Rajon Rondo: The Kyrie Irving Backup Plan

It’s the nightmare we fear to wake up to. The pit in our stomach that grows with each tweet from Brian Windhorst or Chris Hayes. You get the feeling those in the media kinda want it to happen. They subtly cheer for your favorite team to crash violently in the dirt. The negative media environment makes me hesitant to even check in on my favorite Celtics podcasts, such as “The Rainin’ J’s”, “Celtics Beat” and “Celtics Stuff Live” for fear of them validating my fears.

They all speak of one man and where he will play basketball next fall.

Will Kyrie Irving leave the Boston Celtics? A team that, by all accounts, has done nothing wrong by him or have given any indication they are unable or unwilling to build a title contending team, all because one season went awry? Possibly. We are in the era of “Player Empowerment.” Despite the air quotes, this is the appropriate label for the period the NBA is currently in. Kevin Durant is about ready to leave the Golden State Warriors after two championships and three straight Finals appearances. Why? Simply because he feels like it. Winning doesn’t matter to players anymore. And let’s be honest, it probably never did. Last summer we seen LeBron bolt a seemingly weak conference where he could coast for an entire season and still make it out of the East to go to Los Angeles simply to make movies. If winning doesn’t matter to LeBron then it’s safe to assume it matters to no one.

If Irving departs Boston for New York, he’s insane. If it’s for the Lakers, he’s doubly insane and it’ll be a heel turn for the ages. Irving and Durant are weird, sensitive and reclusive individuals. Nobody can get a feel for what they are capable of doing. They could form a super-team one day and rapidly decide to change their minds before the ink is set to paper. The Celtics franchise is at the mercy of a cosmetic hippy who told a packed TD Garden he intended to re-sign in Boston seven-months ago. Now he wants us to ask him on July 1st.

It’s Irving’s life. I don’t have any control over it, nor should I and neither should you. But we’re fans. We at least deserve the right to bitch and moan when a rich man makes a decision we don’t agree with.

The options to fill in the gigantic shoes of Irving are slim and to make matters worse the Celtics are over the cap and have limited resources this summer. Armed only with rights to their own free agents (Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier), minimum contracts (Guerschon Yabusele, Semi Ojeleye, Robert Williams and Brad Wanamaker) and a sizable war chest to make trades if they want to risk the future for a quick-fix.

As far as free agency goes the Celtics only big fish they can conceivably sign is the player they already house in Irving. If he leaves, look out for possible reunions with journeymen guards such as Darren Collison and former friends Rajon Rondo and Isaiah Thomas. The last two are likelier to not be priced out of Boston’s modestly sized Mid-Level-Exception, worth about $5.4 million. I’d prefer Ricky Rubio, but I think we’re getting Rondo

I’d rather have Rubio. He’s younger an better on both ends of the floor. But he will likely be out of Boston’s price range. Rondo is damaged goods, so his value is at an all-time nadir. Their last two seasons aren’t all that different. Rondo looks better if you apply context to his last two years jumping to Los Angeles and the clown show the enviably follows LeBron at every stop.

Ricky Rubio last 2 seasons
41.2 fg%, 33.2 3p%, 12.9 pts, 5.7 ast, 4.1 trb, 1.5 stl, 14.7 per .104 ws/48

Rajon Rondo
43.8 fg%, 34.6 3p%, 8.7 pts, 8.1 ast, 4.6 trb, 1.1 stl, 13.8 per, .077 ws/48

I might as well preemptively start the hype-up process for Rondo…

Dude can still play. While guilty of phoning it in on defense, a players engagement level usually hinders on how the team is playing as a whole. Irving’s defense these last two seasons in Boston, under the team-first culture banner, has been his best outings on the opposite end of the floor in terms of effort level. Rondo can gamble for steals and potentially can take charges if he’s engaged.

Rondo is very much someone who’ll thrive in an environment that isn’t toxic. Los Angeles was toxic. Same with Sacramento. After his stops in Dallas and aforementioned Sacramento everyone wrote off Rondo as a has-been. Since then, he’s signed with New Orleans in the one year the team got its act together and made a respectable playoff run.

Rondo is definitely guilty of playing the role of “Bizzarro-Kobe,” to be more specific and raunchy an assist-whore. Given the circumstances the Celts are facing in their first year without a superstar and where they have to start building around The Jays, it’s best to give them a guard who’ll not hesitate to give them the ball.

Can We Trust Kyrie Irving?

New England is an odd sports town. Spoiled by success by all of the four local teams a generation of fans have had a long time to learn the new reality that sports isn’t just one constant gut punch after another. Even somebody like me, born near the coming of the new millennium, is unable to come around to the belief all is not unwell. As for the rest of New Englanders, the type of characters this region houses is the complete antithesis to the outgoing, free spirited Celtics in the locker room. We can barely handle the quiet, uniform sound bites Patriot players provide on a weekly basis without drawing conspiratorial connections and professing the team’s imminent downfall.

Boston is a baseball town first. Hockey second. Football third. Basketball last. Certainly this has nothing to do with the game itself. Boston loves them some Bill Russell and Larry Bird. We just easily get annoyed when Kyrie Irving constantly says stuff that seeming he’s taken a trip to a Deepak Chopra quote generator website. In a year Irving’s approval rating among the crowd of people who listen to Felger and Mazz every day. Fans simply don’t trust Irving like they trust Tom Brady; they don’t even completely believe he is genuine. You’ll still find people complaining he didn’t participate in optional off-season O.T.As over a year ago.

Why are we so negative? Is the fictitious “Curse of the Bambino” and all its emotional scaring it caused in its 86-year reign of terror caused some lingering effects despite the fifteen-year stretch which saw four world championships since? Why, yes. That’s probably the case. We are raised by our dad’s who were spent most of their lives being traumatized. Many of them remember Roger Clemens stroking his Toronto Blue Jays cap his unapologetic demeanor towards fans who he put through Hell by giving them constant cold shoulders and repaying the team who paid him handsomely by getting overweight and declining noticeably. Many of the older generation just assume that’s who Kyrie Irving is: a hired mercenary. A damn fine one. But he is not loyal to anyone but himself and will jump ship even if logic suggests it isn’t the best move if he wants to win basketball games.

Even if Irving signs the contract pledging his prime years to the Celtics organization the feeling of distrust will remain prominent amongst New Englanders wry of his attitude.

This playoffs are important for Irving. Not only is this is first rodeo without LeBron James, it’s his chance to rewrite the narrative and undo the perception he’s an overrated, cancerous figure. The two games against Indiana Irving’s played in one rock fight demanding constant attention to detail on the defensive side, and a contest where the team needed his scoring desperately after being down twelve-points heading into the final period. Each game the Celtics came out victorious. In Game 2 Irving dawned his Superman cape and rescued the Celtics after a disastrous third quarter cost Boston their slim 2-point lead. Draining everything in sight. When Myles Turner patrolled the paint like the British when they embargoed the United States in the early 19th century, blocking entry from every white jersey, Irving turned to his long range game nailing three after three after three to wrestle his boys back into it.

It’s quite the feat considering that Marcus Morris, on some nights Boston’s second best scorer, was zero of eight and thankfully Brad Stevens shifted away from him late to play Gordon Hayward in crunch time.

Irving is without his running mate, but isn’t saddled with a bunch of bums. They just sometimes find themselves unable to put the ball in the cap for long stretches. However, Irving is so far doing just fine in his first stint in the playoffs without LeBron. Proving he is well worth his billing.

Should The Celtics Want Kyrie Irving?

We’ve seen superstars uproot themselves from their small-market scene in favor of brighter lights and greener pastures. LeBron (twice) and Kevin Durant are the most recent examples. The common consensus is the team losing the superstar is left in shambles and without hope. This only applies to Cleveland. The Oklahoma City Thunder still fielded a competitive roster. When you have Russell Westbrook winning 45-wins isn’t a tall order.

Since January the media is painting a dire picture for Celtics fans hoping to retain star Kyrie Irving beyond this season. There are rumblings he’s unhappy, disconnected and the piling up of loses isn’t helping the situation look any better, let alone encourage him to stay. We’re in an era where it there is no instant pathway to the finals you’re in no position to sign a star on the level of Irving and should expect to lose the one they already have. But maybe the Celtics are better off if Irving leaves and subsequently if all of the free agents also depart Boston. Watching the Celtics play I see two things, I see a collection of very talented, multi-layered personnel that do not fit together. And I see the growing of the divide between two factors. The Half-Court faction led by Irving. Irving left Cleveland to show he can be the straw that stirs the drink and that lead a team to victory where he is the best player. The other side, the Fast Breakers, made up of young guys and the coaching staff the FBs want to run the floor and play a high-flying pace of basketball. Maybe they are right. Boston ranks, as of today they are seventh in fast break points per game (16.3). Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are wildly attackers. Not shooters. Not yet, anyway. The Jays don’t fit so well next to Irving.

The best team basketball I’ve seen Irving play in his career was the brief time Brad Stevens was able to limit his ball-domination. If you were to look at Irving’s stats they’d look similar to his output when in Cleveland. It goes beyond this. Back in the 1990s Phil Jackson moved Heaven and Earth to get Michael Jordan to focus his energy getting those around him involved. The last two-minutes was Jordan’s playground. This is exactly how Irving played. Not anymore.

Boston needs to give opportunities to not only Brown, but also Robert Williams and Semi Ojeleye. Energetic, strong defensemen that can potentially swing a seemingly unfavorable matchup. Ojeleye did a great job guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo in the first-round of the 2018 playoffs. And guess who is averaging 5.2 blocks per 36… “TimeLord.”

No team in NBA history to have ever lost a star will be in a better position to remain competitive. If the Memphis Grizzlies are not a bottom-eight team and if the Los Angeles Clippers sneak into the playoffs the Celtics stand to own 4 first-round picks in the upcoming draft. Potentially four picks inside the top-21.

The Celtics aren’t better without Irving. But watching them play with Marcus Smart or even the beleaguered Terry Rozier in Irving’s stead the team jells significantly better as a whole.

It’s All… Someone Else’s Fault

If you’re Bill Simmons, you’re panicking because your favorite team people accuse you of shamelessly shilling for – of which now he now needlessly maligns – you need someone to blame. So you take a quick scroll to Spotrac.com to see who fits one or both of these two boxes “Who is getting paid the most” and “Who is a free agent, likely to leave in July.” The answer to both is Kyrie Irving. Also known as the lone source of offense for a team who battles constant streaks of being unable to put the orange, circular ball into the basket.

Yes. It’s Irving’s fault. All of it. Not Marcus Morris for reverting to Marcus Morris after flirting with a 50/40/90 the first half of the season. Not Terry Rozier for conspicuously losing the ability to play basketball. Not Brad Stevens; he’ll blame the coach he so smugly dubbed “The President,” but he can’t articulate why it is Stevens struggles. In the simplest way I can put it, he trots out the same exact lineups that’s proven to not work. His faith in T-Ro knows no bounds. Rozier will likely reclaim his spot in the rotation once he recovers from his minor knee injury and it’s no secret why. Anytime a player is a negative-9.4 when on the floor over the last five-games you can’t live without him.

For anyone who is hostile towards Irving’s apparent ball-stopping, what Rozier does is undoubtedly worse. He’s Irving on offense without the court-vision, handles and ability to throw a sufficient alley-op to the rolling big man.

Danny Ainge made one crucial mistake over the summer that neither I or anyone would have predicted at the time is his running back the same exact roster from last year hoping the returning players would smoothly fit into their respective, reduced roles with the returning superstars.

It Isn’t Doom and Gloom if Kyrie Leaves

Say if our worst fears are realized, everyone who can leave leaves. Kyrie Irving. Marcus Morris. Terry Rozier. Three huge pieces to this talented, but inconstant and dejected cast of players who was supposed to steamroll through the conference en route to the NBA Finals. All the 2019-20 Celtics are left with is Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Aron Baynes, Robert Williams, Gordon Hayward and hopefully two rookies from the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Clippers (top-14 protected) picks that can convey this year.

Why is this so bad? If the Hospital Celtics we’re low on staff, this year’s Celtics are an example when a team is subject to the old adage “Too many cooks in the kitchen” ringing true. Not one particular Celtic is the problem. It’s all of them. They simply do not mesh together. Everyone not named Kyrie or Horford are simply overqualified for their minimized roles. Even Terry Rozier, someone who’s floundered all season, is someone who’s able to cobble together solid stats when inserted as a starter – and at home.

What-if the worst case scenario is realized? The Celtics flame out like their similarly built ancestor ‘83 Celtics did and the dreams of obtaining Anthony Davis are dashed, how bad is it shaping up for the Celtics future?

To be honest? Not really. Al Horford is in the last year of his max contract and Boston’s enjoyed his services and will not shed many tears if he opts-in for his $30 million player-option. Once again, Horford proven himself to be the Celtics team MVP and their leader – no matter what Irving says.

The Jays are under team control for a very long time, both still on their rookie contracts and if Gordon Hayward returns to form in 2020 you can beat he’ll opt-out and re-enter the free agency market freeing up more capital for Danny Ainge & Co. to lock down the Jays long term.

What the Celtics desperately need right now is an injury. They need Morris to experience knee-tightness so the window can open for Brown to reclaim his spot in the starting lineup. Rozier needs to sprain his wrist, so Hayward can grow and become more assertive leading the second unit. Hayward’s been looking a lot better since the turn of the calendar year. He needs just one more nudge to get him that crucial step forward in his recovery.

The few bright spots this season’s shown is Smart is ready to start on a fringe 50-win playoff team and Tatum is the legit real deal, his only issues are his inability to grift for free throw shots and poor shot selection. What Boston needs is to get the Jays more involved, having them start over Hayward to begin 2019-20 is a great way to accomplish this.

The Boston Apathetics

When I am trying to resist the temptation to delve deep into the abyss of negativity Celtics twitter becomes during any rough stretch, I am reminded of the old “Family Guy” joke satirizing The New Yorker comic section. “I’d be more apathetic if I weren’t so lethargic” meaning, he wouldn’t care more if he weren’t so tired. Kinda summarizes the Boston Celtics nearing the All-Star Break. A week ago they are flying high, ripping off wins behind the sudden hot shooting of Marcus Smart and taller doppelgänger Marcus Morris.

Eventually, Morris regressed to the mean. If I can pinpoint one thing Danny Ainge probably should have done during the lead-up to the trade deadline it’s cash out on Morris to add depth behind Kyrie Irving. Unfortunately, when a player is nearly averaging a 50/40/90 it is hard to resist riding it out. Safe to say, the magic carpet ride came to a screeching halt. While Morris can be commended for speaking truth to why the Celtics are suddenly performing under expectations, he isn’t exactly the answer to what is ailing them.

The answer is the even-keel Jaylen Brown. Yes, the same Jaylen Brown that played arguably below replacement level to begin the season. He’s quietly experienced a renaissance in his new role coming off the bench, after Smart usurped him after Thanksgiving. Shooting 48 percent from the field to compliment his 37 percentage from beyond the arc, and his positive net rating of 6.4.

For all the talk of sacrifice nobody willingly took a backseat role for the betterment of the team than Brown. Not only has Brown done this so Smart and Morris could flourish together, but to give the struggling, rehabbing Gordon Hayward continuous changes to work himself back to game day shape, both physically and mentally.

Out of all the players whose sacrificed the least, the honors goes to Kyrie Irving and the aforementioned Morris. So it’s pretty ironic to hear Irving speak about his leadership role and Morris commentate on others lackluster attitudes. While Morris is correct, I feel like he internally knows what’s the answer to the issue of teammates not playing for each other and that’s him taking up the reserve role.

Morris hasn’t changed himself aesthetically, he’s simply been a better version of himself up until this point. We know Brown can play regardless if he’s starting or not. It’s the little things Brown does better than Morris, be it rotating or closing out on three-point shooters.

This Celtics team continuously bickers at each other, thankfully they don’t hate one another just yet. But for Irving and Morris to complain about the team and it’s collective attitude and seemingly apathetic emotional play style, they honestly should look into the mirror and ask why that is and what THEY need to do to fix it. You can’t lead by simply pointing fingers at those under you ordering them to be better.