Last November, when Rajon Rondo signed a five-year, $55 million extension, the reaction was one of joy and relief, due to the fact that Rondo's future with the club seemed secure, at a price that was not outrageous.
Now, in July, the decision to lock up Rondo's future back in November seems more important than ever, given his performance in both the regular season and the 2010 playoffs, how the free agent market has shaken out thus far, and how much has changed for the team these last eight months.
Last June, Danny Ainge proclaimed that Rondo was not a "max contract player", and, for the most part, the statement was met with a chorus of agreement. However, the statement was made prior to Rondo putting forth arguably his best individual season to date. He upped his assists per game average from 8.2 to 9.8 (good for 4th in the league), he made his first All-Star team, he led the league in steals (2.30), earned First Team All-Defense honors, and set new single-season records for the Celtics in both assists and steals.
Then, in the playoffs, he upped his game even further, particularly against the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. On a national stage, in a series many thought the Celtics would not survive, Rondo stole the show and the spotlight away from James, by serving as Boston's best all-around player, posting averages of 20.6 points, 11.8 assists, 6.3 rebounds, and 1.83 steals per game. Even though the Celtics eventually came up short of a second championship in three years, Rondo's stock had undoubtedly risen, and had he faced free agency, he most likely would have had several other suitors with deep pockets in search of his services.
After the season and postseason Rondo just had, can he now be considered a "max contract player"? It's certainly debatable, with the decision hinging on the qualities of a max contract guy, and those are not set in stone. No player is without flaws, and Rondo is no exception. His jump shooting is still suspect, despite the fact that he shot a very surprising 37.5 percent from three-point nation in the postseason, and his free throw shooting remains a glaring weakness (62.1 percent during the regular season; 59.6 percent in the playoffs).
Regardless of whether you want to label Rondo as a max guy or not, his price tag would have surely skyrocketed after the season he put forth, and had he not agreed to an extension with the Celtics back in November, a number of other teams with significant cap space might have very well made a run at him, with some hefty dollar figures in tow. When you think about all that Rondo accomplished, and how much he now means to this team both in terms of the present and the future (as of right now, Rondo is the future), it's kind of crazy to think he'll only be making $9 million next season. Now, $9 million is nothing to snuff at, but when you see these lavish contracts get thrown to the best players on their respective teams (Amare Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron's latest deals will net them all at least $100 million), $9 million seems somewhat slight.
When you consider just how much Rondo means to this team, and all of the things he does on the court over the course of a game, $9 million today seems like a bargain. When he signed the extension it certainly seemed like an appropriate number, but when you tack on the noticeable improvements he made over the course of this past year, along with the belief that he'll continue to build off of that base, it's not crazy to say he might very well be underpaid these next few seasons. The largest amount he'll make annually over the course of the new agreement is the $13 million figure he'll rake in during the 2014-2015 season, meaning, in four years, Paul Pierce will still be making more money per year than Rondo (assuming his new $60 million contract shakes out evenly over the course of the four years), despite the fact that Rondo will probably be much more integral to the Celtics' success at that point in time.
The Celtics would have owned Rondo's Bird Rights had he flirted with free agency, meaning they could have exceeded the salary cap in order to re-sign him, but if Rondo and his agent, Bill Duffy, had demanded a much more substantial contract under the fading rules of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Celtics might have not only faced a much higher luxury tax in the seasons to come, but that demand would have also hindered their cap space years down the road, particularly once Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen's deals come off the books in two years and the Celtics are looking to add to the roster. Tack on the new CBA that's forthcoming and a salary cap that might be significantly lower than the $58 million figure for this current season, and splitting substantial money between Rondo and Pierce would have really stung.
Had Rondo entered free agency and not agreed to terms with a team right away and let the market unfold somewhat, he might have had even more bargaining power. So far, we've seen several teams shell out large sums of cash to players who might not actually be worth the amounts they're pocketing. Drew Gooden's signed a five-year, $32 million deal with the Bucks, Amir Johnson inked a 5-year, $34 million deal with the Raptors, and even Darko Milicic somehow was offered a 4-year, $20 million deal from the Timberwolves, which he promptly accepted. Duffy would have seen those figures and immediately used them to his advantage to wiggle more money (potentially much more) out of the Celtics for his client.
The New Jersey Nets clearly missed out on all of the highly touted free agents this summer, leaving them with basically the same desolate roster that produced a 12-70 record last season. Yet, they had enough cap space to offer a player a max deal, and had Rondo been standing firm after LeBron and everyone else was taken off the table, is it so outlandish to think new Russian billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov wouldn't have thrown that type of money at Rondo, made him the face of the franchise along with Brook Lopez, and used Devin Harris as a nice trade chip?
Putting the dollar amounts aside, think about the list of priorities Boston entered the offseason with. There were no guarantees that Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Tony Allen would return, and Kendrick Perkins needed a quality replacement. Imagine if having to retain Rondo's services (which very well might have leapfrogged to the front of the line) had been a part of that list? Yikes.
Amidst all of the uncertainty surrounding Doc and the free agents, the Celtics still held a Plan B that was liked by a surprising amount of the team's fan base, even if it took them off the list of immediate championship contenders. If Doc had not returned and Paul and Ray had signed elsewhere, the Celtics could have still "blown it up" and built around Rondo. But, had Rondo's future not been secure, there would have been cause for even more panic in these parts, with so much of the team's immediate and long term future suddenly very murky. And imagine the horror of possibly losing out on Rondo in free agency and receiving absolutely nothing in return. And while you're using your imagination, imagine Paul, Ray, and Rondo all being free agents, and, along with Doc, all leaving for practically nothing. We might have ended up worse off than the Cavaliers.
But, fortunately for us, we don't need to worry about any of those horrific scenarios, since Danny Ainge wisely took care of this problem eight months ago.