When the Boston Celtics chose to acquire Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007, there were some spectators who lamented the fact that the team had 'traded away their future' in pursuit of instant success. Of course, those spectators were forced to eat their words at the end of the season when KG screamed joyous expletives as he finally hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy. But now, nearly four years removed from their championship run, the Celtics are finally having to face the consequences of those big trades. The Big Three are ageing fast, and with the Bulls and Heat staking emphatic claim to their role as Eastern Conference bullies, the Celtics can no longer viably compete for a title. Their roster is still solid, but unlikely to improve over the next few seasons as it's players inch towards retirement.
So the time has come for the Celtics to enter a rebuilding mode, to trade off their better players for draft picks and young up-and-comers. Unburdening themselves of players like Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, even if they've still got a few good years left, should be a no-brainer. They'll fetch a tidy sum on the open market and will be off the Celtics pay roll, freeing up salary space to sign the young guns. Keeping Paul Pierce in the fold is an option, if only to pay homage to a career long dedication to the club, but he too could be traded for some covetable assets.
The one player of value on the Celtics roster who poses any sort of dilemma is Rajon Rondo. In the face of sometimes lacklustre play and the odd bout of sullen brooding, there are annual calls to move the talented point guard elsewhere. But he is the one guy currently on the squad who the Celtics could legitimately build around. Sure, his jump shot, even six years into his NBA career, leaves much to be desired, and his consistency at the free throw line is questionable.
But these rather gaping holes in his game haven't prevented him from becoming one of the league's premiere point guards. He is one of the league's best passers, averaging better than 11 assists per game during the 2010-11 season, and averaging close to 8 per game for his career. His rebounding ability is truly phenomenal for a small guy, making him a consistent triple-double threat. He's got a solid, strong frame, and can get above the rim when he has to. He is one of the best defensive point guards in the league, a rare and valuable commodity. He's a three time NBA All-Star, and a two time all-NBA defensive first team selection. And he won an NBA championship, leading a team of legendary veterans to the title as a third-year starter. To put it simply, his NBA resume is already a work of art, the stuff of dreams for many 12 or 15 year veterans. And at only 26, he's got time to develop his game further and lead the franchise into their next reincarnation. So do you trade him?
With the trade deadline looming, this is the question bandied about. The quick and easy answer is that if the Celtics want to rebuild (and they should), Rondo is a more valuable asset than any of the Big Three. Garnett's career is winding down, even if his ability to berate opponents and knock down the odd 20-footer still remains. Ray Allen, though still a deadly outside threat, can't contribute much more than that at this point. And Paul Pierce, though still capable of putting up 20 a night, is simply not at an age where it is feasible to build around him. Rondo, on the other hand, is in his prime, with several more solid years on the horizon. He may not be a franchise player, but he's close to it, the kind of guy who can be an anchor for a franchise moving forward.
The other side to that argument is that franchise cornerstones come around only very rarely, and there is no guarantee that trading Rondo will yield the results that the Celtics are hoping for. If they had traded him for draft picks and prospects that fail to pan out, they've given up a once-every-five-or-ten-years type of guy, whereas trading the big three doesn't involve much risk.
But then some will bring up the question of his attitude. Even while showing the maturity to lead a veteran team to an NBA championship, he has been prone to fits of childishness. His play has been up and down; sometimes he looks like a conductor directing a well-polished symphony, while other times he wanders disinterestedly about the court, getting by on talent and the fading abilities of his teammates. Plus there's always the argument that most games he can't hit a jump shot, and can sink only 60% of his free throws. Is this really the player to bring the Celtics forward?
This season has been no less up and down than those before it. Rondo has at many times looked lethargic and uninspired by the game going on around him. His lacklustre play is what provoked the habitual trade whispers into a louder, more public conversation than it had been in past seasons. But, as per usual, he has not let us forget his brilliance. In particular, his 18 point, 20 assist, 17 rebound performance against the Lin-sanity fuelled Knicks simply boggles the mind. These numbers translate into total dominance over every aspect of a game, and they should serve as a grave reminder to Boston Celtics fans that Rajon Rondo, for all his erratic performances and enigmatic behaviours, is one of the game's truly unique players, and should not be taken for granted.