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NBA Sunday: Everyone Wins In Rondo Trade

By trading Rajon Rondo, the Celtics avoided the same problem that plagues the Knicks.

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Rick Carlisle donned his navy blue Mavericks hooded sweatshirt. He both looked and sounded quite casual sitting next to Mark Cuban, whose demeanor was somewhere between proud and giddy.

“Obvioulsy, having him here is a huge step forward for us,” Cuban said about what it meant for his franchise to land Rajon Rondo. “He’s a winner and he’s a competitor.”

Rondo is a few other things too: another superstar in Dallas and a beaming light that illuminates championship hopes.

And now, he is, best of all, a Maverick.

Clearly a bit unnerved, Rondo was reserved and stoic. After nine mostly successful years as a member of the Boston Celtics, he slowly saw his surroundings change as the foundation he came to know crumbled.

Over the years, he saw James Posey, Ray Allen and Doc Rivers flee and Kendrick Perkins, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce traded away. Over those nine years, he went from being the new kid on the block to the last of the mohicans.

And as the days wore on and the Celtics embraced rebuilding, general manager Danny Ainge found himself in the peculiar position of trying to best determine what to do with a late 20-something-year-old franchise-caliber player who had no interest in losing.

As the years wore on, Rondo and the Celtics knew they were headed for an inevitable divorce.

Now, finally, Rondo was 1,800 miles away from where it all began.

Sitting beside Carlisle and Cuban, he paid respect to the Celtics, but he tipped his hand when asked what excited him about his new life in Dallas.

He mentioned “being able to play with future Hall-of-Famers” and being a part of “a team that’s ready to contend for a title.”

Meanwhile, in Boston, Ainge had to field some tough questions about what led to the trade of the talented Rondo and he spoke honestly of the “uncertainty” that the Celtics faced with Rondo’s impending free agency. Ainge was afraid of losing his superstar for nothing in return and simply could not take the risk that the Los Angeles Lakers took with Dwight Howard or the one that the New York Knicks did with Carmelo Anthony.

But in the end, for the Celtics, it was for the best.

——

It is often said that the worst place to be as a general manager in the National Basketball Association is right in the middle. A team that is not bad enough to get a top three pick in the draft and not good enough to seriously challenge once the playoffs roll around is up the creek without a paddle.

At least, that is what is often said.

This season, though, with the freshly re-signed Anthony and the New York Knicks sputtering out to their worst 25-game start in franchise history, one could easily make a new argument.

The worst place to be in the NBA is at the helm of a rebuilding team whose only asset is an aging player on a maximum salary and that is especially true in the post-2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement era of NBA economics.

Rebuilding teams require cap flexibility, not cap-clogging contracts.

Rebuilding teams require a slew of draft picks.

Rebuilding teams require patience on the part of their player-personnel.

And, among other things, rebuilding teams require youth.

Instead, a team that re-signs its late 20-something year old franchise player to a maximum contract will have already limited its ability to build an adequate supporting cast around him. In today’s NBA, it takes no less than three All-Star caliber performers to seriously contend for a championship, even if you are an Eastern Conference team.

Quite simply, it’s difficult to assemble that type of roster when you are beginning with a player who is collecting upwards of 30 percent of your cap.

Draft picks are the top currency in the NBA. They are lottery tickets with a potential jackpot of incalculable proportions. They are the lifeblood of a franchise and provide hope for the future.

Invariably, a team with a late 20-something superstar will need to find creative ways to field a competitive roster and build around said superstar. By virtue of him being in his late 20s, said superstar will not have patience; he wants to win now. He won’t be concerned with five years from now, he will be concerned with five months from now. It’s because the hourglass is running out on a late 20-something year-old superstar.

What Ainge realized in Boston was that by their very nature, a player like Rondo and his interests were diametrically opposed to the long-term best interests of the franchise.

Ainge made the tough decision, and perhaps the correct one. In the end, he made the decision that the New York Knicks refused to make with the polarizing Anthony.

For all that he is and brings to the table, Anthony has not proven himself to be a player capable of elevating his teammates and franchise. He will turn 31 years old before the season ends, but is in the first year of a five-year contract that will pay him $124 million.

At the age of 34, Anthony will be finishing up the fourth year of that contract in which he will earn $26.2 million. He will have a fifth year option at $27.9 million. Some people feel that he is not worth that type of investment, others simply feel that those numbers will make building around him difficult.

In the interim, the Knicks find themselves in the precarious position of having made a long-term commitment to their superstar and having to navigate the murky terrain of rebuilding while quickly becoming competitive enough to give Anthony a puncher’s chance of achieving highly in the playoffs.

In a way, they find themselves in the opposite situation as the Celtics.

And now, they find themselves in the situation of attempting to reinvent the wheel in building a contender in New York City.

——

When one looks back closely at the gross majority of NBA Champions over the course of the past twenty years, there are some fairly consistent traits.

The exhaustive list dating back to 1994, in reverse order: San Antonio Spurs (2014, 2007, 2005, 2003, 1999), Miami HEAT (2013, 2012, 2006), Dallas Mavericks (2011), Los Angeles Lakers (2010, 2009, 2002, 2001, 2000), Boston Celtics (2008), Detroit Pistons (2004), Chicago Bulls (1998, 1997, 1996) and Houston Rockets (1995, 1994).

Deep thought around and about each of those teams will yield a few similarities. Each of the aforementioned teams either drafted very well or attained a young player in whom the team presumably saw potential before the player was renowned as a stud. Either situation requires having an astute scouting department, so call that your first necessary trait.

The 2011 Mavericks obviously drafted Dirk Nowitzki, but Jason Terry was not considered a championship player when he was acquired, J.J. Barea was signed as an undrated rookie and Ian Mahinmi had only played 32 professional games before being signed by the Mavericks on a minimum-salaried contract.

For the 2008 Celtics, yes, Paul Pierce was their draftee, and yes, he did have Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett flanking him, but Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe and Glen Davis—all important contributors for that title run—were all drafted by the club.

Champions in 2004, the Pistons remain the gold standard for a team that believes it can trade its way to a championship. Joe Dumars added quite a few pieces to that 2004 team via trade which makes it somewhat easy to overlook the fact that Tayshaun Prince, Mehmet Okur and Lindsey Hunter were drafted by the franchise.

The other champions are so obviously a result of good drafting nothing more needs to be said of this trait.

The second and often overlooked trait of a champion is prudent cap management.

Inevitably, in the NBA, winning costs money. In a free market economy, the gross majority of NBA players play for the team that is willing to pay them the most. The better the player is, the more lucrative the offers he receives, again, the gross majority of time.

Championship teams rarely overpay for marginal production, or if they do, the player who is being overpaid must be canceled out by at least one other player who is underpaid for his production.

Ever notice how it seems like almost every time a team wins a championship, it loses one or two key contributors to free agency immediately after the team hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy? That is usually a result of this very concept. The player leaving the championship team usually does so in pursuit of a higher payday than his incumbent team was either willing or able to offer him. In effect, that proves that the salary he earned before leaving his team was less than what his production warranted.

Two great examples, again, using the 2011 Mavericks and 2008 Celtics are Barea and Posey, respectively.

Barea earned just $1.8 million from the Mavericks, but played 18.6 minutes per game for the club during their title run and had per-36 minute averages of 17.3 points, 6.6 assists and 3.6 rebounds. The ensuing offseason, Barea signed a four-year contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves that paid him $4.3 million in the first year—a raise of 139 percent.

Posey was a integral part of the Celtics’ 2008 championship run. He, along with Tony Allen, were the team’s most proficient perimeter defenders, but he, unlike Allen, was a highly efficient three-point shooter. Posey hit about 40 percent of his shots from behind the arc and gave the Celtics 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.6 steals per-36 minutes. He was paid $3.2 million by the team, but left after receiving a four-year deal from the New Orleans Hornets that paid him $5.8 million in the first year—a raise of 74 percent.

In each case, Barea and Posey received substantial raises, helping to make the argument that the Mavericks and Celtics were able to exploit their production for less than their fair market value. Of course, an argument can be made that their market value was increased because they won championships, but a ring without production could not explain such a substantial increase in pay.

——

So, what does this have to do with Anthony and Rondo?

It’s simple: By trading Rondo (as well as Garnett and Pierce), the Celtics have embraced these concepts fully. They are attempting to rebuild the franchise into a contender by way of patience and draft picks. Without building around an aging star, the team can patiently embark on their all-out rebuild. They will have ample opportunities over the next few years to draft their next cornerstone and once they do, they will scour the market to find like-aged running mates for him.

In the interim, they will not chain themselves to long-money contracts tied to marginal or one-dimensional players and they certainly will not overpay for the services of any player.

By trading Rondo, the Celtics opted to to take the road that the Knicks bypassed.

With Anthony on board, the Knicks do not have the luxury of patience. In a haste, the franchise recently surrendered a 2016 first round pick and second round picks in 2014 and 2017 for Andrea Bargnani—a player who has not made a difference for them and has missed more games (70 and counting) than he has played (42).

Moving forward, so long as Anthony is the core player that the Knicks are attempting to build around, the conflict of the franchise’s long-term future and enabling Anthony to win right now will continue to rear its ugly head.

If the Knicks secure a top-five draft pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, would Anthony embrace the idea of playing alongside a youngster and waiting for him to develop into a championship caliber player? Or would he—like his friend Kobe Bryant did once upon a time with Andrew Bynum—advocate trading him away for someone who could help in the immediate term?

In terms of finding talent that overproduces based on their salary, the Knicks could certainly get lucky. But the truth of the matter is that a team attempting to build itself primarily through free agency will often find itself in the precarious position of needing to overpay. That is where the Knicks are; that is what the Celtics avoided.

For the Knicks, are Jimmy Butler and Greg Monroe worth maximum contracts?

Was Amar’e Stoudemire worth a maximum contract?

Has the newly signed Jason Smith made any difference?

Those are the types of questions and decisions that need to be pondered and acted upon for a team attempting to rebuild around an aging superstar. Wanting to win for him, in the short term, yields a haste that is unbecoming of the patience and level-headedness required of a champion.

The Knicks need to win right now, but do not have the means to do so. It is a problem that the Celtics no longer have after trading Rondo.

As division mates, the two teams faced similar situations and came to the same diverging road.

Rondo sat in Dallas. Alongside Carlisle and Cuban, he hopes to continue on toward his dream of another championship.

Meanwhile, back East, the Celtics and Knicks—one franchise with its aging superstar and one without—were taking different routes in pursuit of the same goal.

From here, it will be interesting to see who reaches the destination first.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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