Weighing the pros and cons of the Mavericks' trade for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo.
The NBA trade market isn't typically fruitful in December, but the Celtics and Mavericks are reportedly finalizing a deal to send Rajon Rondo to Dallas. In return, Boston will receive Brandan Wright, Jameer Nelson, Jae Crowder, a future first-round pick, and a future second-round pick. Incidentally, Celtics rookie Dwight Powell will also make his way to Dallas in the deal.
Thus concludes Rondo's years-long run on the trade block. Now that the Celtics have finally agreed to send the 28-year-old pending free agent to Dallas after eight-plus seasons in Boston, Rondo will be plunged into a basketball setting dramatically different from anything he’s experienced before. Let’s parse this new reality.
• The Mavericks' play for Rondo accepts implicit risk. Dallas came to the negotiating table with the best offense in the NBA by a fair margin, efficiency centered on a core of sharp decision-makers willing to give up the ball and move without it. Rondo fits the first criterion easily. In terms of spatial intelligence he may have no equal in today’s NBA. No one sees the court so clearly in its infinite possibilities, much less have the skill to act upon them.
Where he could prove a more awkward fit is in the way his playing rhythm might clash with that of the Mavericks. Rondo’s rise to stardom was predicated on his having control. This was (and is) the cleanest way to make use of his spectacular vision, and in some systems that tendency to probe and hold the ball might work out brilliantly. Dallas’ offense, which draws its power from seamlessly moving from one option to the next, may not be one of them. Flow can be a delicate thing. At the very least Rondo's arrival would push the Mavericks to adapt. That much is doable, given coach Rick Carlisle's savvy, but how much can Dallas conceivably improve an already elite offense? It stands to reason that Carlisle could produce an even more efficient attack with an upgrade over Jameer Nelson at point guard, and Rondo is certainly that. In vying for that prospect, however, the Mavericks have accepted the possibility that their outgoing assets and time spent working in Rondo might yield only comparable results.
Player integration isn’t simply a calculus of net talent. Rondo is far better than any of the Mavericks' point guards and a superior overall player to Wright, whom Dallas reluctantly surrendered. But in considering what makes Dallas such an outstanding offense, this deal inspires a very reasonable doubt. Take the pick-and-roll, an entry-level component of the Mavericks’ attack. Dallas’ pick-and-roll game is vicious for how it overlays the skills of Dirk Nowitzki, Tyson Chandler and Monta Ellis. Nowitzki is one of the game’s most commanding spacers and Chandler, according to Synergy Sports, is a 72.5 percent finisher in such scenarios. Yet the impetus is Ellis, who is not only fast and skilled but also committed to creating shots. He attacks the basket in a way that forces opponents to respect the threat of his scoring, which in turn challenges their defensive choreography.
Rondo, by contrast, drives under a pretense. He has no intention or desire to shoot. He looks past layup opportunities and plays for the assist with a stubborn consistency. It’s a credit to Rondo’s playmaking ability that he turns up so many scoring opportunities for his teammates while projecting as a non-threat himself. That preference, though, upends the way Dallas operates out of the pick-and-roll (particularly Ellis, its chief practitioner), creating a gamble out of what is now a sure thing.
To make matters more complicated, this deal can't be regarded as solely a tradeoff between a four-time All-Star and the Mavericks' previous point guard crop. The real cost in the exchange is Wright, who has provided needed minutes off the bench as Chandler Light. Given how spectacular Wright has been (he's made an outrageous 74.8 percent of his shots) and how spotty Chandler's health can be, surrendering frontcourt depth to roll the dice on Rondo is a bold move.
• Acquiring Rondo all but requires his complete buy-in. A fully invested and focused Rondo is a two-way weapon. Anything less and the payoff becomes fuzzier. While Rondo’s talent and ability are not in doubt, there are lingering questions about why the best passer in the league has guided substandard offenses in each of the past five seasons. His defense has waned over that same time frame, too, declining from All-NBA-caliber to fickle in effort. It’s been years since Rondo was a great defender and tricky to predict the nights when he decides to be even a good one. Rondo is difficult. He can be headstrong in the way he thinks the game should be played and apparently sour when he isn’t fully committed to a particular enterprise.
Dallas is banking on the notion that Rondo will welcome the move and consider committing to the franchise long term. It’s not a crazy thought. The Mavericks offer a promising landing spot for Rondo to pursue a second title. There will be obstacles to overcome and stylistic compromises to be made on all sides, but a happy medium between an all-world passer and a freewheeling offense could turn out to be the vision of unscoutable fluidity. Rondo also shown that he can generate turnovers and lock in on opposing ball handlers when willing and properly supported, which is more than can be said of Dallas’ alternatives. The Mavericks’ perimeter defense springs so many leaks that Chandler couldn’t possibly address them all. Even if Rondo never fulfills his defensive potential, he brings more length and better instincts to a team that ranks 20th in points allowed per possession.
Rondo should also help address Dallas' weakness in completing defensive possessions. Only the Knicks allow more offensive rebounds than the Mavericks, which in effect forces a shaky defense to withstand multiple, consecutive scoring opportunities. It’s rare that a point guard could make a genuine difference in this area, but Rondo has collected boards this season as if he were a power forward. His defensive rebounding percentage essentially matches that of LaMarcus Aldridge and Al Jefferson, good for 8.5 rebounds per 36 minutes. So many of the positives of this deal from a Maverick perspective could manifest in just that kind of marginal advantage.
• Dallas’ judgment was undoubtedly shaped by landscape of Western Conference. The general formula for title contention calls for top-10 performance on both sides of the ball. Dallas will have a hard time meeting that requirement defensively. Even with slow, steady improvement, the path from No. 20 to championship viability is a hike. In evaluating this trade, then, the Mavericks’ brass also cast judgment on the team’s profile. A championship run as previously constituted would have defied decades of precedent, with Dallas propelled to the top by historic offensive performance amid so-so work in coverage. This transaction, complex though it might be in terms of Rondo's particular fit, at least offers a chance to change the math.
It's impossible to predict today just where the acquisition of such an unusual player might leave Dallas, particularly in an anything-can-happen conference. The West's density of contenders is cited often for the challenge it presents, and rightly so (to even reach the Finals may require beating three excellent opponents). As a result, however, the West's postseason bracket will also put the top-seeded teams in jeopardy early. The entire playoff picture could scramble quickly, leading to an unexpected matchup that could favor the Mavericks. Sometimes that’s all that matters in deciding a seven-game series, and Dallas is good enough to take advantage of some zany postseason happenings.
The same was true for the Mavericks before completing this deal, but one can imagine that the prospect of running through a combination of the Warriors, Grizzlies, Spurs, Thunder and Rockets with Nelson leading the point guard rotation would prove terrifying. Even with Devin Harris stabilizing the backcourt from the bench, Dallas was clearly disconcerted to the point that it chased down a deal for a complicated free-agent-to-be at the cost of valuable pieces and all-important continuity. It may yet pay off, but for now the Mavericks know only one thing for sure: Rondo could change everything.