Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 18, 2014

For Celtics Fans The Long Wait Just Got Longer

As the car headed north up I-95 towards the New Hampshire seacoast at the end of a long work day, the all-news radio station ran through the customary top of the hour headlines, weather overview, and glimpse of the sports report to come in fifteen minutes. The promised story was an interview with second year Celtics coach Brad Stevens. In the accompanying sound bite Stevens complained of the distracting effect of constant rumors of a trade involving point guard Rajon Rondo. The interview never aired, because within minutes the breaking news was that the Celtics had reached an agreement in principle to ship Rondo to Dallas in exchange for three Mavericks players and a pair of draft picks.

Thus, according to both the radio station and the headline on the Boston Globe’s website, comes the end of the Rondo Era at the TD Garden. Giving the brief period in which the 28-year old point guard has been the Celtics most recognizable player the honorific title of an “era” seems a bit of a stretch. When Rondo was named the team’s 15th captain last January it was upon his return from nearly a full year away recovering from a torn ACL and subsequent surgery. He has been the face of the franchise since then largely by default, as many of the other players on Boston’s roster are too new and too young to be familiar to anyone but the most devoted Celtics fans.

If the last two years was the Rondo Era, it will not occupy a prominent place in the history of one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. The Celtics finished 25-57 last season, and played at an even worse pace after Rondo’s return, going 11-31 with their new captain in uniform. This year the team is 9-14, and within striking distance of a playoff berth only because of the generally sorry state of the league’s Eastern Conference, where if the season ended today three teams with records at or below .500 would advance to the postseason. In contrast the defending champion San Antonio Spurs boast a fine early season record of 17-9, but that’s only good enough for the next to last playoff spot in the Western Conference.

Adding to the fact that this has been a less than glorious time for the Celtics is the reality that Rondo trade rumors have been virtually constant since before his knee injury in the middle of the 2012-13 campaign. Either Rondo was about to be traded because he was unhappy, or a deal was in the making because the team wanted to get something in return before he left as a free agent. Of course that may just be two different ways of saying the same thing; and however the sentence is structured it doesn’t speak of someone who will long be counted as one of the Celtics’ greats.

Rondo did play an important supporting role during his tenure in Boston, which began with a Draft Day trade from Phoenix after the Suns used the 21st overall pick to make him the first point guard taken in the 2006 NBA Draft. He became a starter the following year, just as Celtics GM Danny Ainge brought in Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce as the Big Three, a group whose time playing together on the Garden’s parquet is accurately and appropriately identified as an Era. The Big Three immediately won the franchise’s 17th championship, went to the playoffs every year they were a unit, and extended the Lakers to seven games in the 2010 Finals.

Allen eventually departed for Miami and Garnett and Pierce entered the twilight of their NBA careers, both finally traded to Brooklyn two years ago. Rondo is a four-time All Star but has never seemed like a player capable of carrying a franchise. In fairness, the team’s management has given him very little in the way of a supporting cast these past two seasons, instead entering into what appears to be a lengthy period of annual visits to the draft lottery. To the extent this week’s trade fulfills one of Rondo’s wishes, who can blame him? At the same time, no doubt realizing that an 18th title is not just around the corner, who can blame Ainge for getting whatever he can for the team’s only star ahead of Rondo’s pending free agency?

While many Celtics fans aren’t likely to pine for the good old Rondo days, neither are they likely to be impressed by what Ainge was able to get. Coming to Boston are an aging point guard in Jameer Nelson, two of the Mavericks bench players, forwards Brendan Wright and Jae Crowder, as well as a pair of draft picks. No doubt the general manager will point to the value of the latter, reportedly one first and one second rounder. But with Dallas already in decent shape to make the playoffs, and likely to become more so with Rondo in the capable supporting role that seems to be his comfort zone, those are not lottery picks that Ainge and the Celtics have acquired.

What Danny Ainge emphasized to Celtics fans this week is that this period in team history will forever be identified not by the name of any player but by that term both familiar to and despised by fans of all franchises that have lost their way, rebuilding. An already young team just got younger, with the player likely to replace Rondo as the starting point guard all of 20. A largely anonymous team just became more so.

There was considerable surprise when the Celtics lured Brad Stevens away from Butler with a six-year, $22 million deal prior to last season. For all his success with the Bulldogs, Stevens had no professional coaching experience and was then just 36 years old. A six-year commitment seemed quite generous for that resume. But perhaps in making it Ainge and the Celtics owners were assuring their new coach that it would be that long before he was expected to win. A Rebuilding Era in Boston? On the geologic time scale, the term applies to the second longest measured unit. But there is one higher, and much, much longer period. Celtics fans are right to worry that what they are really in for is a Rebuilding Eon.

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Responses

  1. Nicely said.


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