Often, looking back, the thing we remember about January and February of an NBA season is how little the events ultimately mattered. The games, of course, still count. But as a long 82-game season arrives at the hovering months that mark the halfway point all the way to the two-thirds point of its conclusion, the league’s older players make the necessary adjustments to the “process” of playing night-in and night-out at an advanced age and the much younger players hit a symbolic “wall” after realizing they are playing more games at higher level than any other humans can claim to play.
If there can be said to be such a time, it is the “dead period” of the NBA. If a team is able to generate an impressive win streak during this stretch it’s an obviously favorable factor. If a team collapses in this period then it may cost them dearly in the playoff picture. But more likely, mediocrity rears its head in January and February. Teams survive the gauntlet in between the freshness of the beginning of the season and the second gear they will need to perform in the last leg of the season.
That’s what the Dallas Mavericks have shown in the past two months. They have essentially been treading water, losing minimal ground in the standings, but doing little to impress anyone with their play. But even mediocrity needs a scapegoat.
Maybe we will look back at this time as the pillars beginning to collapse for Rajon Rondo in Dallas.
Or maybe we will look back at how it didn’t really matter.
Rondo was an elite player joining an elite offense, which created elite expectations. Those expectations won’t be tempered until they are met, which in some ways is reasonable. But, despite the over-reactive nature of sports, there is time for those expectations to be met.
Rondo is a point guard. Few point guards outside of Jason Kidd and Steve Nash take the role of captaining their respective offenses as seriously as he does. Expecting him to join a team midseason and quickly be able to find the balance between "captain'' and "just another shipmate'' is perhaps unfair.
It’s a balance that needs to be struck between Rick Carlisle and Rondo. The confrontation last Tuesday against Toronto and the resulting suspension is a large bump in the road. (We've covered every aspect of "Rondo Vs. Rick,'' we hope fairly, as you see here in DB.com News Archives.) But shouldn’t we be glad it happened in February?
The surprising (or perhaps not, depending on what you expect from media and fans) part of the reaction to this story is the lack of trust that people seem to have in both Carlisle and Rondo ... despite the possibility that they’ve both earned trust.
Carlisle has sparred with players before. The mindset being that he knows what is right for them when it comes to basketball. Rather than be the curmudgeon who claims to know best and leaves it at that, he is usually able to prove it to said player and get them on the same page as him. Hence the long list of players who claim to have their career advanced by Carlisle’s tutelage.
Likewise, Rondo has had issues with coaches dating back to his time in college at Kentucky. At times, he and then-Celtics coach Doc Rivers seemed far from an ideal fit. But Rivers got the most out of Rondo because ultimately they had the same goal and knew they were talented enough, respectively, to accomplish it.
Here’s what Rivers said about the disagreement between Rondo and Carlisle last week:
“They’re both winners and they’ll figure it out, I really believe that. Rick Carlisle has proven he’s a championship coach, Rondo has proven he’s a championship point guard. You have two champions and you figure at some point they will figure that out.”
The confrontation was because Rondo cares too much, which sounds corny, but is likely true. Caring too much can actually be harmful to a team. Having an ego can be harmful to a team. But caring too little is a non-starter. Please understand this is miles away from a Lamar Odom situation.
The trade to acquire Jason Kidd in 2008 left many criticizing the Mavericks’ front office for months to follow. Part of this was because Kidd struggled to fit into the Mavericks’ system right away. Another large part was because the key player they traded to get him, Devin Harris, was playing at an All-Star level for the Nets. This invited a lot of criticism.
No one traded away to acquire Rondo is anywhere near All-Star level—or even playing substantial minutes for their respective teams. But instead, it is Rondo’s free agency that is hovering over the trade.
Rondo can leave the Mavericks after this season. He could also receive a near-max level contract from another team that would force Dallas to make a decision. This is a big talking point given Rondo’s recent turmoil, but it should be understood that plenty of other factors will go into how this plays out and he is not the only key player that will be in this position. (Biggest of all, for Dallas: The impact on roster-building and cap management, as David Lord brilliantly explains here.)
Tyson Chandler will be in a unique position to command a lot of money as a free agent this summer based on his terrific level of play and the fact that the Mavericks will want to make up for letting him go four years ago. The Devil’s Advocate would claim that if the injury threat was a factor back in 2011 it is even more so for a center getting a max deal four years later. Monta Ellis will also be able to opt out of his contract this summer and test free agency.
How the Mavericks play in the playoffs will go a long way in determining if their ultimate goal is retaining their current starting lineup or if that is even financially possible. The point being, that a lot of factors will go into the decisions made this summer and, as fun as speculating may seem, arguments that occurred in February are unlikely to be on the top of that list.
Rondo has played quite poorly at times. His free-throw shooting is inexcusable and the offense has not passed The Eye Test with the same ease it did prior to the trade.
All that said, he might not be getting a fair shake for what he is contributing to the team. The idea that the “jury is still out” whether Rondo has improved the defense makes one question what said jury is looking at.
According to research done by Bobby Karalla on February 5, Rondo was holding players this season to 0.684 per possession, which is the best of any defender in the NBA. He is doing this guarding the best guards in the NBA. Perimeter defense was the Mavericks’ biggest weakness prior to the trade and still is when Harris and Ellis share the floor. Rondo has taken on that burden and improved the Mavericks defensively.
And while the offense looked otherworldly before the trade — and by the way, history shows that level of offensive performance was unsustainable — it has been greatly exaggerated how far that offense has dropped off. Rondo has played nearly half of the Mavericks’ games as the starting point guard. Dallas is still ranked fourth in points per game, eighth in assists per game and has the fifth-best offensive rating in the NBA.
Critics of Rondo want Rondo to resist holding the ball so the movement is as crisp as it was before, yet they also want his assist totals to be higher. It can’t go both ways.
The fact that Harris and J.J. Barea are challenging Rondo’s minutes are less about his struggles than their competence. They are not getting important minutes by default. They are earning them. Their claims to deserve crunch-time minutes is a luxury, not a controversy.
So, on Saturday night? Oh, there were some early highlights, even including Rondo ...
But the Saturday night experience, Rajon Rondo was, in a word, mediocre. The Mavs as a whole were even worse despite decent performances by Nowitzki and Harris. Rondo played strong on-ball defense for most of the game and eight points, seven rebounds and six assists isn’t a terrible stat line, but his plus/minus of -22 is pretty awful.
Rick, thoughts on Rondo?
“I thought he tried,'' Carlisle said. "I thought he tried really hard.''
The absences of Chandler Parsons (ankle) and Tyson Chandler (hip) were certainly felt in Dallas’ 104-94 loss to Brooklyn. Dallas' inability to manhandle inferior East teams at the AAC is an oddity, and watch and see: Rondo is the guy who will take heat for this, even though a whole bunch of Mavs have contributed to their 39 wins and all the same Mavs have contributed to their 22 losses.
“It’s tough,'' Dirk said after the loss. "When Jason Kidd came midseason, it was tough for him to adjust to what we were doing but years later he was a key piece to us winning it all. Midseason is hard sometimes, but we got to keep plugging away. First and foremost, we need to get healthy. Everyone knows how important Tyson is for us - his defense, his rebounding, his rim-protecting. And (Chandler) Parsons has been out for a while, hopefully his ankle gets better. To me, getting healthy is the first step. And win some games.''
But right now? If they don't? Mediocrity has its scapegoat.
To restate Doc Rivers’ point, the Mavs have a talented point guard who is championship-proven and a respected coach who is championship-proven. They have a veteran team with Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler policing the locker room.
February is officially over. Mediocrity will start to become much more costly with the Spurs and Thunder looming.
On a more optimistic note, they have yet to field a healthy team with all its complete parts working in unison. Perhaps, their blunders of mediocrity in February will matter. But all these veterans have been here before and they all know what is coming and what it takes.
Leave it to DB.com’s Kevin Brolan on Twitter to give us a little perspective ...
amare was on the knicks. he will laugh for hours and hours tonight about the 'controversy' we think we have here.— Kevin Brolan (@kevinbrolan) February 25, 2015