Rajon Rondo, as has been the case since he came into the league, does not make it easy to defend him. While there was plenty of excitement when the Mavs acquired him, it has been all downhill since. He has not put up good offensive numbers, he holds the ball and disrupts the offense whenever he is on the floor and he has dared to defy Rick Carlisle on more than one occasion. Things came to a head in a home game against the Raptors on Tuesday, when Carlisle called a play from the sideline and Rondo literally told him to fuck off.
From there, Carlisle called a timeout in order to yell at Rondo some more, descending down from his perch on Mt. Sinai and banishing Rondo to the end of the bench, where he remained for the duration of the game on Tuesday and the entirety Wednesday's curb stomping at the hands of the Hawks. For many fans, this move has been a long time coming. Most could barely tolerate Rondo's ineffective offense to begin with so this type of insubordination is completely unacceptable. He needs to play his position because he hasn't earned enough stripes to second guess the party line in Dallas.
The reality is that if you are waiting for Rajon Rondo to become an efficient jump shooter, you will be waiting a very, very long time, regardless of how many study sessions he has with Holger. At the moment, it would be nice if he could shoot free throws as well as DeAndre Jordan. Rondo has played in the NBA nine seasons and he has made four All-Star Games and won an NBA title doing things his way -- he is who he is and he's not going to change who he is now. Not when he's still only 28 years old.
If you look at things from Rondo's POV, why would he? Forget the numbers. Forget the drama. Forget what you have or haven't heard on ESPN. Aren't the Mavericks playing a better brand of basketball since he came on board?
The offense is down, but the pre-Rondo offense was on pace to break just about every offensive record in NBA history. You know why? Because they played a bunch of offensive-minded players around Tyson Chandler, spreading the floor with multiple ball-handlers and shooters to the point where they were practically indefensible. The problem was that Chandler was the only guy playing defense and a team that doesn't play good defense isn't going to go very far in the playoffs. If you don't believe me, look at the history of this franchise.
Rajon Rondo has played 25 games with the Mavs this season and they are still the No. 5 rated offense in the NBA. Let's posit that a team with Dirk Nowitzki, Monta Ellis and Chandler Parsons playing prominent roles will figure out a way to score a substantial number of points. The difference with this new-look Mavericks team, despite the brick-heavy grindhouse lunacy they sometimes resemble with Rondo in charge, is they are playing pretty good defense. Since Feb. 6, they are the top rated defense in the NBA. It's hard to believe, but Bobby Karalla over at Mavs.com has the numbers.
To be sure, that isn't all Rondo. Al-Farouq Aminu has been just as big a reason for their improvement on that side of the ball, if not more so. The entirety of the team has started to buckle down, even if, in the case of guys like Dirk, there really isn't much they can do. With Rondo, Aminu and Chandler playing big roles on the team, the Mavs now have a defensive stopper at the point, the wings and the post. Everyone wants to focus on the defensive schemes but the foundation of any elite defense is personnel. You have to have enough guys with the length, strength and athleticism to stay in front of their men without giving up open shots and who can recover to play help-side when someone else gets beat. For the first time since 2011, the Mavs can now field a quorum of defensive-minded players.
It can be hard to watch them on offense, but that's how it goes for the vast majority of teams with a lot of defensive-minded guys playing big minutes. The Holy Grail is a team full of guys like LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol, but they are hard to find and even harder to acquire and none of them are in Dallas. Who is the best Mavs two-way player? Tyson Chandler? Chandler Parsons? You could argue it all day because it doesn't really matter. The Mavs don't have an elite two-way player to build around so they have to make do with the parts on hand.
One thing is for sure. Without Rondo, the Mavs aren't winning anything. There's a reason Dallas keeps bringing in point guards to play alongside Monta Ellis and there's a reason they let Devin Harris and J.J. Barea walk the first time they were in town. None of those guys play great D and Carlisle doesn't really trust them to control tempo, take care of the ball and get the ball to Dirk in the spots that he needs. They brought in Rondo because, in theory, he can do all those things while also substantially improving the defense. The problem at the moment is that Carlisle doesn't trust him either.
Photo credit: Kevin Jairaj, USA Today Sports
That's what the fight on Tuesday was really about and that's what it always comes down too with Carlisle. Control. Like most head coaches, Carlisle was a failed player (at the highest levels of the NBA) who sees the game at a really high level but never had the physical tools to translate that into on-court success. He wants his PG to be an extension of his will on the floor and he wants to call the plays and micromanage everything because he knows that it works. Where the conflict comes is that Rondo, like most high-level PG's, sees the game at a high level as well. He knows plays, he knows personnel and he can figure out what is and isn't working when he's out there. The same thing happened with Jason Kidd when he came to Dallas.
Kidd clashed with Avery Johnson and Rick Carlisle because he didn't need a coach in his ear telling him what to do. Kidd literally was a coach on the floor, as his relatively seamless transition to being a good NBA head coach has shown. You don't bring in a guy like Jason Kidd if you aren't going to empower him to run the show. It's the same story with Rajon Rondo. I'm not saying Rondo is Kidd and I'm not saying the 2015 Mavericks are the 2011 Mavericks, but guess what happened when Carlisle relinquished control and let Kidd orchestrate the offense?
What makes the fighting over playcalling so ridiculous is that the Mavs are best when they aren't running plays at all and they are just running flow offense. When guys are moving to spots, reading the defense and reacting without having to look over their shoulders at the head coach, they are almost impossible to stop. If Rondo could shoot jumpers and force the defense to guard him with the ball in his hands, this wouldn't be an issue. Since he can't and the offense grinds to a halt whenever he is holding the ball, the natural temptation is for Carlisle to start calling plays. Here's what Rondo knows in his bones -- it won't work. That's what the argument is about.
The only way this version of the Mavs is going to work is they become a grind-it-out defensive team that gets offense from defense. If you are running a fast break, there's no time to run plays. Everyone just goes to spots and trusts that the PG will get them the ball. That's what Rondo offers the Mavs. It may not always be pretty and the offensive numbers might not support it, but that's the only way Rondo knows how to play the game. Why would he change his game now and become something he's not? What was the point of even acquiring Rondo if you aren't going to let him do what he does?
The people saying that Rondo is uncoachable, kind of a dick and a ball-stopper who impedes the flow of the offense are right in one sense but wrong in another. If you watched him in Boston, you already knew all those things to be true. If you remember, the Celtics reeled off a huge winning streak in 2013 after Rondo tore his ACL, precisely because they stopped having an inefficient guard who can't shoot holding the ball for most of the game. Of course, they also lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Knicks because they stopped playing defense and their offense ground to a halt in the fourth quarter without him.
The whole point of getting Rondo was that he would ugly up the team and give them a better chance of winning in the playoffs when the game slows down and gets uglier. Rick Carlisle's teams run beautiful offense but they have won a grand total of one playoff series outside of 2011. The playoffs are a different beast and you need a guy like Rondo to win you those types of ugly, defensive-minded games. Maybe Rondo is no longer that guy - his free throw shooting is abysmal and it's more than a little embarrassing for a guy who considers himself a top-flight PG. At the moment, we don't know how it will play in the playoffs and if you are going to pull on the plug on the experiment before the playoffs even begin, what was the point of doing it in the first place?
As it stands, the Mavs first-round opponent in the playoffs is the Portland Trail Blazers. There's only two guys on the roster who even have a chance of guarding Damian Lillard -- Rondo and Aminu. Aminu is going to have to help Chandler Parsons guard Wesley Matthews, Nic Batum and Arron Afflalo because you know no one else on this team is up for it. A team that runs Jameer Nelson, Monta Ellis, Devin Harris and J.J. Barea at the back-court positions can score one trillion points in the regular season and it wouldn't matter. If those four have to stick Dame and Wes Matthews, you might as well give them blindfolds and cigarettes and quit wasting everyone's time.
Regardless of who it is, whether it's the Blazers or the Grizzlies (Mike Conley), the Rockets (James Harden) or the Clippers (Chris Paul), the Mavs are going to need Rondo's ability to play defense and control tempo if they are going to have a prayer of winning. Rondo might buckle a little bit in order to allow Rick Carlisle to save face, but he isn't going to change who he is or how he thinks the game should be played. Not when he knows there are other NBA teams who will be willing to give him a boatload of money in the off-season.
If Carlisle doesn't swallow his pride and let Rondo be Rondo, this team isn't going anywhere.