It isn't surprising that people like to talk about Rajon Rondo. He's a complicated, unique, sometimes-dominant basketball player who currently doubles as the face and captain of an iconic NBA franchise.
He's also a polarizing dude -- in a world where that adjective gets tossed around far too often -- who once induced compelling discussion from those who truly enjoy NBA basketball. Watching him can be an absolute blast and a frustrating mystery at the exact same time. He's as fascinating as he is great. But when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were traded to the Brooklyn Nets, the discourse plummeted into a pit of hackneyed interrogation, where it tragically lies to this day. "Will the Celtics trade Rondo?" "Why haven't the Celtics traded Rondo yet?" "Wait, did the Celtics just trade Rondo?"
This overshadows a far more interesting set of rhetorical questions: What is Rondo's absolute ceiling from this point forward relative to other point guards around the league? Can he still crack an All-NBA team? Assuming he's 100 percent healthy heading into Boston's training camp in October, is it reasonable to expect Rondo leads the NBA in assists for a third time? Will his range finally stretch out to the three-point line? Is he good enough to drag bushy-tailed teammates into the Eastern Conference playoffs as an eight-seed? What about the year after, when Rondo is presumably on the first season of a pricey multi-year contract, or two years after that, when he's entrenched in his early 30s. When will he stop getting better? When will he decline? Where do things go from here?
These questions aren't easy to answer, but Rondo is good enough of a player for them to deserve a solid debate, too, with both sides of the aisle lobbing valid points in the air to later analyze in a useful and progressive way. For whatever reason, the atmosphere around Rondo has grown so toxic that these issues aren't anywhere near the surface. Instead, the discussion is hijacked far too often by illiterate, tired commentary, mostly coming from particularly loud members of Boston sports media -- people who would complain about the weather if they won the lottery on a cloudy day -- that unnecessarily go out of their way to vilify the four-time All-Star at all costs.
The criticism often has little to do with Rondo's on-court ability, either. Instead, sub-meaningful hot takes and strange attacks on his personality bog things down to a depressing level. Conversations often come down to those who support Rondo "the player" defending Rondo "the person" against people who have a difficult time separating the two. It's absurd and petty.
(I won't spend too much time on this, but there's some truly loony stuff out there if you dig deep enough/Google his name. Sometimes these criticisms disagree with one another, like the idea Rondo somehow hunts assists and doesn't pass enough. Enlightening stuff! Related: Rondo created the second-most points by assists per game in the league last season, averaging 23.0 in 30 appearances, per SportVU. He also finished tied for third in free-throw assists per game -- passes that directly lead to free-throw attempts by a teammate -- and first in assist opportunities, which tallies the number of shots at the basket his passes are directly responsible for. These numbers include the earliest stage of Rondo's comeback, when he played with minute restrictions and, you know, was re-entering the most competitive basketball league in the world after tearing his ACL. Carry on.)
There's nothing wrong with saying "the Celtics have to trade Rondo," but most who do just step on an escalator to nowhere. Answers to key follow-up questions such as "Where?" or "For what?" are hardly ever brought up. Smart trade proposals do exist -- Rondo isn't exactly Anthony Davis-level invincible -- but they're few and far between. Only a tiny number of teams: 1) have the need for a franchise point guard, and 2) have the necessary assets to pry him away. It's all so much easier said than done.
Part of this is on Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, who drives a hard bargain and isn't going to trade Rondo just because a lot of people who know less about NBA basketball than he does are yelling it on the radio, and part of this is on the constantly shifting and unpredictable marketplace that Rondo is set to enter next summer, when the Celtics, if they so choose, have the opportunity to pay him more money than any other team in the league.
I'm of the dwindling yet tolerable (I hope) belief that Boston should and will keep Rondo -- mostly because he's extremely good at his job and currently undervalued -- and most who've watched Boston's point guard blossom over the years agree that trading him would be seminal in an unpredictable way. It could be great for the Celtics, and it could also be a disaster. (According to the league's history, losing a perennial All-Star in his prime doesn't usually work out so well, though.)
Rondo's weaknesses tend to roar louder than his strengths. They're easy to spot and stick out like a sore thumb. The free throws and three-point shot, most notably. It's possible these improve as he gets older, and in order to maintain peak effectiveness as time starts to dull his razor sharp athleticism, Rondo must become more of a scoring threat. It's non-negotiable.
Supporters will quickly point to Jason Kidd's career path for psychological comfort. Kidd shot 36.9 percent from the three-point line on 4.6 attempts per game after his 30th birthday, and just 32.5 percent on 3.5 attempts per game before it. But those numbers don't really relate to Rondo. He's a career 25.2 percent shooter from deep, and has launched only 401 threes in his entire career. Kidd jacked up 396 triples in his second season alone.
Still, again, he has a long history of making his team better. On/off numbers don't tell the whole story, but they can be useful brush strokes to help paint an accurate picture. Going back to Rondo's first All-Star season in 2009-10, Boston's offense was 1.2 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court, per NBA.com/Stats. They were an incredible 9.9 points better in 2010-11, 7.1 points better in 2011-12, 3.0 points worse (before he tore his ACL) in 2012-13 and 0.3 points worse during last year's fragmented nightmare of a season.
A nightmare indeed: Rondo shot 37.2 percent on pull up jumpers and 29.4 percent on catch-and-shoot shots. Both numbers are terrible. He nearly finished the year shooting below 40 percent from the floor, and posted the lowest True Shooting percentage of his career. The knee injury and context of Boston's collective struggle is an excuse, but it's not like Rondo has ever been confused with a 20-point scorer, which may be exactly what the Celtics need.
From a financial perspective, even if Rondo shared Matt Bonner's affability, the peculiarity of his skill-set has almost no contemporary comparison. And the expected rise in the salary cap combined with the unknown way those skills will age makes it that much harder to project the type of contract he'll receive next summer.
What would have to happen in order for Boston to pay him the five-year, approximate $100 million deal he supposedly wants? This is out of the question for some people, and that's more than fair. But what if the Celtics are placed in a position where it's either the five-year max or lose him for nothing? That's a neat little riddle, no? Pending another All-Star season in 2014-15, in which he's "validated" himself with another assists title, might it be in the Celtics' benefit to lock Rondo up; agreeing to a deal sooner than later so the contract's back end is less threatening to their cap flexibility moving forward? Is it really that risky?
(Don't completely rule out a short-term deal similar to ones recently signed by Lance Stephenson and LeBron James, though it's unclear if Rondo's age and status as "not the best player in the world" would make doing so unwise.)
There are about a dozen point guards in the league right now who have turned the position into a horrifying torture chamber, and denunciating Rondo as a lesser player than, say, Chris Paul or Russell Westbrook is more than acceptable. Where we go from there, however, is exactly the way it should be: held up with healthy debate over the vast strengths and crippling weaknesses of confusing, brilliant player. Rondo has his fair share of both, and until his situation with the Celtics is resolved, let's have some fun and hash them all out.