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.

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 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.

GTB: Worst Free Agent Signings

This is admittedly a difficult column to write. Teams are hamstrung by their erratic spending in the summers of 2015 and 2016, working with very little cap space this summer so the overpays are a little less egregious than in the past. Where the comical bad contracts were large sums of cash thrown to below-league average players in 2016; 2018 is defined by poor fits for the player and our team, and a lack of clarity as to why they were signed.

Players still on the market like Marcus Smart and Clint Capela are engaged in an extremely awkward standoff between their respective teams, as their market has dried up considerably since July 1 leaving them with little leverage at the negotiating table. We’ll see how the market fairs for them, but this column is about those who’ve already signed since free agency began.

Let’s start off light: the Phoenix Suns, small-forward Trevor Ariza, one-year $15,000,000, and is set to be the highest paid player on the team for the 2018/19 season.

Love the contract. Love the player. Absolutely hate the team. Ariza is one of the few forwards that can conceivably guard Kevin Durant – and did so adequately in the famous West-Finals duel. It hurts the Houston Rockets to lose him and Luc Mbah a Moute.

Teams that could’ve used Ariza’s assistance more than the lowly Suns: Indiana, Golden State, Utah, Milwaukee… Since the Suns already have veteran forward Jared Dudley and 3-and-D prospect Josh Jackson, who’s shown flashes of a dynamic offensive game his rookie year, I just don’t see why (or where) Ariza fits on this Suns team. Unless the Suns can gain some value for Ariza on the trade market, I don’t see this as anything but a loss for Phoenix.

Doug McDermott, Indiana, three-years, $22,000,000; average salary $7,333,333

Oh, this is real bad. For one, who are the Pacers bidding against for McDermott? A fairly underwhelming offensive threat who’s primarily skills don’t fit what Nate McMillan has in mind for his team. I guess since LeBron is gone, the only other team that imposes a serious threat at the small-forward spot is Boston so the east teams can getaway with playing someone like McDermott for large stretches. But Indiana needed creators and athleticism, bypassing Shabazz Napier (still not signed) and sacrificing cap space that could’ve been used for Orlando Magic 24-year-old power forward/center Aaron Gordon.

The Pacers are a lot closer to the Raptors, Sixers tier than many expect. Them willingly bowing out on Smart and re-signing backup shooting guard Glenn Robinson (now of the Pistons) makes little sense to me. The only actual point guard on the roster is Darren Collison, Oladipo cannot play the role of floor general for long stretches.

To add to this, the Pacers recently signed New York Knicks center Kyle O’Quinn, a underachieving stretch big who’s primary motivation is to just score when given the ball. Seeing as the Pacers are better off playing Domantas Sabonis at center, O’Quinn only muddies the waters as he’s incapable of guarding power forwards and can play only one position like Sabonis.

I don’t see the fit and think the Pacers have squandered an opportunity to take full advantage of a LeBron-less conference.

Aron Baynes, Boston, two-years, $10,646,880; cap breakdown: first-year: $5,193,600, second-year: $5,543,280

Let me be clear: I love Aron Baynes. Arguably the best acquisition of Danny Ainge’s last summer whirlwind of remolding the team we have now. His defending of Sixers superstar Joel Embiid shifted the tides of the series, in which the Celtics were heavy underdogs. Re-signing Baynes was an absolute must for Ainge. But the stipulations aren’t ideal for a Boston team that lacks proper salary filler if they want to be active in trade talks.

In addition to a no-trade clause, Baynes was given a player-option for 2019/20 season. Okay. Why? I understand the Celtics are currently locked in an unsettling, murky dispute with Marcus Smart and can not afford to add Baynes to the mix given their lack of depth at center, but who else was going to offer a traditional, defensive-minded center more than one-year; Clint Capela is still on the market for Christs’ sake.

Ersan Ilyasova, Milwaukee, three-years, $21,000,000; average salary: $7,000,000

Quite possibly, the most jarring signing, Ilyasova enjoyed some success in his brief stint in Philadelphia. His zenith was the Miami series, shooting 51.1%, averaging nine-shot attempts in the five-game series. The subsequent nadir was the Boston series, his shooting percentage fell to 33.3%.

Not that much of a defender, Ilyasova can’t provide much for Milwaukee on other end. It’s perplexing they prioritized signing a 31-year-old power forward over their own prospect Jabari Parker.

Since the Bucks recently signed Brook Lopez, this negates the Ilyasova contract even more. Lopez is a better floor spacer and scoring option. The two acquisitions basically finish Milwaukee’s off-season, they hope to be a cap space team next summer – though re-signing Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe will put a damper on that.

The Los Angeles Lakers:
JaVale McGee: 1-year, $2,393,887
Lance Stephenson: 1-year, $4,500,000
Rajon Rondo: 1-year, $9,000,000
Kentavious Cardwell-Pope: 1-year, $12,000,000
Total money spent: $27,893,887

In the two days since signing LeBron the Lakers spent nearly $28 million on players that likely wouldn’t be signed today if L.A didn’t. KCP is basically a good faith deal, his representation having strong connections to Lebron.

The saving grace here is the Lakers only willfully shot themselves in the foot for this season, the cap space will likely roll over to next summer where they’ll hope to be in on Klay Thompson or even Kevin Durant – unless Kawhi Leonard is traded to Los Angeles before the season starts.

This team lacks any real spacing, I mean for Gods sake, rookie Moe Wagner will probably be starting center by December because the shooting is nonexistent. Even if Brandon Ingram takes the leap, it’ll only moderately help. LeBron is set for the most difficult season of his career, a good chance we’ll see a drop in points per game and then mistake it for his decline.

Bottom line: I see a mass exodus of these clowns come January. The Lakers will miss the playoffs if otherwise.

Dan Gilbert Is Low Hanging Fruit

June 30th, 11:55 free agency officially began with the signing of Doug McDermott to the Pacers. Of course that’s not why we had Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania notifications on every one of their tweets. The big fishes this summer are Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and of course, LeBron James. PG surprised many by being the first domino to fall and rebuking Los Angeles to stay in the small-market of Oklahoma City. As the Spurs and Lakers continue their epic standoff regarding trading Leonard, Bron did not want to wait any longer. At 8:08 P.M the Eastern Conference got just a little more pathetic, it’s best player leaving the conference for the west – more specifically, the Lakers.

Of course, we have to play the blame game. We look in the direction of owner Dan Gilbert – deservingly so. But it’s far too easy and somewhat lacking proper context. It’s no secret Gilbert ousted general manager David Griffin in the middle of an off-season where Paul George could have been had. A deal was in place which would deliver PG to Cleveland without having to part ways with star point guard Kyrie Irving. Except Cavaliers management couldn’t get a commitment from LeBron beyond the 2017-18 season. From that point on we should have known he was just running out the clock.

Gilbert gave up control to LeBron since he returned to Cleveland in 2014 – as he should have. A player like James deserves this kind of control over a franchise. And Gilbert paid his bills, signing Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert and J.R Smith to outrageously oversized contracts to appease James. When the last asset of any value left in the cabinet is a middle of the lottery first-round pick I honestly cannot blame Gilbert for not wanting to part ways with a prospect like Collin Sexton for one-year of DeAndre Jordan, who wouldn’t have helped at all against the Warriors in the finals.

We can criticize Gilbert for all the idiotic ways he’s screwed his team up beyond just these last four-seasons. But we can’t pin the Kyrie Irving debacle on him. The Cavaliers should still be a contender for the playoffs with both Irving and Love in uniform – instead of 500/1 odds to win the title according to Westgate.

Gilbert is a petty, cold businessman. LeBron is in the middle of becoming a business. The bottom line always was top-priority to Gilbert. In February he made everyone with floor seats sign a three-year extension.

Gilbert got his team back and made a pretty penny in the time he briefly gave it up, and when LeBron was costing Gilbert money there wasn’t any reason to pretend everything was hunky-dory. A split between these two corporations was always imminent. Let’s hope Gilbert can restrain himself from his keyboard this time.