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.