 2015-16—beyond rough numbers—leaving them with ample flexibility still.
Here’s where we’ll have to get super creative, which isn’t to be confused with ridiculous.
It would also be cool to breed flying possums that you flip for working magic carpets.
Ideal doesn’t mean absurd. The Celtics are unlikely to land a top-10 superstar in one of the next two summers.
Not that they don’t need another star. They do. But let’s be a little more real.
Available free agents in 2015 will include a number of talented players. If the Celtics can create cap space by shedding salary—specifically those of Green and Wallace—they could have enough to pursue top-flight names such as Marc Gasol or LaMarcus Aldridge.
Or, say, DeAndre Jordan. He’s slated to reach free agency next summer and would be perfect as an athletic, durable, rim-protecting big man for these theoretical Celtics.
Cost will be an issue—along with attainability—but Jordan’s only earning $11.4 million next season. If the price isn’t a max contract, the Celtics should be in play.
Paul Millsap is another affordable name that springs to mind. He’s developed into a dangerous stretch 4 who had success draining weak-side corner threes last season.
Picking him up in free agency, along with Jordan, would be difficult. But the Celtics could have enough young talent, expiring contracts and first-round draft picks to get trade talks—or sign-and-trade talks—rolling sometime next year.
Nothing out there suggests the Hawks are ready to unload Millsap. Let’s make that clear. There’s also no guarantee they want to pay him whatever he commands next summer, either. Plus, you know, we’re being green-tinged idealists and stuff.
To round out a starting five already consisting of Rondo, Bradley, Millsap and Jordan, the Celtics would need a small forward. A pretty cheap one, too. We’re already stretching Ainge‘s cap-navigating abilities wafer thin by entertaining the arrivals of Jordan and Millsap, along with the retention of Rondo.
How about a reunion with Gerald Green? The 28-year-old has found his scoring touch with the Phoenix Suns, remains an athletic freak and valuable defender and might not demand much more than the $3.5 million he’s making next season.
After all that pipe-dream actualizing, the Celtics’ starting lineup would be set. They would also have Sullinger and Olynyk ready to come in and wreak havoc off the bench. It’s now a matter of filling out the rotation.
Looking at backup point guards such as Mo Williams and Jameer Nelson would be a good start. Perhaps seeking relief on the wing in Dorell Wright would be a good course of action.
Here’s what a contention-worthy roster built around Rondo could potentially look like:
Incredibly unlikely? You bet.
Perfect? Not at all.
The second unit could have defensive issues and the Celtics have to create the means to sign or trade for all these players. But this is what a serious contender around Rondo should look like—a blend of talent that meets different needs and allows Rondo to be Rondo.
Forming the supporting cast is a fluid task. Names could, names will change. The core of the team he’s headlining is what’s most important. The starting five here—unrealistic as it may be—provides a nice balance between offense and defense, speed and calculated pace, inside and outside acuity.
Those are the player-types Boston will want to put around Rondo if it wishes pilot a rebuild in the right direction.
Separating Real From Whimsical
All this is pure conjecture.
There’s no telling how much cap space the Celtics can legitimately create or how much unwanted talent they can unload by next summer. There’s no telling which talent they even want to move forward with yet, and that includes Rondo.
Rebuilds take time as well. Completing it in one summer rarely happens if you’re not the Miami Heat or Cavaliers.
The point is retooling around Rondo is not impossible. It may take some time, but it’s feasible; it requires the Celtics follow a very specific path, but it’s something they can attempt.
“I want to win a championship-I want to win another championship,” Rondo said in an interview with Hoop China (via Red’s Army). “I want to get back to being a contender and compete for a championship.”
Rondo may win another championship. It may even be with the Celtics.
It all depends on what they have planned for him next, and what that plan ends up looking like if there is actually one at all.
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