Adam Kaufman

With Kevin Love Bound for Cleveland, it’s Time the Celtics Trade Rajon Rondo

I’ve dreaded writing this column, but I can’t stop thinking about it.

For a while now, I’ve been forced to accept Kevin Love’s weekend in Boston was nothing more than a tease; a glimpse into an intriguing future that will never materialize. But never in a million years did I envision the Timberwolves star landing in Cleveland to form a super team that may not only rival but surpass the accomplishments of LeBron James’ South Beach squad.

The King’s decision to return home to Northeast Ohio proved a well-kept secret in a social media era that allows for very few. Love’s pending pairing with James, however, is the antithesis of a whisper. With a reported “handshake agreement” in place, a discontinued jersey for the NBA’s top draft pick, and one awkward interview after another, Love’s trade to the Cavaliers in exchange for number one overall selection Andrew Wiggins and a gaggle of others will be complete just as soon as one of the league’s many goofy rules permits it later this month.

At that point, James, Love, Kyrie Irving, and a decent collection of role players will comprise the runaway favorite in the Eastern Conference, not just in 2014-15, but for years to come. James won’t be departing Cleveland again after this year or next. Love will sign a long-term extension following the upcoming season. Irving will wear the wine-and-gold until at least 2020.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, barring injury, project to be a powerhouse for years to come. Somewhere Craig Ehlo and Mark Price are smiling.

So, how does this affect the rebuilding Celtics? Ah, yes, the part I’ve been dreading and the very subject I wrote against just more than a year ago.

It’s time to trade Rajon Rondo.

To be clear, I’m a Rondo fan – even if he doesn’t like the idea of celebrating his birthday in Sacramento – and I firmly believe he could be a central-figure in leading the C’s back to the playoffs and eventual contention with the right pieces around him. Unfortunately, that help likely isn’t on the way any time soon.

The four-time All-Star point guard is one year away from free agency and, while I trust when he says he enjoys Boston and doesn’t like change, he’s already suggested a desire to test the market. There are teams that will covet him and other top players around the league will try to recruit him to their cities. Clubs like the Rockets, Lakers, and Thunder (if Russell Westbrook were moved to the two-guard position, anyhow) need point guards and any of those situations would be mutually appealing for Rondo. Don’t make the mistake of believing nobody wants to play with him simply because he and Ray Allen clashed over who was the smartest guy in the room, or on account of his occasional poor disposition toward former coach Doc Rivers.

At his best, Rondo isn’t an exceptional shooter and his success at the charity stripe is anything but a gift. Still, he is among the best pure point guards in the league when it comes to his ability to distribute the ball. That combination likely wouldn’t be rewarded like a max player anywhere outside of Boston – or even necessarily by the Celtics – but the opportunity to compete for championships over low playoff seeds for the next handful of years does have some monetary value as well.

Ultimately, it’s the financial end of the discussion that makes this debate a less complicated one. If it will require a reported five-year, $100 million from the Celtics for Rondo to stay, Danny Ainge would benefit from getting something for his enigmatic captain as opposed to simply letting him walk for cap space next summer.

It doesn’t make sense to tie up such significant money in one player on a team seeking as much future financial flexibility as possible, never mind one that historically can’t sign marquee free agents and just drafted a point guard with the No. 6 overall pick. Don’t buy into this combo-guard talk. Marcus Smart wasn’t selected to back up Avery Bradley, who has a new four-year contract entering this season; he was chosen as Rondo’s ultimate replacement. To his credit, the youngster has turned heads at USA Basketball’s camp.

The Celtics wisely pursued Love to pair with Rondo in an effort to not only speed up the rebuild, but form a dynamic one-two punch in an Eastern Conference open for the taking. Unfortunately, that ship has sailed, there doesn’t appear to be another Love-caliber player available – even with Boston’s ever-growing treasure chest of assets – and therefore Ainge may very well be content to grow a young team in the vision of his second-year head coach, who’s still getting his feet wet in the NBA and already commands the respect of those he coached against during his time at Butler. Truthfully, a veteran team now may not be best in the long-term for Brad Stevens if he wants to reach his potential, rather than become yet another coach pushed around by his overpriced players, but that’s another conversation entirely.

As things stand today – and, yes, there are moves to be made to cut down the roster and its overall salary – the Celtics are operating with a team filled with redundancy at multiple positions. In order for the Celts to give themselves the most maneuverability going forward, they’d be best to invest in Smart and deal their premier player for more chips, picks and, ideally, a decent young NBA up-and-comer, provided they can find a trade partner with those resources to give.

If they don’t, Rondo will inevitably leave on his own at season’s end because he’ll be tempted by greener pastures.

The Cavs may not be the league’s next dynasty, but they will most certainly control the East for years to come. By the time the Celtics draft, develop, or deal for enough to talent to contend with that next wave of clubs in four or five years, Rondo will be pushing his mid-30’s and he’ll be on the decline. It doesn’t make any reasonable economic sense to retain a player of his stature during that time, only to watch his prime years fade away on Boston’s dime, all the while infringing upon Smart’s progress.

None of this is a knock on Rondo, his game, his personality or leadership abilities, or anything else of the sort. It’s merely what’s good for business going forward in a landscape where the Celtics, at best, might be a fringe playoff team with no hope of playing beyond the first round.

Ainge must get something for Rondo, whether it’s in the next two months or during the season after he’s proven to be fully recovered from his ACL injury. Then the Celtics and their fans can thank him for the memories on his way out the door before welcoming him back with a standing ovation, video tribute and, probably, a loss on the heels of his triple-double.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

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