[Ed. note: this piece was written before last night's game against Boston]
Six games into the Rajon Rondo experiment, it’s way too soon to come to any conclusions about what the Mavs will look like with Rondo at the helm. The good news is things are trending in the right direction - they started poorly and have been playing better over the last few games.
vs. San Antonio (+6)
vs. Atlanta (-3)
at Phoenix (-9)
vs. LA Lakers (+4)
vs. OKC (+5)
vs. Washington (+27)
The first thing that jumps out at you is the number of home games in that stretch. The Mavs made the move at a very good point in their schedule - it’s hard to integrate new players into the mix when you are on the road and don’t have a lot of practice time.
The adjustment process has been as much about replacing Brandan Wright as integrating Rondo, since Wright was such a featured player on the bench. No coach in the NBA uses more combinations of players than Rick Carlisle, so replacing Wright and adding Rondo changed the roles for every player in the rotation, to one degree or another.
Over the last week and a half, Carlisle has been able to experiment with a number of different combinations of players. In a dominating 114-87 win over Washington on Tuesday, one of the best wins the Mavs have had all season, Carlisle may have found the right mix for this team. You never want to take too much away from any one game, especially when the Wizards were on the second night of a back-to-back, but the game was the high point of a three-game winning streak that saw the Mavs get big contributions from everyone in the rotation.
Dallas is playing 10 guys right now:
PG - Rajon Rondo, J.J. Barea
SG - Monta Ellis, Devin Harris
SF - Chandler Parsons, Richard Jefferson
PF - Dirk Nowitzki, Charlie Villanueva
C - Tyson Chandler, Greg Smith
Carlisle staggers minutes as well as any coach in the league, so those 10 guys get used in a lot of different combinations.
Meanwhile, Mavs starters played just 13 minutes together — love how Carlisle mixes up his rotations.— Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) December 31, 2014
There are three mini-rotations within the main one. The PG and SG positions - Rondo, Monta, Harris, Barea - the SF and PF positions - Dirk, Parsons, Charlie V and Jefferson - and the C position - Chandler and Smith. The idea is that over the course of the game, the Mavs always have two playmakers at the guard positions, two shooters at the forward positions and a finisher/rebounder/rim protector in the middle. The Mavs play pure 4-out basketball for 48 minutes and it’s almost impossible to stop.
The nice part about this 10-man rotation is how defined everyone’s role is. You can plug in any of the second string guys into the first string guys' spot and nothing would change, so Carlisle can easily shuffle the line-ups over the course of a game.
The big change in this new rotation is at the forward positions, where Jefferson and Villanueva have vacuumed up all the playing time behind Dirk and Parsons. What Carlisle saw pretty quickly was that he didn’t have a lot of plus shooters at the 1 and the 2, so he had absolutely needed shooting at the 3 and 4. The SF/PF positions are the natural release valve in this offense - in the last three games, Parsons has taken 13 threes and Villanueva has taken 17.
Parsons is also getting more run as a small-ball PF in an effort to generate more offensive opportunities for him. That, in turn, is why Jefferson has suddenly become a fixture in the rotation - with Jae Crowder and Jameer Nelson gone, he is one of the only semi-consistent three-point shooters on the roster. Rondo, Monta, Harris and Barea can make threes, but they are all streaky shooters and you would rather they be taking wide-open shots than contested ones.
Charlie V must feel like he has died and gone to heaven, going from that disaster in Detroit to a role tailor-made for his skills in Dallas. He backs up Dirk Nowitzki and he plays a similar style of basketball - he’s a 6’11 stretch 4 with range out to the three-point line who can also put the ball on the floor and finish in the paint. Don’t sleep on Charlie V’s athleticism - he almost completed a windmill in warm-ups the other night. His only role is to come in the game, space the floor and fling up threes, and he does it with abandon, with per-36 minute shooting numbers of 22 FGA’s and 13 3PA’s.
The thing about Charlie V is that he is such a good shooter, he’s so tall and he has such a quick release that you have to be right up on him all the way out to the three-point line. He is an instant floor spacer, which is so crucial with guys like Monta and Rondo holding the ball for the most of the game.
Wizard players keep talking in the locker room about how to defend Charlie V, which is kind of incredible when you think about it.— Tim Cato (@tim_cato) December 31, 2014
Part of the reason Villanueva has been successful in Dallas is the Mavs have a much simpler distribution of labor in their frontcourt, with Chandler and Smith handling rebounding, interior defense and pick-and-roll finishing for all 48 minutes. Smith isn’t the most skilled guy in the world, but when he’s playing in the type of space that Villaneuva and Dirk provide, all he has to do is catch and finish, which he has been doing well in the last few games. Smith is just good enough that he won’t kill you when he’s out there, which is what you want from a guy backing up Tyson Chandler.
With Wright backing up Chandler, the Mavs needed more length and athleticism at the forward positions in order to protect him on defense and help on the glass. Smith, in contrast, needs more floor spacing around him, since he struggles to finish in traffic. The Mavs need optimum shooting at the 3 and 4 positions, which means shooters like Charlie V and Jefferson rather than a more all-around player like Al-Farouq Aminu. Aminu has been the odd man out on the new look Mavs, with DNP-CD’s in three of the last four games.
The Mavs new second unit likely won’t be as productive as the one helmed by Wright, but they play a style of basketball that will have an easier time translating to the playoffs. Part of the genius of the "Wright at the 5" line-ups is how they exploit the lack of size in the league these days. However, in a series against Houston or Memphis, how often would Wright be able to stay on the floor? That was also an issue against Tim Duncan in last year’s playoffs.
What happened against Washington was the best-case scenario for this rotation. The Mavs played 4-out for all 48 minutes and they put constant pressure on the opposing defense. Their combination of floor spacing and playmaking will always translate. The question for the Mavs, as it always has been with Dirk-era teams, is whether these optimal offensive line-ups can survive on defense.
That’s really where the upgrade of Rondo is so crucial. He showed his value in wins over Washington and Oklahoma City - Russell Westbrook was 6-23 and John Wall was 4-11.
Carlisle on Rajon Rondo's defense on Russell Westbrook: "He was just dialed in."— Bryan Gutierrez (@BallinWithBryan) December 29, 2014
I was never too concerned about Rondo’s defense in his last few years in Boston. He was hardly in a position to be playing much D - he was on the first rebuilding situation of his career and he was recovering from a torn ACL. He’s still only 28 and he’s fully recovered health-wise, so there’s no reason to think he has lost a step athletically. Rondo has all the physical tools to be an elite defender at the PG position - 6’9 wingspan! - and he has a proven history of playing elite D in the playoffs. His ability to match-up with the best PG’s in the NBA is what gives the Mavs a fighting chance against some of the best teams out West, something they didn’t have with Jameer Nelson handling that duty.
The main question I have with this team is the one I have had since training camp - who replaces Shawn Marion and Vince Carter in terms of being able to guard bigger wings? If you look at the West, almost every team has a 6’5+ wing who can kill you:
Golden State - Klay Thompson
Portland - Wesley Matthews
Houston - James Harden
San Antonio - Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili
Oklahoma City - Kevin Durant
(This is why I think Memphis might be the best match-up for Dallas in the first round.)
Match-ups with some of these guys is where the Mavs could really use Aminu. The question is whether Carlisle could integrate him into the rotation without killing the team’s floor spacing. Fitting Aminu, one of the big men and one of the PG’s on the floor at the same time will be tough, especially for a team that depends on its offense to win games. Trying to square that circle is why I think Dallas is still one more piece away from being a legitimate contender for a title.
To win the West, you will have to beat three of the best teams in the NBA in a row. If you have any weaknesses in your rotation, they will be exposed. Even if you don’t, it will still be difficult to get through that gauntlet. To have a fighting chance against a team like Oklahoma City, you need a guy like Jimmy Butler or Trevor Ariza or Iman Shumpert. If Rondo is sticking Russ, someone still needs to stick KD - I don't think Parsons and RJ are up to it.
In a series against a team like Portland or the LA Clippers, where you would want to slide Dirk over to the C and have Tyson guard Blake Griffin or LaMarcus Aldridge, you can’t afford to have too many leaks in your perimeter D. If Tyson is playing at 20+ feet, the three perimeter defenders in front of Dirk have to plug up holes and keep their men in front of them.
All those issues, though, are big pictures ones. One of my biggest concerns with the Rondo move was whether they would be able to replace everything that Wright brought to the table without losing a bunch of ground in the West. Carlisle seems to have cobbled together a frontcourt rotation that works and put those issues to rest, for the time being. Jermaine O’Neal will be discussed as long as they have an open spot on their roster, but if the Mavs make another move, they should be thinking wing defense. Remember that the 2011 team added Corey Brewer in the middle of the season and picked up Peja Stojakovic before the playoffs.
For now, it’s full speed ahead. Rondo is on board, the team is rolling and times are good. There are a lot of road games in January but not against a lot of elite teams, so the Mavs have a chance to make up some ground in the race for a Top 4 seed. From there, it will just come down to the match-ups.
At this point in his career, all Dirk wanted was a chance, and now he has one. This should be fun.