When you’re at this stage of development and transition, looking for slivers of positives in excruciating losses and expecting to get pounded on a nightly basis with a patchwork roster, the encouraging signs happen off the court.
Such as players being vocal about their desire to stay in Boston past their free agent season. Jerryd Bayless and Kris Humphries have already said they want to be part of the Celtics future, and Rajon Rondo, as coy as he can be about his true feelings and intentions, expressed his desire to spend the rest of his career as a Celtic.
This is no small development. Rondo must have dozens of people whispering in his ear, telling him to hold out until the summer of 2015, when he’s a free agent and can score the contract of a lifetime. It’s easy to summarize that things will never be the same in Boston as they were during the glory days.
The return of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to TD Garden on Sunday will illustrate just how much things have changed. The band has been broken up. Rondo is the last original member. It’s difficult to be part of two championship eras with the same team.
Kobe Bryant was the central figure of two separate multi-title-winning teams with the Lakers, but it took Mitch Kupchak heisting the Memphis Grizzlies for Pau Gasol for that to occur. Rondo staying in Boston, potentially agreeing to a contract extension this summer or next summer, is showing great faith in president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to rebuild the Celtics into an elite team again.
Friday’s 101-83 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was as far from elite as you can get. It’s a sign the Celtics are in a bad state, with coach Brad Stevens unsure what to expect each night.
Jeff Green did his best Marshawn Lynch impersonation Wednesday against the Washington Wizards with 39 points and eight 3-pointers. On Friday he scored 16 points with one 3-pointer. Rondo is still waiting for one of his vintage games one week into his return from major knee surgery. He finished with eight assists in 22 minutes, still trying to find himself.
The Celtics are fully confident that Rondo will be an All-Star again and that’s why Ainge approached the guard’s representatives with an extension offer a month ago. It was turned down because Rondo can earn more with a little more patience (because of the collective bargaining agreement), but the gesture was appreciated.
“Me? I like to stick to the script,” Rondo said prior to Friday’s game. “I don’t like change much. I wouldn’t mind staying here the rest of my career. Things don’t always seem to go that way but like I said before, it’s just a business. I wouldn't mind extending another 10 years in Boston.’’
Ainge’s decision to offer Rondo an extension is a sign the organization realizes it needs a level of consistency through this transition. The Lakers signing Bryant to a two-year extension was considered foolish by some pundits, but it’s an indication that Bryant is an essential part of one last title run in Los Angeles.
Rondo turns 28 next month and will only improve as his lateral quickness and speed increase in the coming months, so an extension is of little risk. The Celtics have to be more concerned about building around Rondo — their two first-round draft picks in June, whether to bring back Humphries, how to attract free agents, and whether fate will be kind enough to Ainge again to land another nucleus close to the Big Three.
Rondo still has bouts of immaturity. He is still prickly and short on responses, such as after Friday’s game when he used just 30 words to answer the first six questions.
But if the Celtics were going to commit to Rondo long term, now is the time to express those sentiments. The NBA trade deadline is 25 days away, and more silence from the Celtics would have only added to the speculation that Rondo would be dealt in Ainge’s haste to rebuild.
But Ainge has always said the only way he would move Rondo would be for an All-Star-caliber player in return. Franchise-caliber point guards are difficult to procure, and even more difficult to keep healthy, as we have learned from injuries to Derrick Rose, Chris Paul, and Deron Williams. But their organizations are willing to withstand the injuries given their value to the franchise.
The Celtics are exhibiting the same patience and dedication, and Rondo showed by agreeing to his previous contract — which at $11 million per season was considered a bargain — that breaking the bank is less important than stability and faith.
There is going to be some haggling about money and the negotiations may take months, but at least Rondo and the Celtics have mutually agreed to make attempts to remain married. And that’s an important first step in the changeover to the next era.