The Rajon Rondo reports have been piling up fast and furious this week, and the sheer number of them is no coincidence. But it is the timing of these leaks—which added together look a lot like smear campaign—that makes you wonder if the Celtics have already made up their mind on the direction of a rebuild. The only problem is that history (i.e., the last time the Celts made the NBA lottery) shows us the true direction of the franchise won’t be known until May 20. That makes the current string of reports all a bit baffling.
First, it was the report in The Boston Herald that Rondo had skipped traveling with the team to Sacramento, instead staying behind in Los Angeles to celebrate his birthday. Within a day, Grantland reported that Rondo was dangled at the trade deadline and might’ve actually put the kibosh on a trade to Sacramento. And fewer than 12 hours later, Jackie MacMullan says the Celtics have scouted Dante Exum (the top-rated point guard in the draft) more than any other team. The final hammer came a few days later: An “unnamed” scout said Rondo was overrated and that he would prefer 40 other point guards ahead of him.
There’s a few ways to look at the purpose of a smear campaign. It could certainly lower Rondo’s contract demands, forcing him to take less money or less years to stay with the Celtics when he’s a free agent in 2015. A similar smear war was waged in the lead-up to him signing his current 5-year, $55 million deal in 2010. That campaign worked to a degree, and led Rondo to sign for what is now a bargain price.
Perhaps—if the Sacramento trade rumor is true (Is it a coincidence that Rondo missed traveling to this exact city? Or that his coach was so frustrated later that night he earned the first ejection of his coaching career?)—they’re at their wits’ end with him declining to resign with Sacramento, and this is a way to send him a message that life in Boston will not be comfortable. But this smear campaign is a riskier play than 2010 because if the Celtics decide to trade Rondo, then they’re only decreasing his value in the trade market.
Whether Rondo should be traded or kept is a question that won’t be answered until the lottery on May 20. For proof of this path, look no further than the 2007 draft lottery. The Celtics had a veteran All-Star (Paul Pierce) and a chance at a top pick in a loaded draft; the Seattle SuperSonics also had a veteran All-Star (Ray Allen) and a chance at a top pick in a loaded draft. In the days leading up to the lottery, Pierce was quoted as saying he wasn’t sure he would stick around if the Celtics won the rights to select Kevin Durant or Greg Oden. The Celts, however, ended up with the fifth pick, and the Sonics ended up with the second pick. For the Sonics, that meant taking Kevin Durant and trading Ray Allen to pair Durant with a player more his age. For the Celtics, it meant trading the pick (Jeff Green) in order to pair Paul Pierce with a worthy peer in Allen. The two teams both found success: the Celtics went on to trade other assets for a third veteran All-Star (Kevin Garnett) and won a title, narrowly missing out on a second title (damn you, Artest!); the Sonics begat the Thunder who have made one NBA Finals appearance and are destined for more. That’s two teams with the same assets leading up to the lottery, who made firm decisions (win now or rebuild fully) and saw the fruits of it.
This year, the Celtics will be in the same situation. They have one All-Star veteran and a chance for a top pick in a loaded draft. While there is no LeBron James (i.e., immediate impact) in this draft, the top three picks (Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins) are all consensus future All-Stars. The next level of guys includes a few point guards (Exum, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Smart). If the Celtics get a Top 3 pick, they’d be wise to trade Rondo to a team picking somewhere in the 4-8 range (maybe the Lakers who would want a veteran next to Kobe), and pair two young studs (say, Parker with Exum). This would be the start of an all-in rebuilding phase, similar to what the Sonics/Thunder went through after the 2007 lottery. If the Celtics land in the 4-8 range, then the best bet is to use that as part of a package to trade for a veteran (most rumors point to Kevin Love). Celtics fans would basically be living like it’s 2007 all over again.
Either way, it’s two very different outcomes for Rondo’s future with the Celtics. He will either be retained in a win-now scenario or dealt as part of a long-term rebuild. But the fact that those outcomes won’t be decided until after the lottery makes these recent reports (which look like a smear campaign) all the more baffling. Was it perhaps information that Sacramento leaked in the wake of the trade breakdown? It’s hard to say for sure, but it would’ve been playing with fire for the Celtics to do it.