Celtics use tough love with Rondo

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WALTHAM, Mass. -- Of all the moves made by all of the ambitious contenders in the offseason, the most important deal may be one the Celtics declined to pursue.

"We weren't close to trading him," Celtics president Danny Ainge said of point guard Rajon Rondo.

He admits to talking with rival teams about Rondo as well as a number of other Celtics players. Ainge is one of the few NBA executives bold enough to consider trading anyone on his roster. He is not afraid to expose himself by making an unpopular trade, and so the rumors of a surprise blockbuster involving Rondo emerged before the June draft amid reports that the Celtics were occasionally frustrated by their young point guard.

"When somebody calls, it's my job to find out what options we do have for all of the players," Ainge said.

The truth, however, is that the Celtics initiated some of the trade talk -- as several league sources have told me -- to help them gauge Rondo's value.

"He's not a perfect player, but he's a lot better than all these other [potential replacements]," Ainge said. "We really weren't close to making a deal for him. We will be really glad that we weren't."

The obvious story on the opening day of training camp Monday was the return of Kevin Garnett from knee surgery, because he had had nothing to say since the procedure repaired a surprisingly large bone spur that sidelined him for the latter half of last season. But that's one of those issues that will take care of itself one way or the other. We know Garnett will continue to rehab religiously coach Doc Rivers will limit his minutes responsibly, and with KG pain-free for the first time in years, the outcome of this particular incident is likely to be favorable for the Celtics.

The more complicated story involves Rondo. Four of the Celtics' top six players range from 31 (Paul Pierce) to 35 (Rasheed Wallace), which makes Rondo's youth and explosiveness indispensable to this team. He is Boston's only true point guard, he initiates their defense on the ball and he creates more easy baskets than any other Celtic.

Last spring and summer Ainge and other Celtics were critical of Rondo's stubbornness and immaturity. Maybe they believed Rondo needed to be humbled. The trade rumors had to be upsetting to a young player who has come a long way since joining Boston as the No. 21 pick of the 2006 draft.

But then Tony Parker -- with whom Rondo is most often compared -- went through similar issues early in his career with San Antonio, where he was often criticized by coach Gregg Popovich. Afraid the Spurs would replace him at the point with Jason Kidd, (which would have shifted Parker to shooting guard), Parker asked Popovich to not move him -- this after Parker had helped take the Spurs to the championship in his second season, just as Rondo would do for the Celtics in 2008.

Ainge sees the similarities between Rondo and Parker.

"The interesting thing about that is obviously they're glad they kept him," Ainge said of the Spurs and Parker. "That's when mistakes are made, when you start expecting a 21-year-old or 22-year-old to be something now. Give them a chance to become that, to become tougher mentally and more disciplined.

"But Pop and Doc are similar: They're tough on their point guards, and that's a blessing to those guys [Parker and Rondo] in the long run. I think we're going to be very grateful that we didn't do anything with Rajon, that we were able to live through some things of imperfection as a youngster and let him grow. And so I have all the confidence that the same kinds of things can come from him [that came from Parker]."

The Celtics are fully aware of the precedent established by Parker, who improved his shooting to become MVP of the 2007 NBA Finals.

"Oh, we've brought that up many times in our conversations," Ainge said of his talks with Rivers. "His curse is that he's so talented, and in a deciding game of the [2008] NBA Finals of such magnitude -- with Kobe [Bryant], Ray [Allen], Paul, KG, [Pau] Gasol on the court -- Rondo was the best player in the gym."

In that decisive Game 6, Rondo finished with 21 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and six steals.

"And so expectations become unfair and unrealistic, and you expect him to do that more often," Ainge continued. "I just think that he's got a lot of talent and he's making great strides with the leadership and his work ethic and consistency. He's [23], he's not there yet. But I think he'll get there. I hope he's a guard leading the Boston Celtics through a transition of the team we are now to the next 10 years."

The Celtics are engaged in contract talks with Rondo without deadline pressure. Even if he becomes a restricted free agent next summer, he is likely to remain with the Celtics as they can match any offer to retain him. For his part, Rondo has been adamant that the trade talk in the offseason and the uncertainty of long-term negotiations will have no negative impact on the season to come.

The Celtics are clearly focusing on Rondo's abundant upside to galvanize him for another run at the championship. But rival teams will be watching the relationships between Rondo and his teammates and management closely, especially when the Celtics are going through difficult times -- that's when we'll know if the issues of last season have been resolved.

"There were conversations," Ainge acknowledged of trade talks involving Rondo, "because there are conversations with everybody. And why his conversations get brought up in the media and some other conversations don't is an interesting thing. Maybe because there were some draft picks involved and it was around draft time and all that."

While he was intrigued with several players at the top of the draft -- including Hasheem Thabeet, James Harden, Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry -- Ainge insists he hadn't done enough research on any of them to zero in on one prospect, simply because he was not intent on trading Rondo.

"I think Rondo's going to have a great year, regardless of what goes on with the contract stuff," Ainge said. "I think he's in the right place, he wants the right things, he's worked extremely hard and he's been in here a lot this summer. He's getting more and more comfortable and confident, and I think he's going to be more and more consistent. Rondo is going to have the best year of his career."