When it came to making Rajon Rondo the cornerstone of a Celtics renaissance, the most-storied franchise in NBA history did what their polarizing and mesmerizing point guard does best. They passed.
Unlike Rondo, an occasionally reluctant shooter, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge had no problem pulling the trigger on a trade that ended Rondo’s memorable nearly nine-season run in green. On Thursday, Danny the Dealer agreed to ship his mercurial All-Star, along with rookie Dwight Powell, to the Dallas Mavericks for Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, a conditional 2015 first-round pick, a 2016 second-round pick, and a $12.9 million trade exception.
This was a reality-check for Rondophiles. They must be drying their eyes with their No. 9 jerseys, incredulous that their favorite player is gone and that the rate of return for him is so little.
A certain segment of Celtics fans tend to overrate their players. They’re the ones who didn’t want to trade Al Jefferson for Kevin Garnett, still lament the loss of Kendrick Perkins like the team dealt William Felton Russell himself, and who regarded it as basketball canon that Rondo was a top-five point guard.
Top-five point guards and elite players don’t get traded for pennies that can be thrown into a wishing well of future contention. Bob Cousy in his prime never would have been dealt for such a pittance.
Wright is the best player the Celtics are getting back. He is yet another power forward for the Celtics, who collect them like refrigerator magnets. He is long and leaps like he is on a trampoline. He leads the league in field goal percentage (74.8) in limited minutes. But he is also 27 and entered the league in 2007, the year after Rondo.
Freed of Green Goggles, the rest of the NBA saw Rondo for what he is — an excellent playmaking point guard and complicated personality whose limitations are as striking as his uncanny ability to rebound and see the floor.
Standing 6 feet 1 inch, Rondo is a unique talent, as evidenced by his 32 career triple-doubles. But too many people mistake unique for elite.
They’re not necessarily the same.
According to ESPN’s player efficiency rating (PER), which is an advanced statistic that measures a player’s per-minute productivity, Rondo ranked 35th this season — among point guards. He was sandwiched between Miami’s Mario Chalmers and Pablo Prigioni of the New York Knicks.
That’s one of the reasons the Celtics blanched at the idea of signing Rondo, who will be a free agent after this season, to a five-year, maximum contract. The writing was on the wall in June when the Celtics selected Rondo’s successor, Marcus Smart, with the No. 6 pick in the draft.
For those clinging to Rondo’s repeated comments about wanting to remain in Boston and hoping for the comeback story the Red Sox didn’t get with Jon Lester, the NBA’s esoteric collective bargaining agreement dictates that Dallas can now offer Rondo the most money and the most years on a new deal.
The inscrutable and inimitable point guard has always been closer to the trading block than being the primary building block in the Celtics’ post-New Big Three rebuild.
Rondo bumped heads and egos with referees, coaches, and teammates. The same stubbornness and recusancy that made Rondo a fierce competitor on the court betrayed him off it.
But Rondo’s exit was not paved by his comportment. It was his shaky shot and inconsistent offense. This season he is averaging 8.3 points per game.
The Celtics have a higher offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) without Rondo on the floor than they do with him on it, even though he is leading the NBA in assists per game (10.8).
The Celtics’ offensive rating with Rondo on the floor is 104.7. It increases to 106.6 with him on the bench.
How many other NBA alpha dogs sit out an entire fourth quarter and two overtimes, like Rondo did in a 133-132 loss to the Washington Wizards on Dec. 8? How many take zero shots in the fourth quarter, like Rondo did in a 101-95 home loss to the woeful Knicks last Friday?
Pass-first point guards are like Bitcoin. They’re not that valuable unless you have the proper place and format to use them.
In hoops hindsight, it’s clear that Rondo benefited greatly from playing with future Hall of Famers Paul Pierce, Garnett, and Ray Allen.
Rondo got exposed a bit with the breakup of the New Big Three after the 2012-13 season. That was also the season that Rondo tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He is still trying to regain the form he had before that injury.
The go-to bromide about Rondo is that he makes those around him better, and he does. But there is a reciprocal nature to that platitude. The better the players you put around Rondo, the better his pass-first style plays.
Rondo is not a solo artist, like Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. He needs to harmonize as part of a trio or a quartet.
In Dallas, he’ll be back in a Core Four like he was with Pierce, KG, and Allen. Rondo’s new running mates are Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis, and Chandler Parsons.
Rondo had some brilliant moments in a Celtics uniform — Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals, his 44-point performance against the Miami Heat in Game 2 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, and his historic 18-point, 17-rebound, 20-assist triple-double against the Knicks in 2012, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson as the only players to record at least 15 points, 20 assists, and 15 rebounds in a game.
He was the last on-court link to the Celtics’ last championship, Banner No. 17, won in 2008.
But the Celtics decided their next championship team would be best constructed with Rondo as a trade piece, not the centerpiece.