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One-on-one: Will Celtics deal Rondo?

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 5, 2011 03:44 PM

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Little secret that's probably not all that surprising: Working in the Boston.com and Globe sports departments often feels like a real-life edition of Globe 10.0, except with no clock and more colorful language.

For those who enjoy a good sports argument, it's not Iowa, it's heaven, and between the Red Sox' hiring of Polarizing Bobby Valentine and rumors that Danny Ainge is shopping electric, enigmatic point guard Rajon Rondo, strong opinions are in particular abundance.

One of my favorite colleagues (non-Bob Ryan division) with whom to debate is Gary Dzen, our resident Celtics go-to guy on the .com side of the fence. We've spent a lot of time the past few days going shot-for-shot on what Ainge should, could, and will do regarding Rondo.

It was such fun that it inspired me to try something new here at TATB. Rather than continuing to annoy our colleagues, who have long since moved on to whether the Patriots were trying to run up the score on the Colts, we took our perpetual debate to e-mail. Three days and more words than I care to admit after we started, here’s our verdict on the curious status of Rajon Rondo.

All right, Dzen, let's put the secondary issues and complications of a potential Rajon Rondo trade aside for a moment here and get right down to the fundamental question here:

Do you believe Celtics boss Danny Ainge would trade him straight-up for Chris Paul even with the knowledge that the Hornets star -- hell, the franchise -- has one year left on his deal and has reportedly said that he won't agree to an extension?

You wrote a thoughtful status report on Paul vs. Rondo last week and covered Ainge's press conference Thursday when he said he "didn't anticipate trading Rondo." You have to presume Ainge, who has loved Paul since he was breaking ankles and slugging opponents below the belt at Wake Forest, was playing a game of semantics there to some degree, right?

Oh, of course Danny was playing semantics. In fact, I took his press conference in total as more of an admission than a denial that he'd be willing to deal Rondo.

Separating any feelings I have toward Rondo as Celtics reporter and as someone who's enjoyed watching him, I think Danny moves him. I think he's made that pretty clear by trying to shop him over the last year. Ainge obviously identified his talent before most of us (21st overall pick in 2006), but I think he's also more willing to look at his flaws than the average fan. And I don't think the No. 1 flaw is shooting. It has more to do with personality.

Ainge talked a lot about balancing the future with the present on Thursday. The balance, to me, is pretty clear. He knows he can't win with this team as currently constituted, and Rondo is by far his best trade chip. He's going for broke now, both for this year and for the long term.

You mention personality. That's definitely a huge aspect to this, and one that's also a bit mysterious; we hear how stubborn he is, and that can be both a strength and a flaw. I just wish he'd use that strong will to start hitting 75 percent of his free throws.

But whether you're a fan or a reporter, if you have any natural skepticism whatsoever, the initial reaction when you hear a trade rumor about Rondo -- 25 years old, so insanely athletic that he sometimes makes other talented NBA guards look like spiritual nephews of Greg Kite, a champion who already has a highlight reel of extraordinary playoff moments. He's tough (he played one-freakin'-armed against the Heat), a creative genius as a passer, and so much more -- is that there has to be another element to it that we don't know. What does Danny know that we don't?

Or is it as simple as this: Chris Paul is the better all-around player, and his shooting ability on top of his point guard skills makes him a better fit than Rondo? Danny runs his team like he learned all of his lessons from Red Auerbach. He is a gambler -- remember, the Ray Allen trade was widely panned, and battle lines are still routinely drawn over the Kendrick Perkins deal -- but maybe he doesn't see this as a gamble at all.

Paul is a better overall player than Rondo, but I think it's more a matter of total team makeup. I don't believe Ainge thinks Rondo can take this group of players to a championship again, not with the Heat and Bulls in the same conference and the Lakers (where Paul and/or Howard may ultimately end up, unfortunately) and Mavericks (though they have the same aging problem) lurking. He wants to improve this group, and turning Rondo into something better might be the only way to do it.

This gets right down to the heart of what Rondo is, and what Rondo isn't. What he is, as you've pointed out, is one of the most unique talents in the league. There isn't a player elsewhere with his skill set, and we've all reaped the rewards of watching him get defenders to bite on pump fakes and throwing perfect behind-the-back bounce passes. Part of me thinks that the Celtics would have given the Heat some serious trouble had Rondo not popped his elbow out this spring. Another part of me worries that his shooting -- and this is coming from a huge Rondo supporter -- really does hamper the team in close games down the stretch. It's been six years and the shooting hasn't improved. Danny might be tired of waiting.

On the personality issue, a headstrong young point guard helped the Celtics win it all in 2008. But the Big Three were the Big Three then, and Rondo - who could be the best on-ball defender in the world if his overall play matched his talent -- was left off last year's USA Basketball team that won the world championship. Whether that was due to personality or was purely a basketball decision isn't known, but it seems Rondo reached his ceiling with USA Basketball. Has he reached his ceiling in Boston, too?

Maybe he has reached his ceiling in terms of Danny's expectations for him and belief in what he can do after Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce (likely the last of the three to go) have moved on. It's easy to buy into the conventional wisdom: after Kevin Garnett retires a life spent glowering at beach-goers in Malibu, and Ray Allen becomes a mercenary, designated shooter for some other contender for another five years, and Paul Pierce's No. 34 hangs by Larry's 33 and Reggie's 35 in the rafters, it will be Rondo who is charged with being a one of the building blocks for the next generation.

Except ... that doesn't seem to be Danny's plan, and with Doc here for the long haul as well, you have to figure there is some long-term plan in place -- probably Plans A through Z depending upon all the factors and how certain things shake out..

Could Plan A be so simple as to deal Rondo for Paul no matter whether he intends to stay, his knee is completely healthy, or whatever else, make one more title push with Paul and the Aging Three, then try to make a run at Dwight Howard, and if that doesn't work, blow the whole thing to smithereens and position themselves to get the next great college star? Have you ever noticed how much Austin Rivers looks like young Doc?

That's my usual long and winding way of asking this: Is it possible that they don't consider him a building-block at all, because when they blow it up, they're really going to blow it up?

Before the Danny/team-building stuff, I want to go back to the USA basketball snub and to the choice of Russell Westbrook over Rondo in particular. Rondo's a unique player, but the one player he's most often compared to might be Westbrook in terms of size, skill set, and playing style. Westbrook is two years younger and two inches taller, but he clearly lacked Rondo's big-game experience before that 2010 tournament. Coach K chose him anyway. Maybe it was just because of perimeter/free throw shooting, but that USA team didn't lack scorers. Wouldn't Rondo be the perfect guard to set up the LeBrons and Dwight Howards of the world?

Here are the stat lines of both players last season:

Rondo: 10.6 points, 11.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds, .475 field goals
Westbrook: 21.9 points, 8.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds, .442 field goals

There's a rumor that Ainge tried to trade Rondo for Westbrook after last year's playoffs and that the Thunder didn't have much interest. Fair enough that OKC wouldn't want to part with their rising star. But why are the Celtics trying to part with theirs?

Let's do an exercise: Lay out a plan in which the Celtics build around Rondo over the next three or four years.

Well, maybe that the catch here, or at least the place Ainge is coming from -- without significant improvement, you can't. At this point, it's calculus. Everything is variable.

The reason -- well, one of the reasons Paul appeals to them, other than that when that pesky meniscus isn't bothering him he's a 26-year-old MVP-caliber, genuine floor general who has helped David West make a lot of money -- is that he can score consistently from multiple areas on the court. He's a superb slasher, he can shoot the three (36 percent career), and he's outstanding from the line (85 percent).

Rondo is the first of those things, and when he's on and engaged or has something to prove, there isn't a player in the league who is more creative and fun en route the hoop. But he's certainly not a shooter, and because of his failings at the free throw line, he's reluctant to go to the hoop in the fourth quarter, often the times when they need a hoop from him the most. It's one of those instances where his pride works against him.

Tom Haberstroh on ESPN Insider had a smart column in which he spelled out why Rondo shouldn't be a rebuilding block, and it basically boiled down to the fact that much of his production depends upon who he's playing with. Ray Allen in particular makes him more efficient, which probably isn't a surprise, but to see the stark numbers spelled out is pretty telling.

That's a long way of saying there probably isn't a plan where they build around him unless Dwight Howard falls for the Danny/Doc sweet talk and two dead-eye perimeter shooters follow, or Danny can't find a suitable deal between now and Christmas -- or now and next Christmas, I suppose.

All right, it's crunch time. Time to break out your crystal ball -- the official NBA Spalding version, of course -- and answer these three questions:

You said earlier you thought Danny will eventually deal Rondo. Does it happen before this season begins?

If he spun the wheel and dealt him for Paul without an extension in place, would CP3 end up staying here after playing for Doc, realizing the fans' passion, and actually appreciating having more than a couple of talented players surrounding him?

Or is he going to insist on going to New York so he can play with Amar'e, Carmelo, and not ever have to hear the word "defense'' again?

The answers to your questions, in order:

    1. It happens as soon as Ainge can make it happen, which is before Dec. 25 if he has his choice. If not its before the trade deadline.

    2. If it's Chris Paul, it happens without an extension. If it's Deron Williams, same thing. Doc Rivers signed on for five years. He's obviously up for some rebuilding.

    3. Which leads us to Doc's ability to bring in star players. Chris Paul can't veto a trade here, and there's no reason he's not going to like it. If Paul wants to play in New York, he will, but the Celtics would have the advantage of being able to offer him more money to stay. New York may be a great place to live, but I can't imagine it being a better place to play basketball, with that collection of players and that coach.

All my answer here assume that getting equal value for Rondo in a trade is realistically possible. It may not be, and that may be why nothing happens at all. But if there's any chance of it working, Ainge is going to try to make it happen. The Celtics simply do not have much leverage to vastly improve their team by any other method.

Agreed, though I'll remain skeptical that Ainge can actually get equal value -- at least by our perception of what that is -- right up until the moment it happens.

So ... matter settled.

Now tell me: How would Vince Carter look in green?

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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