- Peter May, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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In the summer of 2009, one year removed from an NBA championship, Rajon Rondo was again the subject of trade talk. But this time, it was quite different than the previous time.
Two years before, the Celtics had resolutely refused to part with their young guard, even if it meant losing out on two future Hall of Famers, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. They got their cake, ate it as well, and won the 2008 championship.
Their title defense fell apart when Garnett injured his knee and missed 25 regular-season games as well as the entire 2009 playoffs. But another thing happened in the year after the 17th championship: Rondo, starting 80 games, developed into one of the team's top players and leaders. And, by the time the playoffs did arrive, he served notice that he was about to become the player the team hoped he'd be.
In the first-round series against the Chicago Bulls, Rondo went mano-a-mano with Derrick Rose and outplayed the celebrated rookie. He averaged close to a triple-double (19.4 points, 9.3 rebounds, 11.6 assists) as the Celtics prevailed in a seven-game series that featured two overtime games, one double-overtime game and one triple-overtime game. He was less dominant against Orlando in the next series, which the Celtics lost in seven games.
In 14 playoff games, Rondo averaged 16.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.8 assists. A month later, Celtics general manager Danny Ainge had to go public to refute a number of rumors swirling that had him inquiring about dealing Rondo.
What had happened in the course of the season to make the Celtics think twice about holding on to their best young player?
There were maturity issues. Rondo called a team meeting late in the season which was destined to backfire from the outset. It did. There were concerns about his maturity. Rondo can be high maintenance or, as his agent prefers to say, "he's complicated." The Celtics also knew they would have to deal with a long-term extension for Rondo, whose rookie deal would expire after the 2009-10 season.
According to numerous sources, the Celtics did explore moving Rondo that summer. There was conversation with Detroit over a deal involving Rondo and Allen for Rodney Stuckey, Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince. The Pistons didn't think surrendering their three top players for a young point guard and, in essence, an expiring contract (Allen) was a sound move.
In the end, Rondo stayed where he was. Ainge said that the team had no intention of breaking up its core as long as he felt it had a decent shot at winning an NBA title. The Celtics have always felt that had Garnett been healthy in 2009, they would have repeated as NBA champs.
Not only did the Celtics not trade Rondo in the summer of 2009, they signed him to a five-year extension in the fall, before the start of the 2009-10 season. When contract discussions began, the Celtics were willing to place Rondo in the same financial category as the Magic's Jameer Nelson, the Trail Blazers' Andre Miller and the Raptors' Jose Calderon. Rondo countered that he should be closer to elite point guards such as San Antonio's Tony Parker, New Orleans' Chris Paul and Utah's Deron Williams.
Had no deal been reached, Rondo would have become a restricted free agent at the end of the 2009-10 season. That was something both sides wanted to avoid, especially the Celtics. At the 11th hour, the Celtics agreed to pay Rondo an average of $11 million a season, starting with 2010-11. That is closer to the Parker-Paul-Williams salary average than the Nelson-Miller-Calderon average.
Rondo had improved his game in each of his three seasons in the NBA, both in statistics and as an on-court leader. As the 2009-10 season approached, he was as indispensable as ever. The Celtics made no attempt to even bring in a competent second, relying instead on Eddie House and, later, Nate Robinson.
The Celtics' faith in their point guard would be rewarded -- and then some -- in the 2009-10 season. And there would be no more Rondo trade rumors. The kid was a certifiable keeper.
Longtime Celtics reporter Peter May is a contributor to ESPNBoston.com.
Rondo as trade bait?