Celtics' selling point is winning

When the Boston Celtics inked Rajon Rondo to a five-year, $55 million contract extension at the start of the 2009-10 season, some NBA pundits scoffed at the idea of paying him on par with the league's top point guards.

Eight months later, with Rondo's first All-Star season behind him, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks it wasn't a steal, particularly after seeing the gobs of money being thrown around to non-All-Star players as free agency began Thursday night.

Dubbed a bonanza before July 1 even arrived, free agency has lived up to its billing. Rudy Gay secured $80 million from Memphis. Drew Gooden hauled in $32 million with Milwaukee. Amir Johnson received $34 million from Toronto. Darko Milicic stumbled into $20 million in Minnesota.

Let that sink in, and then ponder what Rondo might have warranted on the open market.

Hypothetically, if Rondo had made it to unrestricted free agency, he'd be staring at a maximum contract offer this offseason, one the Celtics might not have been able to match while still keeping their core together.

Instead, the Celtics have Rondo under control for five more seasons and have been able to focus their offseason efforts on re-signing Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, the former appearing close to agreeing to a four-year extension Friday.

While the rest of the league appears to be in panic mode, Ainge is quietly reassembling a team that came within six minutes of winning the championship last year and likely shaking his head at the deals he sees across the league.

Alas, Ainge simply can't sit back and gloat. No, these fiscally irresponsible deals are certain to drive up the prices of Boston's remaining seven free agents, including Allen, and will make the process of reassembling and upgrading Boston's roster all that more difficult this offseason.

The Celtics needed the rest of the league to be fiscally responsible and keep price tags low. That's not happening. Players who might have been on Boston's radar -- especially ones they had hoped to lure utilizing the mid-level exception -- might be drifting out of sight with the money they can now command.

If you're Brad Miller, you see Gooden haul in $32 million and probably wonder why you can't pull in $8 million per season. Heck, if Milicic can net $5 million per season, why should any serviceable big man settle for mid-level money?

Here's one reason why: To win a championship.

While deep-pocketed Eastern Conference suitors like Miami, New York, New Jersey and Chicago flock to Ohio with glitzy presentations, hoping to recruit LeBron James, the Celtics are quietly examining the market and trying to bring in players who can help them earn another banner.

Ainge's sales pitch has got to be simple: We can't offer you the same money others might, but we can offer you a chance to win a title. To most, that's not enough. That's fine; the Celtics probably don't want you, anyway.

Remember, this is the team that has rallied around "Ubuntu," the past three seasons. That mantra centers on sacrificing yourself for the betterment of the team.

In this market, the Celtics will need players willing to buy into that philosophy to be successful. FoxSports.com reported that one of Ainge's first phone calls when free agency opened at 12:01 a.m. Thursday was to the Knicks' David Lee. There's no conceivable way Boston can free enough salary to lure a player of his status, right?

Not unless Lee takes less money to be a part of a winner, something that New York surely hasn't been over the past five seasons, when the team hasn't even sniffed the playoffs.

No, the Celtics can't offer the same money as players will find on the open market, but you can't put a price tag on winning. It's part of the reason Rondo was content to secure a long-term extension at the start of last season. He received a solid wage, more than enough to secure his family's future, and he knew he'd eventually be the centerpiece of one of sports' winningest franchises.

Rondo might look at the money being dished out this season and kick himself a bit. But when the playoffs roll around next year and some of those players who cashed in are already on the golf course, he'll remember why he inked that deal.

Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.