Friday, December 19, 2014

The Mavericks answer the wrong question by trading for Rajon Rondo

Last night, the Celtics agreed to trade nine-year veteran Rajon Rondo and someone named Dwight Powell to the Mavericks in exchange for Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, a first round pick, and their 2016 second round pick. The first round pick falls to Boston if the Mavericks pick between 4-14 in 2015 and if not, the Celtics receive the Mavericks pick as long as it is not a top 7 pick. The Celtics are fully committed to their rebuild and have a shit ton of draft picks in the upcoming years. This post is going to focus on the Mavericks and why they would want Rajon Rondo.

There are many different ways to evaluate trades, but given that the Mavericks are pretty clearly in win-now-while-Dirk-is-still-playing mode, I'm going to ignore some of the forward looking issues it presents. Monta Ellis, Tyson Chandler, and Rondo are all free agents after this season, and while Bird rights help, their future on the Mavericks depends on so much that speculating now would be pointless. This trade can be evaluated two main ways: 1. Do the Mavericks have a better chance of winning the title today than they did yesterday? And 2. What was the opportunity cost of trading this package and could it have been used to fill a more pressing need? The answers to those two questions in short are yes, their title chances are slightly better and they could have filled a more pressing need and paid much less.

The Mavericks are currently 19-8, good for 6th in the Western Conference. Their success comes from their 113.6 offensive efficiency rating, first in the league and a higher number than any team ever, including the Nash Suns, their closest competition. It is unlikely that they finish with the highest offensive efficiency measure of the last ten years, but the point stands that their offense has been amazing. On defense, they have huge issues, they rank 20th, behind all of their Western Conference playoff competition. On offense, their success comes in large part from leveraging Dirk's size, Chandler and Wright's rolling ability, and Ellis' speed. Dirk's ability to take one big guy away from the lane is crucial in allowing Ellis to drive, something he does 10.0 times per game, good for 7th in the league. The Mavericks surround those three with average to good three point shooting from Chandler Parsons, Jameer Nelson, Devin Harris, and J.J. Barea. Again, this formula has been incredibly successful on offense. Ellis operates as the de facto point guard with Nelson and Harris playing off-the-ball. Jim Carrey designed an offense where no one touches the ball for long--no Mavericks are in the top 48 of player time with the ball per with Nelson leading them at 4.0 minutes per game.

Enter Rondo. Rajon Rondo's trade value has been a source of confusion for the NBA for a long time. He has had moments, especially in the playoffs, where he looks like the best player in games full of Hall of Famers, but he's also sleepwalked through entire months, chased assists, and his shooting ability has eroded to the point where he ranks 300th in true shooting percentage, a stat that calculates the value of threes and free throws. Rondo figures to replace Jameer Nelson in the starting lineup. Rondo's fit in the Mavericks offense will determine whether this trade is successful or not.

I think that Rondo is a horrible fit for the Mavericks. His style of play demands that he have the ball primarily in his hands. Rondo is not an off-the-ball shooter meaning his man can safely leave him to disrupt the Mavericks offense if he doesn't have the ball in his hands. The problem is that Rondo having the ball has not had a positive impact on his teammates or his team's offense in years. To quote Zach Lowe, Rondo "being on the floor has made no consistent positive difference over the last three years for the shooting marks, per, of Boston's other core players --Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynk, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley." The Celtics offense has similarly not been better when he's on the court and has not been above average since 2009. The case for his offense is essentially, well he puts up assists, and he is better than most point guards at rebounding. However, his inability to shoot, particularly free throws, where he's 12-36, a Muchinian-like rate, will negatively impact Dallas' offense.

There are also collateral consequences of the Mavericks putting the ball in Rondo's hands. Monta Ellis and his speed have been fully unleashed by the Mavericks, allowing him to score 20.6 points per game at 53.2% True Shooting while maintaining a usage rate of 28.8% (just above LaMarcus Aldridge and Stephen Curry). Monta's speed is best utilized driving to the rim, something he does frequently and with great success. While Rondo has respectable speed of his own, the comparative advantage is to have Ellis flying around a pick surrounded by shooting, his own driving ability, and the threat of a lob to Chandler. Playing Ellis off-the-ball limits his effectiveness, something that we just witnessed when he paired with Brandon Jennings in Milwaukee and a young Curry in Golden State. Again, the caveat that Carrey is an incredible coach who coaxed this out of Ellis and can surely tweak his system remains. However, the Mavericks offense was operating at an incredibly high level without Rondo. The Connect Four whiz is going to hurt their spacing and have to adjust to an entirely new style of play, a daunting task for a 29 year old who has failed to make his teammates or team's offense better in years while his own efficiency has withered.

The strongest argument for why Rondo helps is on defense. The case for his defense is his steal numbers, his length, his athleticism, and his being named All-NBA defense multiple times. He is undoubtedly an upgrade over Nelson and he is likely going to guard lots of off-ball guards for the Mavericks, something Nelson lacked the size to do. However, scouts and advanced stats suggest that Rondo is no longer a good defensive point guard. So far this season, opponents are shooting 50% against Rondo compared to their usual 45%. The last two seasons before this one, opponents had over a 50% eFG against Rondo, a striking figure when you remember he guards the opposing point guard for the most part. Perhaps Rondo does not give a shit because he's a weirdo and the Celtics have surrounded him with a bunch of 8th men. More likely, he's slipped a bit on defense and is not going to be as much of a net upgrade over Nelson and Barea (who will lose some minutes to Rondo) as you'd expect at first glance. In sum, Rondo's defense is going to help this team, currently ranked 20th, but his offense is likely to hurt the Mavericks' league-leading offense. The Mavericks are banking on Rondo have mailed in the last two seasons as he recovers from a torn ACL, a risk that might slightly, slightly increase their chances of winning this year's title.

The second issue is one of comparative advantage. This has nothing to do with Rondo, but what that package or some of that package could have netted the Mavericks. The Mavericks' biggest need was a wing defender, especially since they did not feel that Crowder's defense made up for his poor offense. A wing defender who can shoot 3s is exactly what they needed, not a point guard who cannot shoot. Their same trade package, including the underrated Wright and a first round pick could have netted a player like Arron Afflalo or Wilson Chandler or DeMarre Carroll or even Joe Johnson. Now there are reasons you could nitpick at any one of those players, but the Mavericks would have at least tried to solve their main issue, wing defense. The reputation and name value that Rondo brings likely cost the Mavs Wright. Now, the Mavericks are relying on a front court that contains old-man Dirk and weak-bones Chandler, something that worked four years ago, but seems like wishful thinking for four brutal playoff rounds.

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