BOSTON – The Boston Celtics didn't get the franchise player they need from the draft.
Now general manager Danny Ainge must decide whether to buy another ticket for the NBA lottery or put together a package of picks and players like the ones that brought Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to Boston in 2007. Until he does, the Celtics will likely be stuck in the middle again: Too many wins for the lottery's grand prize, and not enough for a long run in the playoffs.
"I know this isn't a championship team," point guard Rajon Rondo conceded at media day, "but we're going to go out there every night and play hard."
Rondo is once again the centerpiece for the Celtics as they head into the 2014-15 season, but not for the reasons he might hope. Even if he comes back from recent injuries to run Boston's offense like the All-Star he has been the last four years, the franchise's future is still probably more dependent on his trade value.
Having shipped off Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce and Garnett last summer, Rondo is the last remaining piece from the team that won the franchise's 18th NBA title in 2008 — Rondo's second year, and the first for the New Big Three of Pierce, Garnett and Allen. Rondo is also the most valuable asset the Celtics have on the trade market, not counting the draft picks they collected when they dismantled the team last summer.
So, one way or another, what happens with Rondo will be the key to the Celtics' season:
RONDO'S CONTRACT: Rondo is in the final year of a deal that will pay him $12.9 million. Ainge has said he wants to re-sign the four-time All-Star, but the new collective bargaining agreement makes it in Rondo's best interest to wait. Even if Rondo re-signs, that could be a precursor to Ainge shopping him — and it wouldn't be the first time.
RONDO'S ATTITUDE: Rivers didn't think Rondo was coachable, according to owner Wyc Grousbeck, who added that the point guard was "super stubborn." Rondo also clashed with Ray Allen before the future Hall of Famer left for the Miami Heat. The Celtics seem fine with Rondo's attitude — Grousbeck went on to say he wants Rondo to stay, adding in the TV interview: "He's a gamer, he's a competitor, and he's got world-class talent." But if his reputation hurts his trade value or the team's ability to sign free agents to play alongside him, that's a problem.
RONDO'S HEALTH: Rondo missed 40 games last year recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, but the Celtics weren't eager to rush him back in a year when the lottery was the obvious destination. He seemed to be healthy before he slipped in the shower and broke a bone in his hand last month. He wore a sling at media day. Although Rondo was originally projected to miss two weeks of the regular season, Stevens said near the end of the preseason that he could be back for the opener.
RONDO'S COACH: Stevens is in his second year with the Celtics and second year in the NBA. After going 25-57 in his pro debut — losing more games in a season than he did in six years at Butler — Stevens said he is better prepared now for the league's logistics: The pace of the games, the travel, how to run a practice. He has also had one more year to implement his system, a fast-paced, relentless defense that relies upon the team's depth to wear out the opponent.
RONDO'S TEAMMATES: Young players like Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Avery Bradley have another year of experience and could develop into useful role players for a decent team. Jeff Green averaged a career-high 16.9 points last year. Free agent Evan Turner averaged 17 points in 54 games with the 76ers last season (but just 7 in 27 games after he was traded to the Pacers). Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State and James Young of Kentucky are the players picked at Nos. 6 and 17, respectively, after the Celtics couldn't move up and grab one of the three players expected to have franchise-altering skills.