When the Celtics decided to finally trade Rajon Rondo, shipping him to the Dallas Mavericks on Dec. 18, they not only eliminated their most identifiable player and lone link to the 2008 championship team, they traded their unquestioned leader and captain.
So far, a week after the deal, the Celtics are a directionless team, with players on expiring contracts, wildly inconsistent youngsters, and veterans who have the opportunity to emerge as leaders but don’t have the makeup.
This is one of the unintended consequences of gutting a roster of its best players, leaving behind those who realize their future isn’t in Boston and are waiting for their trade call.
So who is to lead these younger players and teach them how to be better professionals? That is the most critical question. It can’t all be Brad Stevens, who while considered a rising coach, did not play in the NBA and can only reach his players at certain levels.
On Tuesday night in Orlando, Stevens sent messages by denying playing time to Jeff Green (benched in the fourth quarter) and Jared Sullinger (benched for the second half) of a 100-95 loss. And with Rondo gone and Gerald Wallace hardly playing, there are few choices of veterans who can have a positive influence on the younger players after difficult times.
Green is 28 and has been in the NBA eight years but never has been asked to lead. When he arrived in Boston in 2011, the Big Three — Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen — were still here, and Green willingly played understudy. As they left one by one, Green never commanded more of a leadership role.
When asked if he needed to take more leadership responsibility after the Rondo trade, Green said, “Nah, it’s a team game.”
So who is the Celtics’ leader? The answer is blank. They don’t have one.
Jameer Nelson, sensing his new team was wayward regarding leadership, talked with his teammates before Sunday’s game in Miami, letting them know he was available for advice and guidance. That was noble. But Nelson just got here, and it will take time for his teammates to digest his suggestions.
Also, Nelson could be a trade candidate before the deadline.
The biggest risk in this rebuilding plan is gathering a bunch of young players with no bona fide leader. It’s like a prom without chaperones. The Sacramento Kings tried building that way, amassing a bunch of young prospects hoping they would bond and flourish without supervision, and that method has kept them in the draft lottery for nearly a decade.
Wallace has served as a sage since arriving before last season, but as his playing time has decreased, his effect has dissipated. It’s difficult to lead when you essentially don’t play. Losing Rondo meant losing a mentor — believe it or not — who had a lofty résumé and was in his prime playing years.
Brandon Bass is a leader — but by example. While he is on that list of players with an expiring contract, Bass plays with a determination and passion that hasn’t wavered. His teammates should soak in his style and professionalism, but it seems that process is going at a painstakingly slow pace.
Rondo’s departure made Avery Bradley the senior member of the team, with all of four-plus seasons. But he just turned 24 and is still trying to consistently stay healthy and gain more confidence in his game.
So Stevens’s challenge is obvious. He is the coach of a patchwork roster, with a franchise that is in transition. The players fully understand the team has no intention of retaining most of the roster.
When asked whether he talked with the younger players following the Rondo trade about the reality of the NBA as a business, Wallace said, “I think they pretty much know the deal with Rondo. It was foreseen. It’s not like it caught anybody by surprise. It’s been talked about for at least the past two or three years.”
Wallace said he is encouraged by the team’s potential, but there are caveats.
“We’ve got a lot of young pieces,” he said. “I think our biggest thing now is being able to play more together, competing and having the opportunity to perform on the court.”
Such an endeavor requires leadership. The organization has to bank on players such as Nelson and even Marcus Thornton (another expiring contract) not being distracted by their contract status and becoming positive mentors.
If they don’t, Stevens’s job becomes even more difficult and his responsibility greater. While the standard model for the NBA rebuild is Oklahoma City, there have been failures. Sacramento is the prime example, and how many retooling plans has Minnesota gone through since the Garnett trade?
It will be fascinating to view how the cornerstones — Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, James Young, and Marcus Smart — develop over the next few years. They are potential leaders but much too young and inexperienced to lead now, so a bridge has to gapped. The Celtics either have to discover leaders from within or acquire them.
If not, the core they expected to flourish into standouts will continue to have these bouts with wild inconsistency, with no role model besides the ghost of Rondo. When you replace leaders with rent-a-players with no emotional attachment to the organization, it can backfire.