The Risks of Rondo

Let’s get this out of the way up front: seeing Rajon Rondo in anything other than a Celtics jersey will be jarring. The last mainstay of the 2008 championship team has been shipped out, and Dallas sent Boston a decent haul for the point guard: Jameer Nelson, Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, and a couple of picks, one of which is expected to be in the late first round next year. It’s not the biggest bounty in the world, but for a point guard returning from injury who may not be able to score anymore it’s a lot.

The impact this season is pretty obvious. Rondo’s benefits are as clear as his flaws: he’ll grab steals, rack up assists, and brick 3s. His scoring at the basket isn’t as good as it once was, and without that Rondo’s offensive value is somewhat dubious, especially on this team. The backcourt pairing with Monta Ellis will be a bit tenuous, with Rondo likely taking a few pick and rolls away from Ellis, but it won’t be any worse that what the Mavs already had.

Neither player can hit 3s, but both are established midrange shooters, and if Rondo integrates into the offense well that won’t matter anyway. This system and the presence of Dirk Nowitzki cover for a lot of flaws from the guards.

As for the guys they gave up, Nelson and Crowder weren’t really offering much value on the court. The real loss is Wright, who was doing an excellent impression of Tyson Chandler offensively off the bench. Without him a gaping hole has opened up in the middle; there’s no springy backup center on the roster, a critical flaw given that Tyson only plays about 30 minutes a night and the offense relies on that role. Chandler’s minutes can be raised a little, but it’s obvious that another solution needs to be found.

This trade may signal a dedication to pure smallball off the bench, with any number of Rondo, Ellis, Devin Harris, and J.J. Barea manning the guard spots, Richard Jefferson, Chandler Parsons, and Al-Farouq Aminu at the forward spots, and either Dirk or Tyson in the middle. Those units would struggle mightily on defense, but then again they already do. Variations on the zone defense the Mavs leaned on during their title run will probably be these groups’ only saving grace.

Another option might be to dust off the deep bench bigs, Charlie Villanueva and Greg Smith. Villanueva probably doesn’t have a lot to offer except as a really cheap imitation Nowitzki, but Smith played well in Houston a few years ago before an injury took him out of their rotation, and he could slide into the backup center spot if he’s regained the form he had with the Rockets. He plays differently than Chandler, with more of a traditional back to the basket game, but at least he has proven he can handle backup minutes effectively before.

Basically, Dallas is banking on the upgrade at the starting point guard spot (which wasn’t tough to do given the mediocre play the team was already getting there) to overcome the lack of depth up front. It’s a bit of a risk, but with little in the way of tradeable assets and the knowledge that one day Dirk’s deal with the devil probably has to come to an end, now was the time to pull the trigger.

The real risk with this trade is the indication that Rondo is in the team’s future plans. Each season with Nowitzki playing at a high level is a gift at this point, and bringing in Parsons over the summer showed that the Mavs front office is aware that they need to get some younger talent for when Dirk is gone. Rondo doesn’t fit that mold. He’s already 28, has had injury problems, and will probably still demand a huge contract this summer. Teams don’t routinely give up talent and draft picks in a trade for a veteran with an expiring contract unless they intend to re-sign them.

Bringing Rondo in for three or four additional seasons after this one, even if some of that is unguaranteed, could be disastrous for a team always hoping to contend. A core of Parsons and Rondo isn’t going to get you anywhere, especially in the West, and even adding another quality player to that duo probably doesn’t make the team a contender once Dirk is gone.

A long-term Rondo contract wouldn’t be as bad assuming the salary cap rises in the next couple of years, but his presence would mean that the starting point guard would have declining athleticism, can’t shoot, and may chase arbitrary stats (*ahem* assists). His value this season is clear as one of the only upgrades available at point guard, but his value over the next few years is much more debatable.

Dallas is smart, and if Rondo plays poorly this season they likely won’t rush to sign him long-term over the summer. If he plays well, they appear to want him in the fold for several more seasons. In a league inundated with young, talented point guards, that could condemn the franchise to mediocrity for the beginning of the post-Dirk era.

With Boston a Half Game Out of 8th Anything’s Possible in the East

The Brooklyn Nets aren’t very good, not unlike the rest of the Eastern Conference. With a 10-14 record they sit at 8th in the conference, and currently there are only five teams in the East with a positive point differential or winning record. Those teams could likely make the playoffs in either conference. The remaining three playoff spots in the East could basically go to anyone at this point.

The Celtics have a roster of spare parts and young players still finding their way. Still, they’re in 9th place, a half game behind Brooklyn, even as they actively try to trade away their most respected player – Rajon Rondo. To be clear, Boston isn’t trying to be good, or to make the playoffs. Every indication they’ve given is that they’re comfortable with another trip to the lottery, but here they are, in danger of landing in the playoffs.

What about the Orlando Magic? Sure, they’d love to sniff around the playoffs for the first time in a few years, but they’re 10-18. Lucky for them, that only puts them two games back of Brooklyn. Even Indiana, who lost Paul George and Lance Stephenson after last season and signed replacement-level players to fill the void could get in on the action. They sit a mere three games back.

The Eastern Conference has been terrible for years, and last season started off with a similarly weak crop of teams occupying the top 8 spots before some late-season surges by the Raptors and Nets made the final standings look fairly respectable. That could happen again this season, but roughly one third of the way through the season there haven’t been a lot of positive signs from the bottom 10 teams.

Even the current 6th and 7th place teams, Milwaukee and Miami, have suffered injuries that could derail their already mediocre campaigns. For Milwaukee the blow came when Jabari Parker tore his ACL, but ultimately they’d be fine if that knocked them out of the playoffs. Miami, on the other hand, is trying to prove that they can still consistently make the playoffs without LeBron James. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have both played well when healthy, but they haven’t been all that healthy.

The biggest problem is that three of the teams that were supposed to either occupy the bottom half of the playoff bracket in the East, or at least put up a strong fight to make the playoffs, have been horrendous. New York, Charlotte, and Detroit all sit at the very bottom of the standings (the spots right above Philly constitute the bottom for our purposes here), and none of them has won even 25% of their games so far.

Inexplicably, any one of them could still mount a run and end up in the postseason, but these teams have been really, really bad, and not in a fun way. They’re unwatchable, uncoordinated, and struggling for answers across the board, and yet an 11-5 stretch could probably bump them into the playoff hunt.

Everyone except for Philadelphia can make it at this point, as we’re lining up for one of the least enjoyable free-for-alls for a playoff spot in recent memory. The inevitable first round series between a loaded Toronto against the likes of the Magic or Celtics is going to be a disaster that’s tough to watch. At least the door’s still open for Paul George to return to a playoff team, which looks like the only thing that can salvage at least one of the first round matchups this season.

Get Well Soon Jabari

We’re having a bit of a bad run with injuries, and it’s starting to get ridiculous. I’m not talking about this season, the early part of which has featured a ton of games missed due to injury. The likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, Bradley Beal, and Kevin Durant all missed (or are missing) time, but the real bad luck has been with top rookies.

Jabari Parker’s torn ACL will keep him off the floor for the remainder of the season, and that’s a damn shame. While he was far from dominating, his array of skills were on display for the Bucks every night. More importantly, he was showing the type of promise you’d want to see from the 2nd overall pick, and his forward partnership with Giannis Antetokounmpo looked like a strong foundational core for a Milwaukee team that is surprisingly on track to return to the playoffs after last year’s disappointments.

Instead Parker will get to model his suit collection behind the bench, joining fellow injured draftee Joel Embiid on the growing list of top prospects spending their first year in the league in street clothes instead of on the court.

Unfortunately this trend is nothing new. Last year Nerlens Noel, considered to be a strong contender for the top pick, dropped to 6th overall after his injury, and he proceeded to miss the entire 2013-14 season. Blake Griffin and Greg Oden suffered similar fates in 2009 and 2007, respectively, when they were taken with the #1 overall pick, then missed their first year. Others have missed long stretches of their inaugural campaigns to injury. Some have returned and dominated; some have never been the same.

There’s probably something to be said about the seeming frequency of these injuries. Maybe the college and pro schedules are too demanding. Maybe the speed of the game is leading to more injuries. Maybe there’s more that trainers and physicians could be doing to prevent them. Maybe it’s all just a depressing case of confirmation bias.

I’m not a doctor, and I haven’t researched every injury to a rookie. I just know it’s sad to see a highly rated young player end up missing a season.

The teams that these players get drafted by are typically among the worst in the league. The fans for those teams revel in the potential of a new prospect, partially out of a desire to watch a decent team night in and night out, and partially because there’s a chance that the draft will yield a truly special player that will be with their team for years. They’ll get to see a guy like Jabari grow and improve, raising the level of play of the team in the process. Waiting for a good player in the draft is the only silver lining to watching a bottom feeding team, and a major injury can undermine it all.

Instead of relishing the prospect of watching Parker grow alongside the Greek Freak, coached by Jason Kidd, the Bucks now must worry that their prized rookie can get back on the court without losing a step. The optimism quickly fades, replaced by caution and concern. That’s not nearly as fun.

So here’s to Jabari’s healthy rehab and return, and to the NBA and it’s fans. Hopefully the next batch of stars to come into the league remains healthy and gets a good chance at starting their careers unencumbered, in the process providing hope to the beleaguered fanbases that don’t have anything else to pull for.

The Land of Misfit Ballers

Lingering on the edge of the Mississippi River in Western Tennessee there exists a place with a strange collection of NBA players, assembled within the last half decade, that has turned into the home of one of the most consistently strong teams in the league. Memphis has morphed a bunch of unwanted talent into a devastatingly effective defensive unit with enough character to sink a ship. Now they’re generating a top tier offense to pair with it, and at the moment they are very, very good.

This should not be working. The Grizzlies’ roster was assembled over the course of the last seven years, and consists almost exclusively of players that were either given away or unwanted.

It started with the 2007 draft. Despite having the worst record in the league in the preceding season, and therefore holding the highest chance of winning the lottery of any team, the Grizzlies landed the 4th overall pick (to be fair, they had a higher chance of getting the 4th pick than any other individual pick, but they still only had a 35.7% chance of falling from the top 3). That left them out of the running for the consensus top 2 players, Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. Al Horford went 3rd to Atlanta.

That just left Mike Conley, then perceived to be more of a sidekick to Oden at Ohio State than anything else, and a player blessed with tremendous jets but little idea of how to use them. Memphis would likely have grabbed any of the other 3 players at the top of the draft over Conley given the opportunity.

In 2008 Memphis became an angry sidenote for the rest of the league in the Lakers’ resurgence when they agreed to trade away Pau Gasol, to that point easily the best player in franchise history, in exchange for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, and Pau’s little brother, who had never played in the league and looked remarkably less athletic than his All-Star sibling. By the time Marc Gasol joined the team the following season, Pau had already played in one Finals with the Lakers, and would go on to win the next two. Suffice it to say that no one considered the Griz to have won that trade.

Zach Randolph started out as a Jailblazer, and the Clippers didn’t even want him. He came over in the summer of 2009 in a trade for Quentin Richardson of all people. That wasn’t a subset of the trade. There weren’t other players involved. An NBA team just decided that they’d rather have Richardson than Randolph(that was actually the 2nd of 4 trades Richardson was involved in that summer).

Then there’s the Grindfather himself. Upset with his marginalization in Boston behind Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, Tony Allen was seeking a bigger role, and signed with Memphis as a free agent in 2010. The Grizzlies haven’t missed the playoffs since, even making a Western Conference Finals appearance.

Players have come and gone: O.J. Mayo left in free agency, Rudy Gay was traded away for Tayshaun Prince, Courtney Lee was dumped by Boston. Even the fringe players share the common thread of being unwanted. Vince Carter finally got too old for Dallas’ taste, which is no small feat. Beno Udrih fell out of favor and the rotation with the Knicks. Again, no small feat.

The Grit and Grind mentally has united them, creating a strong brand for how the team plays, how they conduct themselves, even how they view themselves. They show up, grit, grind, and go home. It’s the most blue-collar style in the game, and it’s one that was created by the players and for the players. Allen put it all together and gave it a name, but really, each player had a reason to feel a chip on their shoulder, even if not all of them were bothered by it. That attitude has them playing amazing basketball, and could propel them a long way this season.

The Hornets’ Terrible Defense Is The Real Problem

The return of the Hornets is going poorly. Riding the high of last season’s playoff appearance, Michael Jordan and company chose to splurge for the second straight year. The Al Jefferson signing went pretty well in 2013-14, as rookie coach Steve Clifford managed to piece together a top-10 defense around him while Jefferson carried the offense, so the front office moved to add some additional pieces.

That defense is what carried the team to the playoffs (even if it was only in the consistently pathetic East), but this season it’s been awful. There are a lot of easy targets when trying to figure out why, exactly, the team has fallen off the rails: Lance Stephenson is mopey (and shooting terribly), the other “big” offseason acquisition, Marvin Williams, is incapable of providing the stretch-4 minutes that he was brought in for, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has missed a ton of time.

The Stephenson stuff has gotten the most attention, and it’s easy to understand why. He’s constantly sullen, can’t hit the ocean, and is now openly being shopped. It’s entirely possible that his time with the team is drawing to a close, but just because there’s a convenient (and not entirely innocent) fall guy doesn’t mean he’s the actual problem. He’s not *not* the problem either, but it runs a lot deeper.

Clifford’s schemes worked well last year because of their simplicity and the low impact on Jefferson. For the most part he just had to fall back and get in the way. That worked great thanks to a solid perimeter effort from MKG, Gerald Henderson, and Josh McRoberts. As mentioned before, Kidd-Gilchrist has missed most of the season, and Henderson has been stuck behind Stephenson aside from a recent stretch in which he’s started on the wing beside Stephenson.

McRoberts left for Miami, where he’s struggled a bit with injuries early on. His loss has been more damaging than expected because of his diverse skill set. He’s an excellent passer for his size, shot 3s well in the first season that he attempted them at a high rate, and can play solid defense. In replacing him Charlotte brought in Williams to open up the floor a bit more, but that hasn’t really panned out. In the exchange the passing and defense went out the door. Now Cody Zeller has usurped the starting power forward spot, but he is young and still learning the ropes.

Without the strong perimeter D, Jefferson has to cover for more mistakes and do more in pick and roll coverage. That’s just not part of his skill set. It looks increasingly like Clifford is trying anything to find a workable combination, but the truth is that last year’s team serendipitously had the pieces to cover for their center’s limitations. This season’s squad doesn’t have that same mix of skills, and it’s killed the defense.

Last season’s defense was far from perfect. After a strong start in which they sported a top-3 defensive efficiency mark, Charlotte ended the season a respectable but not astounding 6th, and they occasionally gave up huge games to talented scorers; both LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony had 60+ point games against them. It was good enough to make Jordan loosen the purse strings for a 2nd straight offseason, and everything seemed primed for another year of improvement.

Instead the Hornets are looking to unload their prized acquisition at literally the earliest opportunity and are sitting at 6-17, good enough for just 12th in the East. The defense currently ranks 24th and unless Clifford can find a way to improve that number there’s virtually no chance of a 2nd straight playoff appearance. Behind that shiny new court and the slick uniforms, the lethargic heartbeat of the Bobcats still seems to linger.