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Wednesday, January 15, 2014
Three franchises at the crossroads

By J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez
ESPN.com

With the trade deadline drawing near and teams needing to decide on their future plans,
J.A. Adande and Israel Gutierrez take a look at three franchises entering a crossroads.


Israel: Rather than produce a dramatic movie trailer to announce his comeback from injury (can't wait for Kobe Bryant's sequel, by the way), Rajon Rondo put us all to work by tweeting the number of seconds between when his ACL injury occurred and his planned return. Either "29,233,380 secs" is the highlight song in a "Rent" sequel starting Rondo, or Boston's All-Star point guard is playing Friday against the Lakers after being out approximately that long.

That's cute and all, but what exactly is he coming back to? Rondo's return looked a lot more promising in mid-December, when the Celtics were the darlings of the Atlantic Division. Now, they're in something of a free fall, and Rondo looks less like a missing piece and more like a much-needed savior. But we've seen how tricky it is to return from this much time off. So what should we expect here, because the Celtics are at something of a crossroads?

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There's a lot to think about with that franchise right now. So much that Ainge probably wouldn't mind a couple million seconds to mull it over.

" -- Israel Gutierrez

J.A.: "La Vie Boheme!" Sorry, it's the only "Rent" reference I could think of. And it's my way of stalling because I don't know what to expect from Rondo. We haven't seen him without Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to attract the defense's attention. We don't know what his timing and conditioning are like. Then again, his playing style is so offbeat he might not have a problem with timing; his bars have their own measure.

I think a strong return should mean more to a potential trade partner than it would to the Celtics. Rondo is the type to fill in the gaps on a good team, not carry a bad team.

I just wish a return against the Lakers were a bigger deal. If Rondo plays and Pau Gasol sits out with that bad big toe, Rondo would be the only player on the court who participated in Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. I mean, it wasn't that long ago. Now these franchises are so drastically different. But it feels as if the Lakers have fallen farther, faster of late. At least Rondo's return gives the Celtics something to look forward to.

The Lakers also appear to be beyond salvaging when Kobe comes back. That blowout loss to the Clippers last week was a game-changer. It sent a sign that Kobe should not rush his return; besides, a guy who has played six games in nine months is in no condition to make up a 36-point gap.

It also means the Lakers might as well trade Gasol in any deal that could save money. Traditionally, Lakers fans couldn't stomach the idea of a salary dump. If they're only marginally better off with Gasol than without him, might as well start shedding.

Israel: The Lakers' direction seems pretty clear. That team should be in quick-recovery mode, preparing for 2014-15 as soon as possible, which means freeing Gasol before the trade deadline. The Celtics, on the other hand, are in a trickier position. The standings say they're still within reach of the playoffs, despite a nine-game losing streak.

And in the East, it remains true that a four-game winning streak can turn your season around. So when Rondo returns, are they all in for a playoff run? When you've got a rookie coach -- especially one whom the Celtics have committed to the way they have -- you want as many positive things happening around him as possible.

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The Timberwolves should absolutely trade Love if he can't get them to the playoffs, and even if it meant more point guard redundancy for the franchise that defined it.

" -- J.A. Adande

You're better off beginning Brad Stevens' NBA career with surprising success rather than expected, extended failure because he'll gain respect and confidence immediately.

But if Rondo doesn't play well as the lead dog, or is an awkward fit with this group, does club president Danny Ainge look to move Rondo, because he'd draw the greatest returns, or take offers for Jeff Green (who also hasn't mastered playing the lead role yet)? The Celtics have already moved Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks, but there's a lot to think about with that franchise right now -- so much that Ainge probably wouldn't mind a couple of million seconds to mull it over.

J.A.: Ainge should trade Rondo if for no other reason than to end the speculation about whether he's going to trade him. Haven't we been wondering ever since 2008? Another thing that confuses me: If the reason to trade Rondo was because he didn't get along with Doc Rivers, shouldn't Doc's departure mean Rondo can stay now? (And if those two hated each other, why did Rondo visit with Doc in his office before the Celtics played the Clippers recently?)

What's most obvious is that Rondo is Ainge's greatest trade asset, and he's one who's more valuable on a contender than rebuilder. The looming question becomes what does Ainge want: (a) to get another star, (b) to clear the payroll, or (c) to stockpile draft picks?

Israel: They've already done Option C, but with Ainge, we're never really sure what to expect. He held on to the Big Three a bit longer than most expected. And the way they're currently constructed, the Celtics would have tons of cap room in 2015, when they could go after another Timberwolves power forward, Kevin Love (hey, Kevin Garnett worked out great for Boston).

Love has his franchise weighing its options as well. Not so much because he called out a couple of teammates for bad body language, but because team success has largely avoided Minnesota in Love's tenure. Even when the team is good, it's not good enough. Projections suggest the Wolves should easily be in playoff position, but an 0-10 record in tight games has left them climbing uphill.

With Love facing free agency in 2015 and desperate for some wins to match his MVP-level statistics, there are already suggestions the Wolves will look to move him either this season or this summer. It's a tough spot for a small-market franchise looking to build and maintain success. But you could also make a killing by trading a superstar just entering his prime. This one's just as tricky as Boston's situation. What to do?

J.A.: Love was one of the first names on my mind in a Rondo trade scenario, even if Kevin McHale is no longer in Minnesota to hook up his old Celtics franchise, and even if the Celtics might be taking a risk by taking Love farther away from his West Coast roots with free agency looming a year away.

But the Timberwolves should absolutely trade Love if he can't get them to the playoffs, and even if it meant more point guard redundancy for the franchise that defined it. Rondo and Ricky Rubio are similar, but Rondo is the deluxe edition. Can you imagine Rubio putting up 40 in a playoff game against the Miami Heat? Me neither. So I'd get Rondo and move Rubio.

Israel: Here's another hypothetical: Can you see Rondo playing in Minneapolis on a franchise with almost no history or signs of great things in the future (I probably should've stopped that sentence at Minneapolis). I actually believe there's a chance, albeit slight, Love can stay put.

It starts with making the playoffs this season, which would be looked at as a mission accomplished for a team that hasn't seen the postseason since Garnett. And if Flip Saunders and that Wolves front office make some smart moves this summer to take that next step and challenge the elite in the West, that would seem to be enough of a selling point for Minnesota.

You also can't take for granted the value of being a team's "franchise player." Love could go from top wolf to a second or third option on a contender (finding out what his role would be on a contender is probably the most intriguing part of this story). And being just at the start of his prime, it's possible Love is not ready for that kind of reduced role.

If Garnett can spend 12 seasons in Minnesota and still go elsewhere to win a title, Love could give that franchise at least one more contract, maybe with an out after three seasons. Or he could just go to L.A. and leave cold and losing behind him. Whatever.

J.A.: The only thing the Lakers can guarantee these days is warm weather. Winning is another matter. If Love chooses to come out here as a free agent in 2015, the only player signed for that season at the moment is Kobe ... and he'll be 37. The Timberwolves might want to mention that to Love. And they ought to have serious discussions about his long-term plans.

If you think about it, they're at a more critical junction than the Celtics. Minnesota really needs a playoff push starting now.

The Celtics are fine either way. Stevens has a six-year contract, so he's not sweating anything. He's also shown he can extract maximum effort from NBA players, which is 90 percent of the challenge of coaching in this league. The curiosity is for the long term. What will Ainge do with his draft picks, cap space and trades? Will he restore the Celtics to their perennial contender status of the 1960s and 1980s, or will they be like the Detroit Pistons of the 2000s: a championship plus another trip to the Finals, followed by years of wandering in the wasteland? That's why the return of Rondo isn't a solution;  it's the start of a lengthy process.