When Rick Carlisle pulled Rajon Rondo after his fourth foul in only 10 minutes of action in Game 2 against the Houston Rockets, it was the final straw for a dynamic that had become increasingly poisonous. While everyone knew the trade was a gamble when it happened, few figured it would end this poorly, with both sides worse off than before. An injury-ravaged Dallas team on the brink of elimination is without one of their best perimeter defenders while Rondo’s ability to secure any type of significant long-term contract in free agency is an open question. At this point, both the Mavs front office and Rondo’s people would probably like a do-over.
In the days since the incident went down, Rondo has become a scapegoat in Dallas and a punching bag in the wider NBA community, a relic of an age where point guards could get away with not shooting 3’s and a guy no longer worth the trouble he caused off-the-court. If he couldn’t succeed under Rick Carlisle, where would he be a good fit in the modern NBA? What has been missed is that he’s the latest in a long line of veteran players whose reputations have been destroyed after a stint with the Mavs, from Lamar Odom to Darren Collison, Delonte West, OJ Mayo and Chris Kaman.
To be sure, none of those guys is even close to an ideal NBA player and all have significant holes in their game. What they have in common is they were asked to be something they were not while they were in Dallas, the end result of a process that forced the front office and coaching staff to try and turn over the roster every season. In an ideal world, the Mavs would have signed some combination of Deron Williams, Dwight Howard or Carmelo Anthony with all the cap space they had created over the last four seasons. Instead, Dallas has cycled through over 50 players in that time in an attempt to tread water before trying again in free agency. There are already reports that Dallas has targeted LaMarcus Aldridge in 2015.
The problem with this haphazard approach to roster building is that flawed players need to be put in the right setting to succeed. Guys like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James can thrive in almost any situation, as the Miami Heat proved when they cobbled together a championship contender in one off-season. Once you slip below the level of max players, though, you are primarily picking through guys who have been let go by their previous teams either because they weren’t good enough or they no longer fit with the rest of the roster.
The perfect example of that came in 2011, when the Mavs let Tyson Chandler walk in free agency and turned to Lamar Odom as a Plan B. Looking back on it, it’s pretty obvious the Los Angeles Lakers let the former Sixth Man of the Year go because they knew his play was headed off a cliff due to a number of issues off the court, which all reared their head in Dallas. However, even in a scenario where Odom was a model citizen, he still would have been a bad fit with the Mavs because neither he nor Dirk Nowitzki could play defense as a 3 or a 5. He was no longer the guy he had been physically early in his career and he needed to play as a 4 next to a stretch 5 like Pau Gasol in order to succeed.
Delonte West had a good season in Dallas backing up Jason Kidd and Jason Terry in 2011, but Carlisle never really gave him a chance to earn a huge role behind his two beloved veterans. He stubbornly stuck to his guns in the playoffs, riding Kidd and Terry into the ground as he asked them to match up with James Harden and Russell Westbrook in what was a merciful four-game sweep. When West started to buck about the way things were being run in Dallas, the Mavs banished him from their roster and he hasn’t been able to find a job in the NBA since.
The following offseason, after striking out on Deron Williams, they cobbled together a starting line-up that featured Kaman, Mayo and Collison. All three of those guys had been let go by their previous teams and they never really coalesced, eventually finishing 41-41 as the Mavs missed the playoffs for the first time in the Dirk Nowitzki era. Collison was knocked because he couldn’t live up to Carlisle’s standards for a PG while Mayo and Kaman developed the reputation as selfish gunners who couldn’t fit into a team dynamic.
After the season ended, Collison had to take a huge paycut to rebuild his reputation with the Los Angeles Clippers. Kaman had to bounce around the league before eventually finding a spot with the Portland Trail Blazers as a backup big man while Mayo hasn’t been able to hold on to a starting spot with the Milwaukee Bucks. The common denominator was that none of those guys were better off after their stint in Dallas as they were all extended past their ability level on a roster that couldn’t cover for their flaws.
Two seasons later, the names have changed but the story remains the same for the Mavs. The fit between Rondo and Monta Ellis, another guy the Mavs picked off the scrap heap after they struck out on more high-profile free agents, was always questionable as neither could shoot 3’s well enough to open up driving lanes for the other. Even splitting them up only did so much good when Dallas just brought in more undersized guards who weren’t knock-down shooters (JJ Barea, Devin Harris).
If you were building a roster from scratch, there’s no way you would want to have a rotation with four undersized guards who needed the ball in their hands. The problem for the Mavs is they could never afford to look at things holistically. They picked up Harris because he was a bargain in free agency coming off a toe injury. They picked up Ellis because he was sitting on the market because no one else wanted him. They grabbed Barea because he had experience with the team and he suddenly became available when the Minnesota Timberwolves decided to begin a rebuilding effort. They traded for Rondo because he was a former All-Star on the last year of his deal and they didn’t have to pay a huge price to get him.
The attitude when they acquired all those guys was that they had Carlisle, one of the most innovative coaches in the league, and they had Nowitzki, one of the best floor spacers of his generation, so they would be able to figure out something that would work. And for all the turmoil this season, they were able to win 50 games and sneak into the playoffs in one of the toughest conferences in NBA history. However, when the postseason began and they had to play an elite team with the time to gameplan against them, their weaknesses were exposed and someone had to be blamed.
None of this is to say that Rondo was a perfect citizen in Dallas or that his effort in Game 2 was acceptable. However, just like with Odom, hindsight tells us that even if he had done nothing wrong it still wouldn’t have worked in Dallas. It’s a chicken-and-egg thing. Would Rondo’s attitude have been different if he was playing with three pure shooters at 2-3-4 who opened up the floor for him in Boston? Or was putting a known hot head in a position to fail a guarantee of trouble from the start?
At this point, it doesn’t really matter. Carlisle will have to gameplan against James Harden even though none of the remaining guards on the roster can match-up with him while Rondo will have to hope that Kobe Bryant’s endorsement is enough to make the Lakers cough up a big check in the offseason. A marriage that was combustible from the start has ended in one of the ugliest and most high-profile divorces in the recent history of the NBA. The problem for Dallas is they are becoming like the husband with four ex-wives - who is the common denominator in all these failed relationships?
Going forward, the Mavs are going to have to figure out some way to build a team around three guys - Dirk, Chandler and Monta - on the downswing of their careers without many candidates for internal improvement on the roster. The good news is they will have enough money to be very active in free agency this summer. The bad news is that players around the league are going to start wondering if aligning themselves with such an unstable franchise is really the best bet for their careers.