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Every June each year, the best of the best in the world of high school and collegiate athletics set their sights on making the big leagues. Major League Baseball kicked this off by holding their amateur entry draft two weeks ago, and this week, the focus turns to winter sports, as the NBA will stage their draft on Thursday evening, followed by the NHL entry draft on Friday night.
If you’re focusing solely on our two local teams however, at first glimpse you may think you might as well check the TV listings for something else to watch each night. The Celtics, who traded away their first round pick to Minnesota as part of the package that brought the Big Ticket, Kevin Garnett, to Boston two offseasons ago, won’t make a draft choice until the 58th pick is made. And the Bruins, after a very surprising season that saw them finish atop the Eastern Conference, won’t add their first young skater until it’s time for the 25th selection of the evening.
You may think of this as a bad thing, but think harder about what it means. Our two winter teams are at, or near, the top of their respective leagues. That sentence hasn’t been uttered since the days when Boyz II Men were atop the pop charts and Alf was everyone’s favorite TV alien. The days where each team were earning a top five or top ten pick by dwelling in their division cellars are in the past, and hopefully for a long time.
But just because the B’s and C’s won’t be “feeling a draft” in the opening hours each night, doesn’t mean that “trade winds” won’t blow through the Causeway Street offices by week’s end. The rumor mills have been churning for each team, mainly centering around two of this city’s youngest, and brightest, new stars. Stars that may find themselves realigned.
Rajon Rondo, now 23 years old, having played three seasons now with the Boston Celtics, has seen his stock rise exponentially in the past 12 months, since helping the Green add a 17th championship banner to the Garden rafters. Rondo, drafted 21st overall in the 2006 draft by Phoenix, then later traded to Boston, is coming off a season where he posted career highs in minutes (33 per game), assists (8.2 per game), rebounds (5.2 per game), and points (11.9 per game). He has emerged as one of the league’s top point guards, and showed his worth this postseason, rising to new heights as the best player on the court on many occasions, especially during Boston’s thrilling first round series with Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls.
Rajon finds himself three years into his current five-year contract. He has $2.6 million coming his way in ’09-’10, and $3.8 million in ’10-’11, relatively cheap money for such a great talent. So why trade him? Two reasons: value and cap room. Rondo’s trade value has never been higher. If GM Danny Ainge hopes to keep Rondo beyond his current contract, it will be at a major pay increase, likely to force Ainge’s hand to move one of the C’s “Big Three” to be able to afford his young point guard. Beyond that, the highly touted free agent class of 2010 is just one offseason away. If the Celtics have their sights set on the likes of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, or even taking a shot at acquiring LeBron James, Rondo, and likely others, will need to be moved to make room.
In the world of the Black & Gold, Wisconsin native Phil Kessel, at just 21 years of age, has already lived a life full of very high ups and very low downs. After just one season at the University of Minnesota, Kessel was drafted by the Bruins 5th overall in 2006 at just 18. Kessel made the big club right out of training camp, but months into his rookie season, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. With determination and perseverance, Kessel not only recovered from surgery, he returned to the ice much quicker than expected, earning himself the NHL’s Masterton Trophy, given for sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
This past year, Phil Kessel emerged as the great scorer he came here to be. Leading the team with 36 goals in just his third season in the league, Kessel found himself on the team’s top forward line, and amongst the league’s great up-and-coming stars. Of course, with success comes reward. Kessel’s three-year rookie contract has run its course, and so the Bruins are faced with a major salary cap puzzle…how do they re-sign the team’s top scorer and fit his salary under the league’s estimated $56.7 million hard cap? With just about $7 million in cap space, the B’s find themselves very tight to the cap ceiling, which leads to the bigger question…should the team trade Kessel before July 1st, so he doesn’t walk away for nothing? Granted, if another NHL offers a contract to Kessel, the Bruins are able to match it if they so choose. But word on the street suggests that Kessel will command in the neighborhood of $5 million per year, which may be very difficult for Boston to pay out.
So what will each team do? While other teams around the country are looking at their futures, drafting young high school and collegiate stars that they hope will become the face of their respective franchises, our two Boston franchises are faced with serious questions surrounding their own youngsters, already on their roster.
In my mind, you have to find a way to keep both of these kids in Boston long term. You know what you have with each of them. Both are leaders. Both are great, and getting even better. And both have the intangible that can be tough to find and even tougher to teach…they have proved that they can handle the heavy scrutiny and criticism that comes with playing in Boston. The Celtics haven’t had a star point guard since the days of Dennis Johnson. Top point guards are very difficult to find, and so now that they have one, they need to hold onto him tight. In hockey, goal-scorers do not grow on trees. Losing Kessel means the B’s would need to find a way to replace his production elsewhere, and other than getting Marco Sturm back from a knee injury, I don’t see where that production comes from.
Both of these young studs are athletes you can build a team around. As always, it will of course come down to the almighty dollar. GMs Danny Ainge and Peter Chiarelli have both done phenomenal jobs in making huge strides getting their teams to the top of the heap in the NBA and NHL, making our winter sports teams relevant again. But this summer, they each could be facing the most pivotal offseasons of their tenure thus far. Getting to the top is one thing, staying at the top is something totally different. Keeping number 9 in green and number 81 in black and gold makes that goal all the more achievable. So let the other teams grab new talent from the ranks of the unproven. We have our proven young faces of their franchises already, and we don’t want them going anywhere.