The morning after the trade deadline passed in February, the Boston Celtics convened for a morning shootaround at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Captain Rajon Rondo, whose name had swirled in trade whispers, was asked whether he was happy to have the deadline in the rearview mirror.
Rondo shrugged and offered a tepid response. Even he knew that the passing of the trade deadline offered a mere four-month reprieve from speculation about his future.
Sure enough, as Thursday's NBA draft approaches, there are whispers again about whether bidders will make a run at Boston's All-Star point guard.
Rondo is set to enter the final year of a five-year, $55 million extension he inked in October 2009. He'll make $12.9 million this season, but after taking a bit of a discount coming off his rookie pact, Rondo's real payday looms next summer when he'll become an unrestricted free agent.
You can understand why the rumors swirl; the Celtics have a difficult decision to make. If Rondo is one of the building blocks of their future, then they must be prepared to pay him big money -- likely more than $100 million over the next five seasons (though maybe they could get a slight discount for tossing in the no-trade clause that would slow the rumor mill in which Rondo has churned throughout his career).
The Celtics, coming off a 57-loss campaign in Brad Stevens' first season at the helm, are in the midst of a rebuilding process with an indeterminate finish line. Boston, having stockpiled assets since last summer when the core of the team was dismantled, is in position to accelerate the process. Alas, there is no definitive roadmap to returning to contender status.
Rondo has stressed that he wants to win and win now. He's also said that he's not content to just get back to the playoffs; he wants to compete for titles.
Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is most certainly efforting that process, but he must balance the need to build correctly, not quickly. The Celtics are sitting on a gold mine of draft picks, as many as 10 first-round selections over the next five drafts, including picks Nos. 6 and 17 in this year's event.
For Ainge, there's a value in utilizing these initial picks to create a low-cost, high-potential base of young players on rookie deals, while choosing his spot to trade the others to add more established talent.
Many Boston fans -- and maybe Rondo, too -- would like to see the team move now to secure Kevin Love. But Ainge shouldn't mortgage the future to simply land the first available star. There will be other opportunities if this one passes, including if Love joins Rondo on the free-agent market next summer.
There's a belief that, if the Celtics can't land Love now, the team ought to trade Rondo. It's fair logic. If the Celtics envision another lean rebuilding year with a focus on developing younger players, then that might further entice Rondo to examine other potential suitors when he's on the open market next summer. The Celtics run the risk of losing him for no compensation -- though options exist to prevent that -- so the team must at least think a little longer about any proposals that land on Ainge's desk between now and February's trade deadline.
If the past is any indication, there will be plenty of calls. Rondo is simply going to have to deal with the persistent rumors until Boston's path is a bit more defined.
For his part, Rondo has often reiterated his aversion to change. He's quietly nudged Ainge to put the necessary talent around him here, as he did earlier this month when he noted, "I trust a lot in Danny. He's turned this thing around before. I have faith in him. I believe in Danny. I think we do need another big-time player. But that's all his job. He's working on that now, and I completely have faith in him."
Ultimately, it comes down to the faith the Celtics have in Rondo. Outside of the little blip when Rondo skipped the Sacramento trip in February, he was a good soldier last season while working his way back from ACL surgery. He was rewarded with the captain's crest upon his return in January, and team decision-makers repeatedly suggested he's the face of the future.
If Boston utilizes its draft picks Thursday, those selections might hint at its future path. If the team lands a young point guard -- say Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart at No. 6 -- it will do little to quell speculation about Rondo's future, but it doesn't necessarily tip the Celtics' hand (though having a backup plan isn't the worst thing).
In the end, there's no greater urgency to move Rondo if Boston fails to add established talent on draft night. That's still possible in free agency given Boston's other assets (trade exceptions, nonguaranteed contracts).
Even if Ainge determines that the best path to becoming a sustained contender is to draft and develop, then Rondo might still be persuaded to stick around by the big-picture possibilities here. Boston doesn't necessarily have to win now, it just needs to show Rondo that it can win soon.
Those who want to move Rondo, likely because of the looming price tag, should be reminded about how difficult it is to accumulate stars. Having one is often the key to getting more (which, in this day and age, is the key to contending). Rondo's presence is a reason that someone like Love might simply consider coming to Boston.
With Rondo on the roster -- and presumably healthier next season further removed from ACL repair -- there is always the opportunity to overachieve. Without him, things are a bit murkier.
Ultimately, as much as Rondo despises the rumor mill, the whispers spread for a reason. And it's typically a positive when other teams covet your players.
A real problem exists when no one wants any of your guys.