Fork in the Road

The Celtics have to make up their minds about Rajon Rondo sooner rather than later. (USA TODAY Sports)

The Celtics have to make up their minds about Rajon Rondo sooner rather than later. (USA TODAY Sports)

Danny Ainge isn’t one to tell the media what he’s thinking, but it appears that the Boston Celtics went into the season with a roster not quite set up to fail, but one that had a lot of gaps and question marks. They hired Brad Stevens to spend the next few years overseeing what was going to be either a complete rebuild or a less drastic retooling of the franchise, depending on what Ainge saw from the various spare parts he assembled.

The good news is it appears Stevens is a capable coach in the sense that he’s excellent at putting his players in a position to succeed. Most teams with talent deficiencies have a few players who are pushing themselves beyond their abilities. You know the archetypes: the decent-enough shooting guard asked to carry the offense, the 6-foot-9 guy spot-starting at center, the second-unit point guard who should be playing in Europe. Somehow, no one on the Celtics seems out of place. Everyone plays their role capably and some nights the team loses because it’s just not talented enough. They’re 11-14, atop the historically awful Atlantic Division, which is an accomplishment for a team that lets Jared Sullinger take 12 shots a game.

Rajon Rondo is coming back in the next handful of weeks. The Celts are either being coy or cautious about the exact date, but he’ll return to the court at some point in January. While Boston fans can feel positive about their coaching situation, the team is going to have to make a decision about whether to allow Stevens to help this team into the playoffs or to bottom out in a bid for Jabari Parker or Julius Randle. Considering the way the Celtics have been playing, and the sheer number of rake-steppers in the Eastern Conference, the latter approach would mean they’d have to make up injuries — Jeff Green out three weeks with the ol’ phantom hamstring pull — and sell off players.

I’m not vehemently anti-tanking, but the problem with rewarding certain franchises for failing — on purpose or otherwise — is that a team like the Celtics might end up being punished for having a slightly better than expected season. Making a smart hire in Stevens could ultimately hurt Boston’s larger project if it pushes them into the playoffs with a roster that, as currently constructed, lacks the talent to contend for much of anything.

Because of that reality, it will be difficult to view Rondo’s return as anything other than an audition for potential trade partners. He’s coming off an ACL tear, which means teams looking for a point guard will want to see if he can still track ballhandlers and move through defenses like a like an eel through a current. And I’m sure we’ll be treated to Ainge calling Danny Ferry in the morning, then taking umbrage in the afternoon when reporters ask if he’s shopping his best player.

The alternative is that the C’s like what they see from the roster they have. They believe that if Rondo’s healthy, they can figure out over the next couple of years how to find him a couple running mates through developing their players and making a splash in the trade and/or free agency markets. It’s not true that you need to bottom out to improve in the NBA, but as is apparent when one watches the Eastern Conference this season, it’s a popular strategy.

What’s clear is that Ainge needs to make a decision soon. He could afford to waffle on whether or not to turn the team over to Rondo when he had Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, but the post-KG-and-Pierce Celtics either are or are not a Rondo-centric venture. After years of stalling and false endings, this saga finally has to go in one of two directions.