Rondo-philes rejoice, another trade deadline has come and gone and your man is still sporting green. The yearly Rajon Rondo trade rumors have become like Punxsutawney Phil emerging from his burrow, a neat little tradition that doesn’t forecast anything meaningful or reliable.
The Celtics were never close to trading Rondo, according to president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. That makes it sound like the Celtics are committed to Rondo as a franchise cornerstone, not their most valuable trade chip.
But it’s not that simple. Is Rondo still here because the Celtics value and view him as an essential part of their future they simply can’t part with or because the rest of the NBA doesn’t value a pass-first All-Star point guard the same way the Celtics and their fans do? I vote for the latter.
“Whichever way you want to look at it, we value him more than anybody else. That’s all that matters,” said Ainge. “You can spin it however you want. The kid is a four-time All-Star, a four-time All-NBA defensive team [player]. Everybody has a price in the world that we live in today. Our price is very high.
“We were not trying to trade Rondo in any way, shape, or form. Most of the rumors out there were completely false. I didn’t even have talks with some of those teams. I never had one conversation with one of those teams.”
Thou doth protest too much, Danny. Here’s the deal with dealing Rondo, I believe the Celtics would move him in a heartbeat in a trade that would bring back a player who either is or could develop into a bona fide, undisputed, Alpha All-Star, the leading man in the ever-fashionable three-stars blueprint that Ainge followed with the New Big Three. But Rondo can’t command that type of player from the rest of the league.
We learned that when the New Orleans Hornets/Pelicans preferred Eric Gordon to Rondo as the centerpiece of a deal for Chris Paul in 2011.
There is a gap in how Rondo is perceived here and around the rest of the NBA. Here Rondo is a dazzling, mesmerizing, whirling dervish of creativity and uncanny basketball geometry, throwing impossible passes and finishing rakish forays into the paint. He is a triple-double-in-waiting and a top-five NBA point guard.
The rest of the league sees a premier playmaker with a shaky shot who has a reputation for recalcitrance.
The sobering reality for Celtics fans is that in offers imagined or actual the Houston Rockets were not banging down the door to trade their third-best player, Chandler Parsons (a darling of advanced NBA metrics), for your best player, Rondo.
Too many Parishioners of the Parquet mistake uniqueness for greatness. Rondo is one of the most unique players to ever play point guard in the NBA, a sui generis floor general. But that doesn’t make him a player you can build a banner-hanging team around.
For all the talk of Rondo making the players around him better, that cuts both ways. A player like Rondo is always going to perform better on a team where there are players capable and basketball-savvy enough to convert his sleight of Spaulding moves into actual made baskets.
Absent such players, his talent is diminished because he is not a scorer by nature or by virtue of his basketball gifts.
Rondo has shown flashes of his offensive potential before. In the Celtics’ heartbreaking, seven-game loss to the Miami Heat in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, Rondo averaged 20.9 points per game. His 44-point tour de force in an overtime loss in Game 2 was a sublime display of skill and willpower that teased Rondo’s potential as a primary offensive option.
But Rondo has never averaged more than 13.7 points per game. He is averaging 10.5 points on 40.5 percent shooting 11 games into his comeback from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
The fundamental question the Celtics must answer about Rondo, who turns 28 on Saturday, is whether he is good enough to be the best player on a championship team? If he is, hang up the phone when another team calls and sign him to a max contract.
The question was posed to Ainge, who didn’t provide a definitive answer.
“Well, let me rephrase the question,” said Ainge. “Rondo has been the No. 1 player in playoff series that have involved Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. He has been the best player in playoff games. Whether he can be a No. 1, No. 2, or No. 3, it doesn’t matter. That’s not even a relevant question. He is really a transcendent player.”
When pressed on the idea of Rondo as the leader of a title team, Ainge said he didn’t feel he had a No. 1 when he had Pierce, Garnett, and Ray Allen in Celtics uniforms.
“Who was the lead guy when we had Paul and KG and Ray?” Ainge asked. “I think I had 1B, 1B, 1B. I think Ray and Paul and KG were all 1B, 1B, 1B. We didn’t have 1A. We didn’t have a LeBron, a [Kevin] Durant, or a Magic Johnson.
“They needed each other. Paul was the better go-to guy, KG was the better defender and high-percentage scorer, Ray spread the court, and Rondo was the distributor . . . The reason I say it’s irrelevant is you need more people. Whether you’re a 1, 2, or 3, you need help. Those guys are a perfect example of guys who needed help and are all Hall of Fame players.”
If the Celtics were convinced that Rondo is a player you can build a title team around, then we wouldn’t keep hearing his name in trade rumors. He might be a 1B and Plan B in the Great Rebuild.
Ainge is right when he says the Celtics value Rondo more than anybody else, but that’s not a good thing.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.