As you know, the Dallas Mavericks swung a trade with Boston yesterday, acquiring Rajon Rondo for Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, a first-round pick next year and a second-round pick in 2016. On the surface it looks like a steal, a superstar "name" player for a bunch of spare parts and a pick that figures to be in the 24-30 range. Jesus did the heavy lifting as usual and broke it down, but J.R. Wilco asked me to add my thoughts.
In short, I don't like this deal for the Mavs. I really like Rondo as a player, he's one of my favorite non-Spurs, actually, but I don't like the fit here even a little bit. Here are three major reasons I hate this trade for the Mavs.
1) This makes no sense for Monta Ellis.
I know we don't really think of Ellis as a star --and we shouldn't-- but he is a ball-dominant player, 13th in the league in Usage Rate, which is how many possessions a player uses per 40 minutes that ends in a field goal attempt, a free throw attempt, an assist or a turnover. Believe it or not but in a lot of respects Ellis is pretty similar to Manu Ginobili, a player who uses the pick-and-roll a ton, who creates for others, gets to the rim and to the free throw line a good amount. Does that sound like a guy who'd excel playing with a point guard who pounds it on the floor all night? There's a reason Gregg Popovich decided to split them up as much as possible a long time ago. And Manu is a much better catch-and-shoot guy than Ellis is. Ginobili is shooting 40.9 percent from the field and 43.9 from downtown on catch-and-shoots, according to NBA.com's Player Tracking tool. Ellis is one of the worst shooting guards in the league at this, 26.7 percent from the field and 30.1 percent from three. (Incidentally, Rondo is 39.1 percent from the field and 30.8 percent from three, which we'll get to). In other words, for Monta Ellis to "have it all," he needs the ball. Pairing him with Rondo is akin to getting Kobe Bryant to play with Steve Nash, except with a Nash who can't shoot. Best of luck with that.
2) The Mavs are trading one of their best offensive players for one of the league's worst offensive point guards.
Okay, Brandan Wright isn't really as good as his 26.18 PER would suggest. But he is a role player who has a finely-honed understanding of what he can and cannot do and is excellent at filling his niche. He leads the league in field goal percentage by a considerable margin, converting nearly 3/4 of his attempts and rebounds at a so-so rate, more in line for a power forward than a center. He was one of the worst defenders on the Mavs, but such an asset offensively that his net rating wasn't too far off from Tyson Chandler's. Dallas was scoring 115.2 points per 100 possessions with Wright on the floor. The guys Dallas will have to rely on to be Chandler's understudy now, Greg Smith and Charlie Villanueva, have the two worst rates on the team, at 103.4 and 100.7, respectively.
Compare that to Rondo, whose 15.18 PER is 34th ranked among point guards, worse than Alexey Shved, J.J. Barea, Brandon Knight, Aaron Brooks, A.J. Price, Beno Udrih, C.J. Watson, Cory Joseph, Devin Harris, Brandon Jennings and Mario Chalmers. To be fair, one of the few point guards Rondo beat out in PER was Jameer Nelson. Still, in Boston Rondo's basically turned into the point guard version of Dennis Rodman, focusing on assists at the expense of all else. He simply refused to shoot the ball, and his effort level on both ends of the floor was sporadic at best. At one time he was an elite defender, but now Rondo has one of the worst Defensive Ratings on the Celtics at 104.1, worse than Kelly Olynyk.
You have to understand, Rondo is the king of the empty assist. For one, Boston plays at the fastest pace in the league under Brad Stevens, with 100.5 possessions per game. Yet even with all those possessions, and all of Rondo's touches (13th in the league at 93.5 touches-per-game per NBA.com's Player Tracking Tool, Ellis is 24th at 66.1), he's only 108th in the NBA, and 37th among point guards, in Usage Rate, at 20.2. And he's always been a relatively low-usage point guard, even when the Celtics were contenders. Think about what that means. He has the ball constantly, uses up shot clocks, but ultimately doesn't produce a stat (a field goal or free throw attempt, an assist or a turnover) that registers as "usage." What Rondo does is pass the ball a lot to guys who take bad or contested shots. It's the antithesis of the free-flowing ball movement that the best offenses in the league like Dallas and San Antonio have cultivated. Even when the Celtics were good, they had one of the worst offenses in the league, taking loads of long twos, playing at a snail's pace and hardly ever getting to the free throw line. Their "crunch-time" offense was usually unwatchable isos for Paul Pierce. That team won with defense and got by on the other end of the floor, thanks to playing in the watered-down Eastern Conference.
3) Dallas is trying to fix what isn't broken.
The Mavs had the top offense in the league at 113.6 points per 100 possessions. In a vacuum Rondo is a better player than Nelson, but what made the Dallas offense successful is that Nelson basically stayed out of the way and acted as a spot-up shooter. Also, he didn't play a lot, ceding time to valuable bench guys in Harris and Barea. One of Dallas' biggest strengths was their depth. Acquiring a guy like Rondo will hurt that depth because he'll figure to play more minutes than Nelson was getting. That will mean fewer minutes for Barea, Harris and certainly, Ellis. In losing Wright and their best perimeter wing defender in Crowder, the Mavs will have to play guys like Smith, Villanueva and Richard Jefferson more, which will weaken them further. You're plugging one hole in the dike and creating two new ones and this really becomes problematic if the oft-injured Chandler gets hurt again. The drop-off behind him is a chasm now.
Honestly I'll be surprised if Dallas doesn't get worse offensively, losing Wright for Rondo. Yes, it's possible they can do that next-level ball reversal stuff Jesus wrote about to get Ellis the ball on the move, but it will be a tremendous adjustment for both players and it will take time to build that chemistry. I still think when it gets to elite competition in the playoffs that good defenses will adjust and simply leave Rondo open for 18-footers. Again, he's shooting 39 percent from the field and 30 percent from three on catch-and-shoot situations. The Mavs will have to live with that.
Defensively they might be marginally better with Rondo, but point guard is the least important position on that end. It's like trying to improve your defense on the soccer pitch by signing a striker who dutifully tracks back and pressures defensemen rather than actually signing, you know, some good defensemen, a worthwhile holding midfielder, or heaven forbid, a goalkeeper.
Look, it's entirely possible that Dallas will "win" this trade. Rondo is a better player than he's shown the past couple of seasons coming off an ACL tear. He's also notoriously smart, cunning and temperamental. I wouldn't put it past him at all to have been intentionally sabotaging his value at Boston these past couple of seasons so that potential suitors would have to give up as little as possible for him in trade. After all, what good is being shipped out to a contender if they have to give up a bunch of assets to get you? All things considered, the Mavs really didn't give up that much for Rondo, and if he does return to his 2010 superstar form, he will make them better.
I just don't think it's a good fit. I don't see how he and Ellis work together (I don't think he would've made much sense in Houston either, with James Harden), I don't see how this improves their bench situation when those guys need minutes and I don't see how he addresses their biggest weakness, which is front court defense. If I'm a Mavs fan I would've preferred to trade for a stretch four in the Robert Horry/Boris Diaw mold, someone who can space the floor, rebound, defend, push Dirk Nowitzki to the three, Chandler Parsons to the two and Ellis to the point. Luckily for the Spurs, guys like Diaw are few and far between.
This feels like the type of trade Mark Cuban would make in his early seasons of ownership, when he was obsessed with names and didn't understand that the league isn't fantasy basketball. Honestly I'm surprised that Rick Carlisle signed off on this, but I guess that's why he's the coach and I'm writing about the deal at McDonald's. Rondo will reportedly make his Dallas debut against the Spurs on Saturday night, so we won't have to wait long to see how it looks.