Being traded from the Boston Celtics to the Dallas Mavericks has been great for Rajon Rondo. He has a slew of brand-new offensive weapons to work beside, is now chasing an NBA title again and, most importantly, is being reacquainted with a long-lost friend: defense.
As Rondo prepares to face off against the Celtics for the first time since leaving, he's being asked to reflect on his final years in Boston—the good, the bad, the unacceptable and the weird.
Commenting on his lack of defensive execution—unprompted, mind you—falls somewhere between unacceptable and weird. Here's what Rondo had to say when asked about Dallas' defensive numbers since his arrival, per MassLive's Jay King (via CBS Sports):
I haven't played defense in a couple of years. I've been able to hide it a lot with Avery Bradley on the ball. He's helped me out, the young guy. But here they expect me to play defense. And in the West, if you don't play defense you'll get embarrassed every night at the point guard position. I took it as a challenge [for] myself. It's not just me. It's my teammates. Our communication is getting a lot better and our coverages are getting better. So it's the whole team concept, it's not just me. Obviously people are going to look at the stats and say, 'Since Rondo's came there, they're down seven or eight points or whatever defensively.' But we still have a lot of room to improve and I believe we'll still get better defensively.
(Googles "Celtics coach Brad Stevens fined for sending a face-slapping telegram to Rondo's hotel room.")
Talk about your awkward honesty.
While recognized for his defensive savvy in the past, Rondo and defense have shared an iffy relationship recently. He still has quick hands and feet, and he can play the passing lanes as well as anyone, but the numbers corroborate his candor.
Opponents are shooting 4.7 percent better than their average when being defended by Rondo this season, and Boston's defense hasn't been statistically better with him on the floor compared to off since 2009-10.
There are caveats to consider here, chief among them being those Celtics teams between 2007 and 2012 were so stingy it was difficult for starters like Rondo to register plus-defensive ratings in large samples. Then there's the way Boston used him these last couple of years.
"As for how he defended in Boston, it's true that the Celtics often used Bradley on the opponent's best backcourt player, regardless of whether it was a point guard or a shooting guard," CBS Sports' James Herbert writes. "Rondo didn't have the same pressure to perform on that end that he did earlier in his career."
Stevens also had this to say of Rondo's comments:
Still, it's hardly comforting to hear Rondo, a supposed superstar, cop to slacking or deliberate passivity on the defensive end. It lends merit to the notion Rondo's effort fluctuates based on personal preference, and it's hardly a ringing endorsement for the Eastern Conference.
Point guard is the deepest position in the league right now. If a purported star can get away with—or feels he can get away with—suboptimal displays on that end, the East must be a collective dumpster fire. (And it is.)
No matter, though. Rondo is in Dallas, and the numbers say he's playing defense again.
Rival players are still putting in shots at above-board rates against Rondo, but the Mavericks have gone from ranking 20th in points allowed per 100 possessions through their first 27 games to ranking eighth in the time (six games) since Rondo arrived, per NBA.com (subscription required).
The splits with Rondo on and off the floor are also truly incredible:
|Rajon Rondo's Defensive Impact Since Trade|
|Dallas...||MP||Def. Rtg.||Rank Equivalent|
Six games is a spectacularly small sample size. But the Mavericks needed a competent defense to complement their outstanding offense. Lately they've had it. It's come at the expense of offensive potency, but they still run the equivalent of an eighth-place attack with Rondo in the game.
This, of course, isn't on him alone. That the Mavericks' defensive rise has coincided with his arrival is no coincidence, either. It's a combination of things, from more timely double-teams to better rotations to Rondo's engagement.
Whatever the case, the Mavericks are improving their title chances by improving their defense. The last team to rank outside the top 10 in regular-season defensive efficiency and win a championship was the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers. Continuing to lock down on the less glamorous end of the floor is imperative if the Mavericks wish to be more than a compelling fringe contender.
Only time will tell if this style of play is sustainable. In the meantime, as they look ahead to forthcoming tilts against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Clippers and other offensively apt opponents, the Mavericks can take pride in knowing Rondo doesn't view defense as optional in the Western Conference.