Making Sense of the Rajon Rondo Trade

Rajon-Rondo

After a rocky past two years together, the Boston Celtics finally pulled the trigger and traded mercurial All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, along with forward Dwight Powell, to the Dallas Mavericks for Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, and two draft picks. The Celtics also received a $12.9 million trade exception from the deal.

On the surface, the trade seems to heavily favor the Mavericks. They receive an All-Star point guard who plays his best on the biggest stage, and only give up an improving center in Wright, a young bench player in Crowder, and an aging point guard who is a marginal player now, in Nelson. Looking at the trade through Boston’s perspective, you get a rim protector you desperately need with Wright, an improving young forward who is a defensive hound in Crowder, and draft picks that will help you build your team for the future.

Dallas traded a future first round pick to Boston that is protected. In 2015, the pick is protected if it falls in the ranges 1-3 and 15-30, meaning the Mavericks would keep the pick if it falls in either of those ranges. However, the pick is only top-7 protected in 2016, so unless Dallas screws things up in free agency after this season and has a poor season next year, the Celtics should get a solid mid-round pick back. They also received a 2016 second-round pick.

Celtics GM Danny Ainge has put a premium on draft picks ever since he traded Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to the Brooklyn Nets for three first-round picks. Today’s CBA puts an emphasis on acquiring low-cost, high-potential players instead of spending big money on free agents, something that Ainge clearly understands. Boston could have up to eighteen draft picks in the next four NBA drafts. It is clear that Ainge is aiming to pull off another blockbuster similar to the trades that landed Garnett and Ray Allen in 2008, and he has both the assets and the cap space necessary to strike such a deal.

Rondo’s chances of staying in Boston long-term were severely diminished as soon as he tore his ACL in Atlanta during the 2012-2013 season. It took him a significant amount of time to return to full health, and his trade value would never rise back up to what it was before the injury. Ainge tried to pair a star player with Rondo, in hopes of accelerating the rebuilding process, but was unable to lure Kevin Love to Boston this past offseason. Once that effort failed, trading Rondo was the logical decision to make. For whatever reason, Boston has struggled to recruit free agent star players to the team; Garnett and Allen were both acquired via trades, with Garnett only agreeing to sign an extension in Boston after the trade for Allen had happened first. One would have to go back a long way to find the last time an attractive free agent player chose Boston over destinations such as New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago.

Trading Rondo last season at the deadline was not feasible because teams wanted to see how he would recover from the ACL injury instead of taking a risk and wasting assets for a point guard who might not return to his peak form. Instead, Ainge waited with the hope that Rondo would return to his pre-injury form and rebuild his trade value. However, while Rondo’s health returned, his overall production took a dip. This season, Rondo is averaging 8.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 10.8 assists, and 1.7 steals per game, but he is playing very inefficiently. He has shot a measly 33.3% from the free throw line, 40.5% from the floor, and 25% from three-point range, and he has turned the ball over at an alarming rate. At his peak, Rondo was easily a top-five point guard, but right now, he is merely above average.

Boston’s 2014 first-rounder Marcus Smart started off the year hot and continued to play well until he suffered a high ankle sprain against Dallas. Boston paid lip service to the idea that Rondo and Smart could co-exist together on the court, but as soon as Smart showed he could run the team, it made trading Rondo an easier decision for Danny Ainge to make. It didn’t make sense for Ainge and the Celtics to try and sign Rondo to a max contract after this season due to the status of the team in its rebuilding stage. After using a high draft pick on a talented point guard, investing even more resources in the same position would not have been very smart.

Brandan Wright

Brandan Wright is an intriguing player who will be overlooked in this deal by many fans. He was a key contributor off the bench for Dallas, and has developed into one of the most efficient players in the league. He ranks fourth in the NBA with a player efficiency rating of 26.1, and is third in win shares per 48 minutes (.274). Wright has an amazing touch around the rim and boasts a field goal percentage of 75%. Defensively, he uses his length and quickness to his advantage. At 6’10” and 220 pounds, Wright provides needed size in the paint for the Celtics. He will likely be paired with Kelly Olynyk, who will be the main post threat, allowing Wright to roam around the paint and protect the rim. Wright is an intriguing player who the Celtics could keep and develop further, or could use him and his expiring contract at $5 million per year as an asset at the trade deadline.

From the Mavericks’ perspective, they are banking on Rondo playing at a level that he has demonstrated in big games. Rondo has an uncanny knack for notching triple-doubles in nationally-televised games.  If Rondo continues to play like he has this season, this move could backfire on them. The Mavericks already have a potent offense that is the best in the league. They are first in points per game, points per possession, and field goal percentage. It will be interesting to see how Rondo fits into this offense, as Rick Carlisle’s offense is predicated on ball movement, similar to Brad Stevens’ offense in Boston. However, Rondo’s preferred style of play is being the primary ball-handler, attacking the paint, and dishing the ball to his teammates when he draws defenders. He is not a good at moving off the ball. With Monta Ellis the de facto point guard for the Mavericks prior to the trade it will be interesting to see how the offense is run with Rondo in the lineup. Rondo’s league-leading assist numbers should climb even further in the Dallas offense, and with players such as Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki on the team, the pick-and-roll play will be a lethal combination for Dallas to use with Rondo.

Losing a valuable bench contributor like Wright could come back to haunt the Mavs, as they have no other established big man on the roster to spell starting center Tyson Chandler. Reports have suggested that free agent center Jermaine O’Neal is open to signing with the Mavericks, especially considering he lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. But it is tough to see the aging, diminished O’Neal playing a key role on the Dallas bench for the remainder of the season, let alone hoping that he can go through half a season without getting injured.

The Mavericks had to make a move of this magnitude to try and launch themselves into the upper echelon of Western Conference powers such as the Golden State Warriors, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. Making such a high-risk, high-reward type deal will be sure to have ramifications on the Western Conference as a whole, and it will be interesting to see if the deal pays off for both the Mavericks in the short-term and the Celtics in the long-term.

Aidan Curran
Georgetown Class of 2018

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Images courtesy of http://www.celticslife.com, ap.org

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