PHOENIX — It’s just another trade deadline approaching for Rajon Rondo, just another set of trade rumors and assessments of his future in Boston. He’s become accustomed to that banter.
This year, Rondo is coming off major knee surgery and is a month into his return. He has just one more full season on his Celtics contract and is just days from his 28th birthday.
At the just-concluded All-Star Game, there were 12 players on the Eastern and Western Conference rosters younger than Rondo. He is no longer the baby of the Celtics’ bunch, as he was when he was being mentored by — and taking flak from — Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen. Rondo is in his eighth season, approaching his prime years and looking for one final big score, that one contract that can define his career and give him post-career financial security.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said the team is not shopping Rondo, but that didn’t stop teams from discussing the point guard at All-Star Weekend more than any other player. His situation is unique because his contract is expiring after next season, and eventually a team will need to make a commitment to Rondo, and he will need to commit to a team.
The decision doesn’t have to be made now, but it has to be made. And age is becoming a factor. It is a young man’s league; the All-Star Game Most Valuable Player was 21-year-0ld Kyrie Irving. Some of the All-Stars were juniors in high school when Rondo was helping the Celtics win the NBA title in 2008.
Rondo sees his NBA mortality and understands his time is now.
“These guys, my teammates, they look at me like I’m a vet,” he said. “I think you have to be at least seven or eight years to be a vet. I’m right at the cusp. I look at Gerald [Wallace] like he’s old and he’s only 31, so it’s like, ‘Ehhhhh, I’m right around the corner.’ I thought Gerald’s been playing 14-15 years and he’s only 31. So, it’s like, he’s old, but in a couple days I’ll be three years behind him, so I’m going to slow down on calling Gerald old.”
When Rondo reached his first All-Star Game at 23, he thought he would be a staple there for another 10 years. But this past weekend in New Orleans, there was no Celtics representation besides Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk in the Rising Stars Game. The Boston organization was an afterthought because it is in rebuilding mode. Pierce and Garnett were ghosts here, and in a way, so was Rondo.
“It didn’t motivate me, but I plan on being back there next year,” he said of the All-Star Game. “That’s an individual goal of mine. At the end of the day, I just want to get back to 100 percent. And continue to improve my game. The rest of this year and this summer, just get better, become a better player.”
There remains an upside to Rondo’s game, even though he’s almost 28. He can become a better shooter, a better leader, and make better court decisions. He has to convince the Celtics, if they aren’t already, that he will make a full recovery and return to All-Star form. Time is becoming a factor, especially when a potential maximum contract could be at stake.
“Yeah, I believe so,” he said when asked if he was approaching his prime. “You can say that. I can still get better. I don’t think I’ve reached my peak. Some guys may reach their peak at 25 and max out, but I think I can continue to still get better and will get better.”
The kid is growing up, likely halfway through his NBA career. Of the 30 players drafted in the first round in Rondo’s year of 2006, 18 are out of the NBA, including Brandon Roy (knees) and Adam Morrison (flameout). There are no promises for a long NBA career. You have to have good fortune, good health, and a stellar work ethic.
Rondo has been blessed with at least two of those, and he understands his career GPS is well into its journey.
“I think 28 is your prime,” he said. “Talking to a lot of the older guys, like I said, KG, Pierce, they are a certain age. So I have at least probably four or five more good years that I know that I can compete at a high level. And I had basically almost a year off, so subtract that. I’m about 27.”
The next 24-plus hours could be critical to Rondo’s career. The Celtics could show they have faith in him by not executing a trade and Rondo would have to return the favor by returning from major knee surgery with passion.
“It may take a year, it may take 18 months, hopefully it doesn’t take 36,” he said of returning to form. “I’m feeling more and more comfortable as time goes on. There’s still general soreness. I don’t think I’ve played even 10 games yet. I still feel good. I’m just glad to be back out on the court, playing basketball.”