The Southwest division, and by extension the Western conference, just got tougher. Only a day after reports emerged about Boston's willingness to part with Rajon Rondo, the Dallas Mavericks completed a trade that sent Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, a first round pick and second round pick in exchange for Rondo and Dwight Powell.
For most teams, trading anything of value away for Rondo would have been a big gamble. Since a knee injury that kept him out most of last year, he hasn't looked like a top-five point guard like he did during the glory days of the Ubuntu-Era Celtics. This season, his last under contract, Rondo is shooting 40.5 percent from the field, 25 percent from beyond the arc and an atrocious 33.3 percent from the free throw line. Try to look at this shot chart without cringing:
Dallas is a team that has relied on dead-eye shooting from all over the floor to become an offensive buzzsaw, so adding a player of Rondo's characteristics might seem extra risky. But considering the pieces they sent out and the depth they still have at the position, they seem better prepared to handle a worst-case scenario better than anyone. Rondo's passing adds another layer to an offense that was already comfortably leading the league and which should be able to mask his weaknesses while highlighting his strengths.
Rondo could act as the primary ball-handler on pick and rolls utilizing Nowitzki and/or Tyson Chandler as screeners while Monta Ellis spots up on the weak side. The Mavs are amazing at reversing the ball and changing the angle of attack so all the attention that initial action commands would free up Ellis to attack after a pass. The same holds true if Ellis initiates plays. If Rondo's defender cheats off of him to stop Ellis, he could receive the pass and use his speed and ball-handling to get to the rim, making the defense collapse and finding Tyson Chandler or Chandler Parsons open.
There will be some kinks to iron out on offense, as there always are with players as unique as Rondo. No one seems better suited to the task than Rick Carlisle, who is nothing short of a genius at integrating seemingly ill-fitting skill sets into a coherent attack. But it's on defense that Rondo could immediately have an even bigger impact. Even if he doesn't return to his days as a long-limbed ball hawk, Rondo is an upgrade over anyone the Mavs had getting minutes at point guard. And his rebounding will be a more than welcome addition.
In a potential match up against the Spurs, Rondo would take Tony Parker and try to use his length to bother him, a strategy that has proved to be successful in the past. On the other end the Monta Ellis-Rondo combo would make it extremely hard for the Spurs to match up with Dallas. In ultra small lineups Rondo could shift to guarding a shooting guard while he shares the court with J.J. Barea or Devin Harris. Speed is a problem for the Spurs' perimeter defense and Rondo's presence only exacerbates an already tough matchup.
The only silver lining for the Spurs is the fact that Brandan Wright was part of the package the Mavericks sent out. Wright is exactly the type of athletic backup big that gives San Antonio fits, as he can convert on lobs whenever the rim protector needs to help on dribble penetration. Wright was also a fearsome finisher on the pick and roll and a shot-blocking threat.
His minutes will likely be split up between Greg Smith and Charlie Villanueva. Smith is a decent if undersized center and Villanueva is bound to get hot one game out of 20, but neither present as big a match up problem as Wright did. Their small ball lineups, which will likely be used more often as well, suffer terribly on the boards. The move bolstered the Mavs' perimeter but at the same time weakened an already iffy big man rotation. Of course, the Mavs might still find a way to deal some of their back court depth for another center.
The Celtics got a nice haul back for a player that hasn't showed much lately, and who was likely going to leave after next season. Wright gives them a true center to play next to Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk and the picks give them ammo to target a star on a trade or the opportunity to load up on young players. It's unlikely they could have done better but it's still unfortunate that yet another good player has found his way into the already loaded West.
The trade doesn't vault the Mavs into the upper level of the Western conference -- not until Rondo shows that his mediocre performance was a product of apathy. The Warriors and Grizzlies still look like the class of the West and a healthy Spurs team should easily find itself in that upper echelon. What the transaction means for the conference is there's now another team with the potential to win it all if things go right. This upcoming postseason will be one for the ages.