Michael Lee (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Rajon Rondo was either incapable of leading a rebuilding effort, reluctant to expend his talents for a team headed nowhere or in decline after sustaining a devastating knee injury and a broken wrist in the past two years. But none of those explanations for Rondo’s confounding and inconsistent play this season should have given the Dallas Mavericks concerns about going all-in for another Dirk-led Finals run and dealing for one of the game’s most enigmatic figures.
Because now Rondo is back in the spotlight, with a relevant franchise that has a purpose that falls in line with his own goals. Rondo’s penchant for saving his most eye-popping performances for when the most eyes are watching is supported by the numbers. And while he repeatedly stated a desire to end his career in Boston, the rarity of his brilliant moments suggested that he was either waiting for the Celtics to change or seeking one of his own.
The latter eventually won out, with Celtics President Danny Ainge removing the final connection to the 2008 championship team. Rondo was beloved in Boston, where fans embraced his quirks after watching him evolve from erratic role player to all-star peer of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to front line general of the last hope to finally, the ill-fit, erratic, all-star, front line general of team several years away from contention.
Ainge’s desire to find more playing time for first-round pick Marcus Smart and Mark Cuban’s commitment to maximize the final years of Dirk Nowitzki’s career converged at the perfect time for this deal to get made.
Celtics fans can lament over the return for a homegrown fan favorite but Ainge wasn’t going to finagle the same haul he claimed from Brooklyn for Pierce and Garnett with Rondo scoring at his lowest rate since his rookie season and approaching free agency in July. Rondo probably would’ve yielded more last summer — especially as teams like Dallas whiffed in free agency — but the Celtics still managed to get three role players (Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder and Jameer Nelson) and two draft picks (a first-rounder, most likely in 2016 and a second-rounder in 2016).
But this deal is really about what Rondo has left and what he will actually provide for a veteran Mavericks team should benefit from his precision passing and ornery competitiveness. Nowitzki sacrificed financially so that Dallas would find him some help and Cuban has come through with a mercurial talent who once made a very good Boston team better and joins a similar situation with the Mavericks.
Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons should thrive with Rondo breaking down defenses, turning down layups and kicking out for three-pointers. Tyson Chandler should feast on even more alley-oops and dump-offs. Monta Ellis, who is playing at an all-star level this season, has played with ball-dominant scoring guards in Golden State and Milwaukee but playing with Rondo will be another adjustment. Rondo, however, might also be able to find Ellis better and easier looks with his ability to push the ball in the open floor.
Rondo’s defense has dropped off since he made the league’s all-defensive team four straight years but he is a tremendous upgrade on both ends over Nelson, whose best days are long behind him.
Dallas needed a long-armed menace to contend with Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Damian Lillard, Mike Conley and Ty Lawson, among others. The Mavericks were sixth in the Western Conference despite a 19-8 record but they were also 0-5 against San Antonio, Portland, Houston, Memphis and Golden State.
Though no point guard ranking in the top five in assists has won a title since Magic Johnson in 1988, prying away Rondo was worth the considerable risk in this bold move for Dallas.
What makes Rondo special — a bullheaded need to be in complete control — isn’t necessarily what Dallas needs for an offense that already is the best in basketball. Nelson couldn’t shoot, but Rondo prefers not to shoot at all for fear or missing or getting fouled. He attempted just 9.1 shots per game, connecting on 40.5 percent — which was actually better than his accuracy from the foul line (12 of 36).
Passing is Rondo’s specialty — he leads the NBA in assists and passes per game but he also turns the ball over at an alarming rate (3.4 per game). And while the Nelson-Devin Harris-J.J. Barea trio was one of the worst point guard trios in the league, it combined to average 3.7 turnovers per game.
The loss of Wright — the league leader in field goal percentage at an incredible 74.8 percent and Chandler’s more-than-serviceable backup with a team-high 1.6 per game — could also come back to haunt Dallas. The Mavericks bench thrived because of his ability to fill the lane and catch lobs off the penetration of J.J. Barea and Devin Harris. Now, Dallas will reportedly look upon 36-year-old Jermaine O’Neal — who already lives in town — as a possible replacement.
But Rondo’s exit from Boston had been inevitable for some time and became almost a necessity on Dec. 8 in Washington. A day after posting his second triple double of the season, Rondo failed to score and Coach Brad Stevens benched his best player for the final 27 minutes of a double-overtime loss to the Wizards. The Celtics rallied from a 23-point deficit with Smart and Evan Turner executing Stevens’ offense — which is predicated on ball movement and scoring from multiple places — while Rondo served as an unbothered, towel-waving cheerleader.
The scoreless effort marked the fifth time in the past 11 games that Rondo failed to make more than one field goal in a game. Oddly enough, Rondo has also had two triple doubles and three games with 15 or more assists — including a 19-assist, 2-point effort against Atlanta – over that stretch.
With a new team, superior surrounding talent and championship aspirations, those kind of head-scratching performances might be less frequent for Rondo. If the trend continues or Rondo terrorizes defenses the way he did when the Celtics were a title contender, then the mystery of this seemingly uninterested play this season will be solved.