When the Dallas Mavericks made the bold move for Rajon Rondo in the middle of December, it was with the intention of making The Leap. While the Mavericks carried an 18-8 record and were playing great basketball at the time of the trade, they still hadn’t yet proven themselves to be an elite team in the Western Conference. At the time, six of their eight losses had come to their rivals in the standings––Spurs, Trail Blazers, Rockets, Suns, Grizzlies, Warriors––and, at the time, those were the only six games the Mavericks had played against their playoff-contending peers.
Already breaking in eight new players to the roster, the Dallas front office of Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson figured now was as good a time as any to go for it, even if that meant recalibrating this team yet again. Thus, Rondo was brought in to help elevate this team to a true contender level, to maintain the team’s already-humming offense but also elevate their defense to a championship level.
So far, things haven’t worked out that way. Dallas is 15-9 since the Rondo trade. Their defense has been better, falling almost eight points in defensive rating since the trade, but there has been an adverse effect on their offensive rating, which has similarly fallen about six points. The Mavericks knew the ball-dominant, shooting-deficient Rondo wouldn’t be a seamless fit into their swift, spaced-out offense, and they were not wrong.
Rondo’s transition has been bumpy in Dallas, whose offense prior to Rondo was based almost entirely around pick-and-rolls with their quick guards and their complementary big men, Dirk Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler. Nowitzki’s is one of the best pick-and-pop big men of all time, while Chandler has perfected the art and timing of how to crash down the lane for alley-oops. Even Brandan Wright, the niche big man whom the Mavs reluctantly included in the Rondo deal, was discovering a bit of Chandler’s rim-rolling tendencies in himself. With that combination, the Mavericks’ stable of hyper-speed guards like Monta Ellis and JJ Barea thrived, and their offense easily led the league in offensive rating.
With Rondo, things haven’t been so easy; in fact, he’s actually created more issues for the Mavs on that end of the floor than he’s solved. In 21 games with Dallas, his offensive rating is just 93 and his real plus-minus ranks 34th out of 81 qualifying point guards, right between Milwaukee teammates Kendall Marshall and Brandon Knight. Rondo’s shooting has been dreadful in Dallas, aside from his three-point stroke, which can be so streaky it’s hardly a weapon. Not being a great shooter, he’s changed the rhythm of the pick-and-roll for this team, and since his arrival, the Mavericks are running fewer pick-and-rolls, and as a result, the team’s offense has seemed directionless during their most difficult times of the transition.
When he doesn’t have the ball, Rondo likes to hide out along the baseline, an element that mucks up the Mavericks’ wide-open floor spacing and changes the rolling options for a player like Chandler. Since he’s no better as a spot-up shooter, Rondo’s value is obviously limited without the ball in his hands, and adding another high-usage player has made the transition especially difficult on other perimeter starters like Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons.
Ellis has steadily improved his play alongside Rondo, but Parsons was just beginning to figure out his role on this team before Rondo arrived, and since then, he’s had to reconfigure again. So far during his time in Dallas, Parsons has shown that he’s not exactly a straight spot-up guy. His ability to put the ball on the floor after closeouts, and even occasionally operate in the pick-and-roll, were plays that kept him in the game and kept his shot warm. He needs those plays, because his activity off the ball isn’t super high, and because he also struggles to shoot coming off screens. Parsons’ shot is a natural fade-away, and that tendency is exacerbated in the worst way when he’s catch the ball on the run, off a screen, often fading away from the hoop.
Now things have taken a turn for the worse in Dallas, where Rondo recently suffered an orbital fracture that could keep him out for an undetermined amount of time, but at least three games for certain. Having traded away Wright and Jae Crowder in the Rondo trade, this team’s depth isn’t what it was before, and now they’re without one of their better players for what could be an extended stretch of time.
None of this is to say the Rondo trade won’t work out, more that the deal is a testament to how difficult it can be to integrate a new point guard on the fly. Teams don’t get to practice much during the regular season, and point guards are, as cliche as it is, like the quarterbacks of basketball teams, so getting a new one in the middle of the season is difficult. There’s no training camp to get used to new players, only games that actually matter.
A bigger issue has been the Mavs’ schedule: the team played just four home games all of January and have played some of their tougher stretches of teams in general since Rondo’s arrival. Those games aren’t ideal for breaking in a whole new offense, and the blemishes have shown, however, the Mavericks will enjoy an extended homestand before the All-Star break and hope to then make a little move in the standings. The break will also help a team with some older legs, no doubt, and the team hopes it might help expedite Rondo’s recovery, as his continued transition will be an integral part of this team’s playoff hopes.
Losing Rondo is a bad rap for the Mavs, now losing time on this crucial season, especially since the team could lose the free-agent-to-be Rondo during the offseason. Now, there will be less time to mesh and less time to evaluate Rondo as a future member of team. The silvery lining might be that it will give coach Rick Carlisle a chance to experiment with the lineups, and perhaps find some wrinkles that could help fix some of the team’s personnel issues with Rondo. It could maybe even be a chance for Chandler Parsons to rediscover his rhythm.
Without the point guard, though, there’s no way this team contends for a title. With him, that answer remains unclear; they sacrificed too much depth to acquire him.
With the exception of possibly signing Jermaine O’Neal and/or Ray Allen, this is the squad for the Mavericks now, and if there’s any hope for the team to contend this season, Rondo needs to be healthy. Now the question simply remains of whether they’ll be able to figure out how he fits in time.