Rajon Rondo gave a very quick answer to what could turn into a months-long situation this season.
“Do you want to stay in Boston beyond this year?” he was asked Monday during Boston Celtics Media Day.
“Yes,” he replied, almost immediately.
Rondo is entering the final year of contract, worth $12.9 million this season. He is the Celtics’ most valuable trade asset and has not committed to re-signing with the team.
He also believes he is a max player.
“I think that a four-time All-Star by the time he’s 27 years old would qualify for max based on what we’ve seen in the market place,” said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. “If I was Rajon and I was Rajon’s agent, I would definitely say that. But since I’m negotiating against him, I’ll withhold.”
Rondo, 28, has spent his entire career with the Celtics since they acquired him on draft night 2006 from the Phoenix Suns. He has skyrocketed from a backup point guard at the start of his rookie year to one of the best at his position. Rondo ran the floor for the 2008 championship-winning team and has proved he can take over a game on his own at will.
Even though he suffered a torn ACL injury in 2013 and is expected to miss 6-8 weeks with a hand injury to start this season, he has accomplished enough that he will be highly sought after in the coming months. Rondo has a career average of 11.1 points, 8.4 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 steals. He led the league in assists twice and steals once.
The Celtics are quickly approaching a crossroads: Play out the season in hopes of inking Rondo to another deal, or trade him before the deadline to acquire valuable pieces for the future. The team has already expressed interest in bringing him back, but it’s not that simple.
“We tried to sign Rajon a couple times, but it doesn’t make sense for Rajon to sign,” said Ainge. “If you know the Collective Bargaining Agreement, it makes no financial sense for him to re-sign. It was something we’d like to do, but under the current negotiations it’s very unrealistic to even be able to do that.”
Rondo is realistic about the Celtics. The days of the “New Big Three” are now distant memories and the team is years removed from being dominant title contenders. Yet, the ultra-competitive point guard is seeing a silver lining to the Celtics’ new phase. He expressed his trust in Ainge, noting how he transformed a 24-win team to a winner in a matter of months.
“I’m pretty smart,” Rondo said. “I know this isn’t a championship team, but we’re going to out there every night and fight hard. I think if we continue to do the little things and believe in each other and believe in Brad Stevens, we’ll surprise a lot of people.”
The Celtics don’t have the enticement of immediate contention to lure Rondo should he hit free agency, but he has his own personal affinity for playing in Boston.
“The fans, the people here make me want to stay,” Rondo said. “The organization has been great. I can’t say enough about Danny and (co-owner) Wyc (Grousbeck). But when I walk down the street, the fans are embracing from day one. Even when we won a championship, people don’t just appreciate us winning. It’s more of a ‘thank you,’ it’s a love for the game. These people here know the game. You can’t fool them. They know when you’re BS-ing them around and you’re not playing as hard as you can. The love I get is kind of overwhelming here in Boston. Why wouldn’t I want to stay here?”
The decision isn’t just if Rondo wants to stay in Boston; the Celtics will have to decide if they want to keep him there. There is no question Rondo is one of the best at his position, but if the team finds they are able to carry the load with less costly players there may not be as much urgency to offer Rondo his desired contract. The development of rookie Marcus Smart, who should receive increased minutes during Rondo’s injury, could factor into that assessment.
The Celtics will, as they should, explore offers from suitors in the coming months. Ainge is not hesitant to make major moves during the season (think back to the Kendrick Perkins trade in 2011) or trade faces of the franchise (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett last summer). If the Celtics believe Rondo may not re-sign, the focus would shift from how to retain him to how to receive the maximum in return.
Both sides understand the nature of the business. But unless a move is made, they are putting trade talks out of mind to focus on winning this season.
“I’m fine with the rumors,” said Rondo. “They’ve been something my entire career. Maybe something I negotiate (is a) no-trade clause or something like that to keep my name out the trade rumors. But it’s just part of it. No big deal.”
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