The Rajon Rondo trade came slowly and then all at once, as years of rumors ended in the span of less than a day, with the Dallas Mavericks coming from out of nowhere to grab him. On the surface, they didn’t give up a ton - Brandan Wright, Jae “The Beast” Crowder, Jameer Nelson, a first-round pick in 2015 (likely to be conveyed in 2016) and a future second-rounder - to get a former All-Star still in the prime of his career. However, there is a lot more to this trade than meets the eye.
1. The Mavs gave up a lot of value
Brandan Wright may have only played 20 minutes a night, but those were some valuable 20 minutes. His per-36 minute numbers were positively obscene - 17 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks on 75% shooting. Wright has a PER of 26.1 because the way the Mavs used literally broke the formula. They usually paired Wright with a stretch 4 (Dirk Nowitzki), which allowed him to play in a ton of space in front of the rim. Pretty much every shot he took was a lob or a dunk.
There were a lot of games this season where the starters played the other team evenly and then Wright came in the game and blew it open. He’s one of the best pick-and-roll players in the league and his combination of offensive efficiency and shot-blocking will be hard to replace. Without Wright, the Mavs will need to find a new backup center - whether it’s Greg Smith, Dwight Powell or Jermaine O’Neal - and they will need to re-think a lot of their game-plans for their second unit.
And while you never really knew what you were going to get from Crowder and Nelson on a given night, they were two of the best three-point shooters on this year’s team. The Mavs are going to need Devin Harris and JJ Barea to continue way out-shooting their career percentages from long range, as virtually none of the other perimeter players on the roster are catch-and-shoot guys. Just to give you an idea, this move increases Richard Jefferson’s playing time.
2) Despite how well they were playing, the Mavs needed to make a move
As you would expect from a team that gave two sub 6’0 guards - Jameer Nelson and JJ Barea - most of the minutes at PG, the Mavs perimeter defense was shaky at best, non-existent at worst. While they may have the No. 1 offensive rating in the NBA, they also have the No. 22 defensive rating and anyone that has watched Dirk Nowitzki’s teams in Dallas knew how that was going to end. The Mavs needed more balance and that was only going to come from changing the personnel.
Shaky perimeter defense was the primary reason why they have been struggling with the other elite teams in the West. Against teams the other top-9 teams, Dallas is 2-6, with both their wins coming over the Pellies and losses to the Suns, Rockets, Warriors, Spurs, Blazers and Grizzlies. In the loss to Phoenix, Eric Bledsoe had 19 points and 7 assists while Goran Dragic had 28 points and 13 assists. In their most recent win over New Orleans, Jrue Holiday had 30 points and 10 assists on 22 shots.
It was laughably easy for top PG’s to score on Dallas, which is kind of a problem if you expect to make any noise in a conference that features Russell Westbrook, Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Damian Lillard and Mike Conley.
3) They could have made a much smaller trade
Most people around the team expected them to do something. Dirk isn’t getting any younger and the team is really good - if they are only one or two pieces away, there’s no reason to not at least give it a shot. Given how valuable future first-round picks have become, their 2015 pick could have been flipped into something good, even without including Brandan Wright. Here are a few names that have been bandied about as possible trade targets for the Mavs - George Hill, Iman Shumpert, Gerald Henderson, Wilson Chandler. All good players, all of whom could improve the team with their perimeter defense. None of whom would have disrupted the offensive flow on this team as much as a guy like Rondo.
4) The domino effect is what makes this trade so hard to predict
Rondo is an alpha male, ball dominant PG. Adding him to the mix changes the offensive roles of everyone on the team, particularly on the perimeter.
- Monta Ellis: In his first year and a half in Dallas, Monta has always been the dominant partner in the backcourt. Whether it’s Jose Calderon, Devin Harris or Jameer Nelson, the ball naturally gravitated into Monta’s hands and the Mavs other guard spent most of his time spotting up and playing off of Monta. Rondo has a gravitational pull all his own - watching these two ball-dominant, non-shooting guards attempt to co-exist should be one of the most fascinating sub-plots of the Mavs' season. It seems likely that Carlisle will stagger their playing time so that both get to dominate the ball and run pick-and-pops with Dirk.
- Chandler Parsons: He was just starting to get comfortable with his role in Dallas when the trade went down. Parsons has struggled at times playing off the ball next to Monta and Dirk and he hasn’t been a very consistent outside shooter. As a result, when his shot isn’t falling, he has had a hard time impacting the game. Parsons is probably best when he’s attacking the rim and creating shots for others, but that’s not going to be an easy sell given the number of quality players around him. If anything, Parsons needs to get his catch-and-shoot game going, since Monta and Rondo aren’t going to be the ones doing that. Ironically enough, he’s likely to be shuttled back into the secondary role he was trying to avoid when he left Houston.
- Devin Harris: No one is going to see his minutes impacted more than Harris, who was the Mavs' main option at the PG position, even if he wasn’t starting. He was having a career shooting year and he had developed a great rapport with Wright in the two-man game. It seems like he will serve as the bridge between Rondo and Monta, but with both those guys expecting to play a lot of minutes, there just might not be as much time for Devin as there was before. That goes double for JJ Barea.
When you look at the Mavs' perimeter rotation as a whole, what stands out to you are that they would all rather play with the ball in their hands - Rondo, Monta, Parsons, Harris and Barea. There are not a lot of guys in that group who have made a career out of spotting up off the ball. Dirk makes this more manageable, but the No. 1 thing to watch when it comes to integrating Rondo into the mix is whether other teams are able to shrink the floor against Dallas.
5) Monta vs. Rondo
As I mentioned earlier, the biggest flash point on this roster is whether these two will be able to co-exist. Rondo worked with Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, but those guys were excellent three-point shooters. Monta, meanwhile, couldn’t even co-exist with Steph Curry. It’s a concern, even if it’s one that neither will have any interest in addressing over the course of the season. If the Mavs struggle at all over the next few months, expect a lot of focus on their relationship.
What adds fuel to the fire is that both players could potentially be free agents this summer. Rondo is an unrestricted free agent (although presumably he gave Mark Cuban some assurances about re-signing in Dallas before the trade was finalized) while Monta has a player option on a deal that’s only paying him $8 million a season, a little over half of what Parsons makes. Monta has said that money is no longer the primary motivator for him in terms of his career, so maybe he doesn’t opt out and this whole story becomes a non-issue. Money usually talks the loudest, though, so we will see.
If it does come down to Monta vs. Rondo, the biggest argument for keeping Rondo is that it should be easier to build a team around him. I went into this in much more detail earlier in the summer. The holes in Monta’s game - inability to shoot 3’s, run point or play defense - make it almost impossible to find an ideal backcourt partner. If you keep Rondo, you can sign a more conventional 3-and-D SG like Shumpert in the off-season and have a far more balanced line-up than almost any combination involving Monta.
6) The Jason Kidd Model
Seven years ago, Jason Kidd came to Dallas in much the same situation as Rondo. Kidd was an All-Star PG whose star had faded as his team had decayed around him. When he arrived, he didn’t appear to make a ton of sense with either coach or the personnel on hand. Within a year, they had fired Avery Johnson and started shuffling players around Kidd and Dirk. The commonality is the Mavs seeing an undervalued building block, grabbing him at a low price and figuring out the rest later.
The biggest change for Kidd between his time in Dallas and New Jersey is that he became a great three-point shooter. Kidd is the archetypal example of the elite player who finds his outside shot and extends his career another decade. You should never expect a player to add something to his game that late into his career, but if any player can do it, it’s an All-NBA PG with Hall of Fame talent and a great feel for the game. Kidd even credited Dirk with helping him become a better three-point shooter.
Even if Rondo’s outside shot never comes, the idea of adding an elite floor general with the size to control the game had to appeal to Cuban. He saw first-hand the effect the presence of Kidd had not only on the game but on the entire culture of the Mavs organization. Dallas has been looking for a player to replace all the different things that Kidd brought to the table since the day he left. Rondo is about the closest thing you are going to find to that in the modern NBA. Those are two PG’s who could think the game at an extremely high level.
7) Gambling on Rondo
Two and a half years ago, Rondo had 44 points, 8 rebounds and 10 assists in an ECF game against LeBron and Wade. In the time since, he has seen two of his mentors traded away for draft picks 5+ years into the future, torn his ACL, become part of a rebuilding projecting which includes a college coach and seen his name involved in an endless number of trade rumors. It would be understandable if he was not playing the best basketball of his life in that stretch. He’s still only 28, so the hope is that the old version of Rondo is still there.
Rondo seems like a textbook case of a guy who could use a change of scenery. The first time you get traded in the NBA is a scales falling from the eyes experience, no matter how much it makes sense on an intellectual level. After getting really comfortable in Boston, Rondo is going to be pushed out of his comfort zone and thrown into the fire of a playoff race. If anything can rejuvenate him, this experience should be it. If not, they didn’t acquire all that much for him and they can part ways in the off-season.
If you think of a PG like a race-car driver, Rondo is a guy who walked into the sport and was given a superior engine from Day 1. He didn’t have to struggle with inferior cars in the early part of his career - he was playing next to three future Hall of Famers. It was only in the last few years that he got to experience what life is like for the other half of the NBA, the one that you don’t see on national TV all that often. Now he’s right back in the drivers seat of an elite team and he’s playing for a chance to make max money in the off-season.
Rondo has been sitting on the sidelines for two seasons and the Mavs are giving him the keys to a brand new Cadillac. Whatever happens, it should be really fun to watch.