When Rajon Rondo was traded from the Boston Celtics to the Dallas Mavericks on December 18, it looked like a bold move to push the Mavericks through their backcourt issues and confidently into the postseason. At the time, they were 19-8, and were orbiting outside of the early season’s elite Western Conference teams: the Warriors, the Grizzlies, the Blazers, the Clippers and – of course – the Houston Rockets.
“It’s not every day that you can get a point guard of his status,” Mavericks forward Chandler Parsons said at the time. “The way he can pass the ball, he’s a difference-maker. To be able to have that, with the combination of what we already have with our system and the players put around him, it’s special.”
“I look forward to building something special in Dallas,” Rondo added.
After the trade, Dallas went 31-24 and nearly every aspect of Rondo’s game got worse. His player efficiency rating dropped from 15.5 to 12.4; his defensive rating ballooned from 101 to 107; his free throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt) was cut in half; his usage went up, but his assist percentage and rebound percentage dropped precipitously. With Rondo on the bench in the regular season, the Mavericks’ offense was five points better per 100 possessions.
All of that, though, was supposed to fall by the wayside once the playoffs started. Rondo’s reputation as a postseason offensive orchestrator par excellence and relentless defensive pest preceded him, but fast-forward to the second game of the Mavericks’ series against the Rockets and look at Rondo’s line: 4 points, 4 personal fouls, 2 rebounds and 1 assist, all in less than ten minutes. Somehow, that line doesn’t do justice to just how listless he looked, picking up an eight-second violation early in the game as he casually walked the ball up to half court. He then immediately gave up a 3-pointer to Jason Terry when he absentmindedly wandered out of the play.
But Rondo’s apathetic play as he approaches free agency – even for a team in the playoffs – is only the most obvious problem for a Dallas Mavericks team that looks more like The Expendables 4 than a contender. Take the best years for any of the big names on the roster and you’d really have something: 2010 Rondo, 2007 Dirk Nowitzki, 2008 Amar’e Stoudemire and 2013 Tyson Chandler. Their one genuinely promising young player – Chandler Parsons – isn’t really all that young at 26 and will miss the rest of the playoffs with a knee injury.
Parsons himself is his own squall within the Mavericks-Rockets storm, signed as he was by Dallas this past offseason as a more or less direct thumb-in-the-eye from Mavs owner Mark Cuban to Rockets general manager Daryl Morey. The constant wrangling between brash billionaire Cuban and analytics wunderkind (or Dork Elvis) Morey is arguably more central to the bad blood between these teams than anything that’s transpired on the court, especially given that their in-state rivalry has usually been for second place, behind the San Antonio Spurs. Dallas’ wrangling of Parsons was viewed as a coup when it happened, with the Rockets having to settle for Trevor Ariza, but given injuries to Dwight Howard and other key players, Ariza was Houston’s second-best player behind James Harden and more than filled Parsons’ vacated role as a floor spacer and strong perimeter defender.
Parsons may end up being a good complementary player, but is he a centerpiece? And if not, who is for Dallas? In the wake of his atrocious performance on Tuesday night, Rondo is now reported “out indefinitely” with a back injury (and if you believe that, I have a Nigerian prince who needs your help). Rondo has one foot out the door, most of the rest of the roster is on the wrong side of their primes and the Mavericks will pick 21st in this year’s draft. Cuban’s moves haven’t been made strictly to screw over the Rockets, but it does seem to be the way he’s framed the chase for contention in an immediate and visceral way. It’s made for good copy, but this series is putting the difficult road ahead – which likely includes a rejiggering of the aging Dirk Nowitzki’s role with the team – in a glaring spotlight.
If the Mavericks are raging against the dying of the light, the Rockets are seeing everything fall into place after a season where Harden almost single-handedly carried an injury-riddled roster. Two of their biggest contributors in the playoffs so far have been two of their midseason acquisitions, Corey Brewer and Josh Smith in Games 1 and 2, respectively. Brewer – a career 29 percent shooter from the arc – made 3 of 4 from downtown in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and Josh Smith – a chronic over-estimator of the depth of his talent – provided 4 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds in the fourth quarter of Game 2, with many of those assists coming out of a novel pick-and-roll with Howard, who is also rounding into shape after a rocky season, injury-wise. As a team, Houston finished with 14 dunks in the second game of the series, the most in a playoff game since the 2001 Lakers.
The thing that’s kind of wonderful about Smith and Brewer’s performances is that it’s precisely the kind of bananas shit that teams need to make successful playoff runs, and it’s happening for one of the most meticulously assembled and ethos-driven teams out there. Houston is built on spreading the floor with shooters, then letting Harden attack the basket and find them or get contact and finish. Secondarily, it revolves around Howard’s offense around the basket, whether that’s finishing pick-and-rolls, working in the post or getting putbacks. It’s a single-minded formula, elegant in the way it presses and bends the value of 3-point shots and free throws, but there is absolutely no way in which it expects Corey Brewer to be a deadeye shooter or Josh Smith to be a point forward.
Superstars don’t exactly negate each other on playoff teams, but the way teams plan and prepare for them opens the cracks for guys like Robert Horry, Danny Green, Jordan Farmar, Patty Mills, Corey Brewer, Josh Smith and many more to have the games of their lives. It happens in the regular season – Brewer did, after all, score 51 points for the Minnesota Timberwolves last year (and against the Rockets no less) – but these kinds of outbursts bloom and fade, swept away by the cascade of games and chalked up to luck or fatigue from a back-to-back or a hundred other things. In the playoffs, they spark and shine and glow, cementing a 2-0 lead like the one the Rockets now hold over the Mavericks, or sometimes turning the tide to even a series.
Luckily for Dallas, there’s still time to do that. But not much.