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Double ’07: Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Celtics captaincy

03.26.14 at 10:47 am ET
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This is the first in a series on the parallels between Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge‘s last team to miss the NBA playoffs and this year’s lottery-bound squad. A deeper look at the C’s player personnel, potential trade packages and financial flexibility should offer insight into whether or not Ainge can recreate the 2007 magic of acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen seven years later in 2014. (Hence, Double ’07.)

Zero score and seven years ago, Ainge faced a decision that would influence the next decade of his once great franchise: a) Trade a perennial All-Star in his prime to rebuild around a young core and a top-10 draft pick, or b) Trade that young core and the top-10 draft pick to reconstruct around his Celtics captain. Sound familiar?

As the 2014 NBA draft approaches, Ainge will be faced with the same choice he made in 2007. Therefore, the Celtics must first answer a pair of questions: 1) Do they value Rajon Rondo at age 28 the same way they did Paul Pierce at 29? and 2) Who is available at what price? Here, like Ainge, we’ll examine the former first, as it will influence every other decision made this summer (as well as the ensuing posts in this series).

Pierce & Rondo

In 2007, a hobbled Pierce missed his first All-Star Game after five straight bids from 2002-06. Likewise, Rondo’s rehab forced his absence from All-Star Weekend this February for the first time in five seasons.

Pierce’s last playoff appearance had ended in a head-wrapped controversy that only fueled his contentious relationship with the Boston media. Last we saw Rondo in the postseason, ironically, his chest bump of a referee required a herculean performance from Pierce to avoid an 0-2 first-round hole in 2012. And let’s just say the current Celtics captain doesn’t line the locker room with rose pedals for the C’s press contingent.

The similarities between the only true Celtics captains of this century are plenty. Heck, Ainge even respectively offered Pierce in 2005 and Rondo in 2011 to New Orleans for Chris Paul. A couple years removed from those offers, the two couldn’t be more comparable in terms of legacy, maturity and desirability.

That isn’t to say Pierce and Rondo are identical players in their late 20′s. Averaging 23.6 points over his first nine NBA seasons, Pierce had already begun to establish the self-proclaimed “natural born scorer” reputation that led Tommy Heinsohn to dub him the best pure scorer in Celtics history. Rondo, on the other hand, owns an 8.3 assists per game average over his first eight seasons, which ranks him highest in team history.

In 8,218 fewer minutes, Rondo has four All-Defensive Team selections to Pierce’s none. The 6-foot-1 point guard’s resume also includes 80 more wins in 17 fewer games and nearly three times as many playoff games by age 28. Of course, Rondo benefited from playing six of his first seven seasons alongside three future Hall of Famers. The closest thing to a Hall of Famer Pierce had ever played with was a 36-year-old Gary Payton.

While Rondo’s assists may have been inflated by the presence of Pierce, Garnett and Allen, the Truth’s points had been boosted by the lack of scorers around him. And 99 games worth of playoff experience — including an NBA title and three Eastern Conference finals — can’t be a bad thing. Even if the Big Three carried the playoff load early in his career, Rondo emerged as the most important of the four over the latter half of those contests.

Pierce endured five lottery seasons before everything changed in 2007. Rondo is in the midst of only his second spring without playoff basketball, and Ainge has publicly reminded his captain of that fact in The Boston Globe:

“We understand you have been very patient and it’s time to get it done or not, to move you somewhere where you can have a chance because you’ve been great to us, and you can move forward — or we need to get something done,” Ainge told Pierce in 2007. “Rondo shouldn’t be at that place, because this guy got a championship in his second year and he’s been playing with great players for a long, long time. He really never has had yet to go through rebuilding. I wouldn’t even count this year of sort of hanging in there because of where he’s at.”

The average player understands that. As one former teammate said when asked to compare Pierce’s situation in 2007 to Rondo’s in 2014, “It’€™s different, because Rondo won a championship and had so much success with Paul and Kevin. Pierce didn’€™t have that history. It’€™s a good question, though. Rondo has a real tough road ahead of him.”

Then again, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo aren’t your average player.

Pierce & Rondo 3

Posed the same question after Pierce received his Garden video tribute — whether or not he saw any of himself in a younger Truth — Rondo revealed the stubbornness that is the root of all his criticism. “No,” he said.  Surely, Rondo must consider what it would be like to one day receive the same hero’s welcome Pierce and Garnett did. Or not.

“No. Why should I? I’m 27,” Rondo said weeks before BirthdayGate on Feb. 22. “I’ve got a long career ahead of me, so I don’t think about that. I try to go out every night and play as hard as I can, and whatever happens, happens.”

The previous night, like so many times before, Pierce and Garnett had shared their wisdom with Rondo over dinner.

“We stressed setting the tone and being the example, even when he doesn’€™t want to,” said Garnett, who had endured three straight lottery seasons before coming to Boston. “I always talk to him about being a professional. You don’€™t get to pick and choose when you want to be a professional. Just understanding the pedigree of a champion, you don’€™t let losing become something usual. You keep the mentally of a champion, and some are not going to follow, but most will. As long as you’€™re the example and you’€™re having a voice, just do it by example. Rondo’€™s ready.”

Six weeks later, as the Nets were scheduled to arrive in town for a second time, Rondo faced a similar question — whether he could draw any parallels between this year’s team and his rookie season — and again offered the same one-word response. “No.” Perhaps he and Ainge see eye-to-eye on this one. Perhaps the point guard’s path really is different than his predecessor’s. Then again, perhaps he’s refusing to accept the similarities, just as Pierce did.

“I try to forget those days, because those are your trying days, man,” said Pierce of that 24-58 season seven years ago that included a franchise record 18-game losing streak. “Those are the days where you try to forget. But you grow from it. I think it made me a better player. Physically, mentally, it made me stronger. You only can learn from this process right now. You find out what type of players you have when you go through moments like this.”

Of course, Pierce has the benefit of hindsight. It’s a little different when you’re in the moment. But as much as Rondo publicly rejects the concept of rebuilding, both Pierce and Garnett admitted their successor grasps the notion more than he acknowledges. “He understands it probably a little more than I did at the time,” said Pierce.

Don’t think Ainge hasn’t been taking notes this season, too. As his star player’s contract enters its final season, the C’s president must decide this summer whether aligning his future in Boston with Rondo’s is such a great idea. At least publicly, Ainge has repeatedly expressed his willingness to do so, if only because the right trade hasn’t arisen.

“When you’€™re in the middle of your prime, like Rondo is, and you’€™re frustrated with the losing,” said Pierce, “it’€™s about just staying patient, staying with the guys, helping them develop, helping them get better. At times, it’€™s going to be frustrating, and you have to understand that’€™s the position you’€™re in. At times, things don’€™t always go your way, and you want everything to be better right away, but you understand it’€™s a process, Danny Ainge understands it’€™s a process, and they have to be on the same page. There’€™s constant communication between your franchise player and the organization on what they want from each other, and you go from there. You build with each other.”

Seven years ago, when Pierce told Jackie MacMullan, “I’m the classic case of a great player on a bad team, and it stinks,” the Celtics captain offered an ultimatum in that same 2007 Globe column: “Either we go for it, or we don’t.” Either build around Pierce or rebuild without him. Ainge’s gamble on Pierce paid off in the form of the franchise’s 17th title. Now, he must decide whether a different captain is ready to command the next Celtics championship.

Read More: Boston Celtics, Danny Ainge, NBA, Paul Pierce
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