The Time To Trade Rajon Rondo Is Now
Now that the departures of Doc Rivers, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have put the Boston Celtics into full-blown rebuilding mode, General Manager Danny Ainge would be wise to hasten the departure of Rajon Rondo as well if he can get a reasonable offer for him. Public comments by Boston ownership and management have always indicated that they have a championship or bust mentality, and Rondo is old enough (and will probably decline quickly enough) that he is very unlikely to be a part of the next great Celtics team. The unprecedented length of new coach Brad Stevens’ six-year, $22 million contract would seem to indicate that both Stevens and management have accepted the reality that the road back to contention will be an arduous one.
The biggest reason to trade Rondo now is his contract situation. His deal, which pays him just short of $25 million over the next two years, was considered one of the great bargains in the NBA prior to his ACL injury, but it expires after the 2014-15 season, when he will be 29. In the best case scenario, Rondo returns from injury to his prior level of performance, which is far from a guarantee for a 27-year-old point guard whose poor shot leaves him more dependent on athleticism than most. For a point of reference on the offers he may receive, Rondo will be the same age then that Andre Iguodala is now. Iguodala signed a four-year deal worth $48 million and had even larger offers, and Rondo is far more highly regarded. He would likely get an Iguodala-level deal at minimum on the open market, taking him through age 33. The Celtics would be forced to either match this deal or watch Rondo walk away, neither of which is particularly palatable. Given Rondo’s previous level of performance and his reliance on already declining athleticism (more on that below), he is very unlikely to be worth his next contract. And even if the Celtics were willing to match other lucrative offers, he is reportedly quite prone to unhappiness and could well leave as a free agent regardless. If he does, the Celtics would have kept his services for two years of non-contention as they are hamstrung by terrible contracts for the likes of Kris Humphries, Jeff Green and Gerald Wallace. The only thing accomplished by keeping Rondo on the roster for those two years is worsening the Celtics’ draft picks.
The looming expiration of Rondo’s contract also affects what Ainge can get from other teams. If he trades now, at least the receiving team (presumably one with dreams of contention in the near term) is guaranteed close to two years of his services depending on when he comes back next year.* Plus, it is possible that he struggles next year coming back from his ACL tear and being surrounded by a worse supporting cast, further lowering his value if Ainge waited until the trade deadline or the 2014 offseason. Finally, trading Rondo now likely will mean that the receiving team will be without its starting point guard for part of the season. The receiving team may not care as much because it wants Rondo for the playoffs, but the draft order is determined by regular season record. If Ainge receives a draft pick in exchange for Rondo, he not only shunts the risk of Rondo’s injury on another team, but actually benefits from it.
*Under the old CBA, the team receiving him could have worked out an extension with Rondo before trading for him. With extensions prior to the expiration of contracts now limited in an effort to save the owners from giving out terrible Stephen Jackson/Richard Hamilton type extensions, it would not make sense for Rondo to sign an extension before his contract expires.
But Rondo is an All-Star! He led the league in assists per game the last two years! He had 37 consecutive games of 10+ assists! He gets triple-doubles on national TV! All true, but I still maintain that Rondo is an overrated offensive player because of his poor shooting. The Celtics have ranked 15th, 18th, 25th, and 24th in offense* the last four seasons, and Rondo’s offensive deficiencies have contributed mightily to that lowly offensive showing. Until last year, Rondo shared the court with what most would consider above-average offensive players at the 2-4 spots: Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. So how then were the Celtics so mediocre-to-bad on offense? A partial explanation is their record-low offensive rebounding, but another is that Rondo gums up the spacing by being unable to shoot jumpers, get to the line or make the free throws he does get.
*When I say “offense” I mean points per 100 possessions. We’re good with points/100 rather than points per game as the way to measure team offense and defense in 2013, right?
Rondo’s traditional box score numbers are lauded, but this is in large part because ancient Indian mathematicians decided to make 10 the lowest number expressed with two digits. By PER, a method which weights all box score contributions, Rondo ranked 11th among pure point guards in 2012-13 and 17th the year before. So his team isn’t good at offense, and his individual statistics taken as a whole are closer to average than elite. Meanwhile Rondo’s defense, once a nightly terror, now seems to wax and wane on a nightly basis as he has aged. All told, I think Rondo has been closer to the 10th-best point guard in the league the last few years than the top of the list.*
*Rondo gets a small boost in my mind for his performance in the playoffs, which has generally exceeded his regular season performance in recent years. But the fact he has managed this before does not entirely convince that the ability to raise his game in the postseason is real rather than the result of random variation.
So Rondo was already closer to good than great before his injury. What happens as he ages coming off his ACL injury? While the sample size is small, evidence shows that players with ACL injuries suffer the greatest declines in True Shooting Percentage (which measures shooting accounting for the effect of threes and free throws) and usage rate (which measures the percentage of team possessions the players “uses” via a shot or turnover). Unfortunately, these are the two areas where Rondo has the least room for error. Among point guards, he ranked 61st and 47th in TS% and 30th and 22nd in usage rate the last two years. From watching the games, his relatively poor shooting and scoring are already a problem for the Celtics’ offense–if these get worse it could mean big problems for his game.
Rondo also appeared to be suffering a decline in athleticism even before his injury. His once-blinding quickness on defense is less apparent these days, while he gets to the basket less and is less capable of spectacular finishes. The statistics support this story. Rondo had only three dunk attempts in 2012-13 before his injury, down from 20 in both 2008-09 and 2009-10. His relatively low free throw rate cratered even further last year. His formerly league-leading steal rate has declined (although it is still excellent). He took 36% of his shots at the rim last year, down from 69% the year before and 50% in what had been a down year in 2010-11.
This is nothing unusual. NBA players usually peak in overall performance around 27, but from a subjective standpoint their athletic peak in pure jumping ability and quickness is around 23 or 24.* But a decline in athleticism is especially troubling for a player who does not have a good (or at least improving) shot to fall back on.
*Even the most athletic players in history, like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James had far more of their most impressive dunks from ages 21-25.
Rajon Rondo was already a little overrated even before his ACL injury, but no doubt there are some teams who still overvalue him. The Celtics aren’t going anywhere next year, keeping Rondo will only hurt their draft stock and Rondo’s post-ACL play and the looming end of his contract could reduce his trade value if the Celtics wait. Ainge should get what he can for Rondo before the season starts, preferably in a package including a first-round pick in the theoretically loaded 2014 draft.