In the same interview he promised “fireworks” as the NBA draft approaches, when the Celtics could move a series of draft picks and veterans in deals for potential franchise cornerstones, Celtics co-owner Wyc Grousbeck professed his admiration for Rajon Rondo.
Rondo has an ally in Grousbeck, who told the Globe Wednesday that he “loved the guy.” Rondo is back from major knee surgery and he has shown flashes of his prior brilliance, although that wasn’t the case in Friday’s demoralizing 87-80 loss to the Phoenix Suns at TD Garden.
Rondo, coming off two days off, was 4-for-15 shooting as he and his team collapsed in the final two minutes. It was the Celtics’ 44th loss in 66 games and they are headed for their first lottery appearance in seven years. Over the final 16 games of the season, Rondo’s primary goal is to show that he’s completely recovered from right anterior cruciate ligament surgery.
And he also wants to assume full leadership of the organization in case he does stick around. The question for the Celtics is whether to trade Rondo for more assets and continue to rebuild or commit to him as the central figure — or one of them — of the franchise.
Grousbeck’s endorsement is critical, considering he is an active owner who likes to make suggestions in terms of roster building. He’ll leave the heavy work to president of basketball operations Danny Ainge, but having Grousbeck in his corner may keep Rondo in Boston.
The support was not lost on the veteran point guard, who is understandably uncertain about his future.
“It means a lot, especially coming from the head guy,” Rondo said following the game. “With all the rumors swirling, the criticism that I was having throughout the past couple weeks, he stuck his neck out. He didn’t have to say anything, but he did. I’ve talked to Wyc since then. Everything is what it’s supposed to be.”
Rondo has said he plans to test free agency at the end of his current contract in 2015. What may sway his decision is the state of the organization in the near future. The Celtics have nine first-round draft picks in the next five years, including two first-rounders in June.
They have enough cap space this summer to sign a quality free agent and can quickly begin to build a capable roster, something that would likely encourage Rondo to stick around. There is a tenuous relationship between he and the organization, depending on whom you ask.
The question the Celtics have to answer in the coming months is whether Rondo has peaked and should be moved for younger assets, or whether his improved shooting or a more aggressive offensive arsenal will make him unstoppable, as former teammate Paul Pierce suggested last week.
In 20 games, Rondo has attempted 66 3-pointers; he shot 50 in 38 games last season. His game is expanding and his court vision remains stellar, so there is a legitimate argument to give Rondo a long-term extension.
Elite point guards are difficult to find. The Bulls aren’t parting ways with the often-injured Derrick Rose. The Nets aren’t moving Deron Williams. The Clippers covet Chris Paul, while the Thunder are now whole with Russell Westbrook back.
The Celtics need to think long and hard before attempting to move Rondo believing they can find 10 assists per game in the draft or through free agency. His growth period has had its share of difficulties, including “Birthdaygate” last month, but Grousbeck’s confidence in Rondo wasn’t shaken by the incident.
Rondo is averaging 11.8 points, 8.6 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.5 steals this season without full confidence in his right knee. Those numbers should swell next season when the knee is sound. The question is whether it will be in Boston.
With Pierce and Kevin Garnett long gone, Rondo is the Celtics’ most identifiable player. He is the lone link to the glory days and young enough to be the branch from one era to the next. Legacy is important to Grousbeck, and while he doesn’t say it, Rondo wouldn’t mind being an all-time great in a city of all-time greats.
At 28 he is old enough to understand the game isn’t promised and soon enough he’ll be 30-something and a step slow. He may want to explore the lures of other organizations but a vote of confidence from the chief Celtic doesn’t hurt his attraction to staying put.
“I mean, we had a dinner at the beginning of the year and Wyc expressed how he felt about me. I don’t think he’s a liar. I know he’s not a liar,” Rondo said. “He didn’t have to tell me anything. Him and I, we spoke, and what he said recently hasn’t changed.”