Rajon Rondo Testing Free Agency Doesn’t Mean He’s Turned His Back On Celtics

Rajon RondoSometimes, we forget that not everyone gets it.

When you begin your day by watching NBA Gametime instead of reading the news, and your lullaby at night is the melodious voice of some Western Conference TV announcer calling a game on League Pass, you can lose sight of how normal people live and think. Certain things that barely register as newsworthy to you turns out to cause an uproar among casual fans. Only after assessing the furor do you realize that, oh yeah, the NBA system is needlessly complicated and, as a result, makes mountains out of molehills.

It’s been over a week since ESPN reported that Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo intends to test free agency when his contract expires at the end of the 2014-15 season. The four-time All-Star will hit the open market, where he could demand a maximum or near-max contract.

The collective reaction around TD Garden and the Celtics’ practice facility: shrug.

The reaction almost everywhere else: ZOMG WTF RONDO’S QUITTING ON DA CELTS TRADE DAT BUM.

For the confusion, there’s really only one thing to say: My bad. Since the report was released and Rondo confirmed it with a few vanilla comments at practice the following day, it seems like a sizable portion of the Celtics’ audience has turned its back on him. A prominent local radio personality remarked that “it’s obvious Rondo doesn’t want to be here” and Twitter reaction ranged from demanding the Celtics trade Rondo tomorrow, today or yesterday. But what the upheaval misses — and what I and my fellow writers apparently haven’t communicated effectively — is that Rondo’s admission isn’t really a very big deal.

In fact, Rondo planning to let his contract lapse and explore free agency in the summer of 2015 is way less than a big deal. It’s not even a “medium” deal. It could qualify as a “small” deal, in that the alternative is literally nothing happening at all, but even then, it’s borderline.

For the uninitiated, the NBA is a different business than the other four major sports. Contract extensions are trickier. The Celtics can’t just give Rondo a long-term extension like the one the Boston Red Sox gave to Dustin Pedroia. They could come to a well-below-market agreement with Rondo the way the New England Patriots did with Tom Brady, but the consequences could hamstring their personnel decisions in the future. Rondo waiting until 2015 to even consider re-signing isn’t just the best way; it’s the only way.

As Larry Coon has outlined in his outstanding NBA Salary Cap FAQ, league rules make it virtually impossible for teams to extend their players. Ostensibly in an attempt to quell the rise of sign-and-trades, the league limited the years and raises a player can receive prior to reaching free agency. A player on an existing contract can now only sign for four years, including any years left on his current deal, with perennial raises of 4.5 percent.

By contrast, a player who is a free agent can sign for five years with perennial raises of 7.5 percent, if he passes certain service time rules with his team, which Rondo does. In addition, the free agent is eligible for a maximum salary of up to 30 percent of the salary cap in the first season of his new deal. (In Rondo’s case, he could get 35 percent of the cap from the Celtics, since he would have spent 10 years with the team.) Keep in mind that these apply only if the player signs with his own team.

You don’t need to be a math wiz to understand that there’s a substantial difference. Rondo will make roughly $12 million when this season is said and done, with a hair less than $13 million coming his way next season. If he waits until the end of the 2014-15 season to sign a new contract, he would be eligible for more than $20 million annually.

But what if Rondo doesn’t want all that dough? What if he wants to make a Brady-style gesture and leave Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge with a bunch of extra cap space to put a winning team around him? Couldn’t he re-sign now and show not just how dedicated he is to the organization, but how much he values winning above all else?

Well, yeah, technically, but it wouldn’t make a lot of sense, particularly from the team’s perspective. The Celtics would only be able to lock up Rondo for another two seasons beyond his existing deal, which isn’t the long-term move the Celtics need to be focused on right now. In addition, signing Rondo to a cheap contract would hinder Boston’s chances of getting fair trade value for him if they eventually want to shop him. It would be tough to find a team that has a player of comparable talent, at a comparable dollar figure, for the Celtics to satisfy the collective bargaining agreement’s salary-matching stipulations. In that case, the Celtics would essentially be limited to exploring trades for role players and draft picks — and remember that draft picks won’t always be as valuable as they are this year.

Owners spent a lot of time yapping during the last lockout about competitive balance and enabling teams to retain their stars. Then they went out and basically proved they were lying by forcing through a CBA that made it virtually impossible for teams to prevent their stars from reaching free agency. Now, the deepest-pocketed owners can collect stars on a whim if they can stomach the luxury tax payments and the less-affluent owners have an excuse to throw up their hands in futility when one of their players signs elsewhere. A player like Rondo, who has never given any actual indication that his wants out of Boston, thereby has to make the only sensible business decision and wait for free agency to arrive.

No one can read Rondo’s mind. He may desire to leave more than anything in the world, and Ainge may be hoping against hope that Rondo walks in 2015, if he’s not traded by then. He’s not saying and he’s not playing like he has quit on the Celtics, but everyone around Boston is vigilant for signs that his days here are numbered.

Rondo’s intention to test free agency is not one of those signs. It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s staying, either. It doesn’t really mean anything. It just is. Our apologies; you’ll have to look for your signs elsewhere.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or sent it here.