Al Jefferson: ‘I would’ve traded me for Kevin Garnett, too’ and other memories of Rajon Rondo and the 2006-07 Celtics
|11.15.12 at 1:40 pm ET|
During the 2006-07 NBA season, when the Celtics finished last in the Atlantic Division and earned the No. 5 overall pick (Jeff Green) that became Ray Allen trade bait and eventually altered the franchise’s future, I bought a ticket to the Garden for $8. Eight dollars. Even on a measly sportswriter’s salary, that was a bargain.
As Tommy Heinsohn said, the young core of Al Jefferson, Rajon Rondo, Kendrick Perkins, Tony Allen and Delonte West consisted of players who were “like puppies: Every time you saw them, you wanted to pet them.”
“We used to have a lot of laughs together, because when I was here, things weren’t going too well as far as winning,” Jefferson said. “But we always had the locker room live with me, [Rondo], Tony Allen, Kendrick Perkins and Delonte West. We all kept it live, and we were fun guys to be around. In the time we were here, when we were losing, we hardly ever got blown out. It was always close games, but we were just such a young team, we didn’t know how to finish those games. I knew if we could’ve stayed together, things could’ve got better for us.”
Considering how those players evolved — a double-double machine (Jefferson), a three-time NBA All-Star point guard (Rondo), a first-team All-Defensive wing (Allen), a starting center on a title team (Perkins) and one tough motherbleeper (West) — that team would’ve gotten better. Those Celtics wouldn’t have won a title in 2008, but you can see why some folks (wrongfully) thought twice about trading Jefferson as the centerpiece of a fairly famous 2007 trade.
“If I were Danny Ainge,” said Jefferson, “I would’ve traded me for Kevin Garnett, too.”
While those two — forever linked by that deal — have had their share of altercations in the past, including double technicals when they faced each other in Boston last season, Jefferson holds no ill will toward Garnett or the Celtics.
“I get up for KG because he’s just that type of player,” said Jefferson, who totaled 13 points and 14 rebounds for the Jazz in their 98-93 loss to his former team Wednesday night. “It isn’t really anything about the trade or anything like that. He’s just that type of player that you’ve got to step up for. If you don’t, you’ll get embarrassed. You know what I mean?
“I look up to KG. He made the way for me. I was a big fan of his when I was in high school, so that’s just the type of game that you’ve got to step up for, when you play a Hall of Fame player like that.”
As a Class of 2004 senior at Prentiss (Miss.) High, while he was admiring Garnett, Jefferson averaged 43 points, 18 rebounds and seven blocks, presenting the opportunity to meet Rajon Rondo for the first time.
“I saw him being this type of player when we were back in high school in the McDonald’s All-American Game,” said Jefferson, who amassed 16 points and 11 rebounds in 16 minutes during that ’04 contest (Rondo’s line: 14-4-4 in 15 minutes). “I knew he was going to be something special, because he’s just got a high IQ for the game.”
In two month’s time, the Celtics selected Jefferson in the first round of the 2004 NBA draft at No. 15 overall. Two years later, they traded for Rondo at No. 21. The two played just one season together in Boston, but Jefferson remembers Rondo as “a funny dude” who kept the locker room light, showing similar off-the-court leadership qualities to the ones that resulted in a team-wide flag football game in Los Angeles this summer. On the court?
“To me, the only thing I felt like he needed was a jump shot, but he’s hitting that consistent now,” said Jefferson, who averaged 16 points and 11 boards for the C’s in 2006-07. “I think the sky’s the limit, because you can’t stay in front of him, and now he’s hitting that jumper. Teams have to respect it, so he’s just getting better and better. That’s one thing about this league: To stay in it, you’ve got to continue to get better every year, and he’s doing that.”
Flash forward five years later: Rondo takes 4.4 shots from 16-23 feet, knocking down 49 percent of them — both career highs. That forces opposing guards to fight over the top and opposing bigs to hedge on pick-and-rolls.
“If a big’s going to show on Rondo, we’re getting something for Kevin,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said prior to Wednesday’s game. “We’re rolling Kevin now more than popping him, and that’s for the same reason, because Rondo is making that shot. The more he makes that shot, the more things we can run.”
Sure enough, when Jefferson hedged on Rondo in the second quarter, KG slipped in for the alley-oop.
“It changes [how you defend Rondo] big-time,” Jefferson said. “You used to be able to sag off him and help on other guys, but you can’t now, especially when he’s hitting that jumper and attacking that basket, so it’s hard to defend them. When they’re going, they’re going is tough.”
Strange how things have come full circle in Boston from Jefferson’s perspective. The aging Garnett, who continues “punking” Big Al years after they were traded for one another, and the young Rondo he once knew as a teammate have become one and the same — best friends leading the C’s on opposite ends of the floor.
“Doc does a great job taking [Garnett] out early and having him in there for crunch time,” Jefferson said. “By him being out there, he doesn’t really have to score a lot of points, he doesn’t really have to be big-time on offense, but just his presence out there on defense has really helped that team. It’s amazing watching.”
Added Jefferson: “I think the sky’s the limit for Rondo. I think what he does for the Celtics offense is exactly what KG does for their defense. So, I think sky’s the limit for him. Rondo probably has a chance to be one of the great point guards to play the game. He’s only 26, so he’s got a long way to go.”
So, too, does the 27-year-old Jefferson, and the respect is mutual. When the Jazz visited Boston last season, Rivers — the coach who trained those 2006-07 puppies — treated Big Al to dinner. This season?
“Screw Al,” joked Rivers. “I don’t have time for him. He’s too good now.”
Added the C’s coach: “He just keeps getting better and better. The thing I thought I’d never say about Al: He’s becoming a better passer. And I’m very happy about that for him. He just keeps working on his game. … Making that playoff run, and he was a big part of it last year, has re-stoked him, and that’s good. He’s a heck of a guy.”
As it turns out, Jefferson becomes a free agent this summer for the first time since signing a five-year, $65 million extension with the Timberwolves after the Garnett trade (he was traded again to Utah in 2010 for a pair of first-round picks and Kosta Koufos), and he’s not ruling out a return to the city where his NBA career started.
“This is my first home,” Jefferson said. “This will always be my home away from home. Danny Ainge gave me a chance when nobody else did. If that situation were to happen, I’d love to do that again. But right now, like I said, it’s all about taking care of business and finishing out the season right.”
Actually, if the Celtics and Jefferson are hoping to reunite, a trade this season is the most likely scenario. After all the contracts the C’s handed out this past summer, they could only offer the $5 million mid-level exception, and Jefferson isn’t taking a $10 million pay cut from his current deal. But considering Utah’s frontcourt logjam (Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter), don’t be surprised if the Celtics try rescuing their lost puppy.