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Dallas Mavericks Must Decide Between Rajon Rondo and Monta Ellis

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2015

DENVER, CO - January 14: Rajon Rondo #9 and Monta Ellis #11 of the Dallas Mavericks sit on the sideline during a game against the Denver Nuggets on January 14, 2015 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images)
Bart Young/Getty Images

Only one of Rajon Rondo and Monta Ellis belongs with the Dallas Mavericks.

For the time being, the Mavericks have both, an issue they'll need address over the offseason, when the opportunity to change course presents itself.

Both Rondo and Ellis are slated for free agency in July, at which point, given the unremarkable returns on this partnership, the Mavericks have to realize they only have room enough for one.

On-Court Kinks

DALLAS, TX - DECEMBER 20: Rajon Rondo #9 of the Dallas Mavericks high fives with teammate Monta Ellis #11 of the Dallas Mavericks against the San Antonio Spurs on December 20, 2014 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expre
Glenn James/Getty Images

Pairing Ellis with Rondo never figured to be a safe gamble. As ball-dominant guards with limited offensive range, they are cut from the same cloth, albeit to different extremes.

Rondo is the more limited of the two. His crafty handles and pinpoint passing help overshadow most of his offensive warts, but those same flaws are nonetheless ubiquitous.

Playing off the ball is something he is neither used to nor good at, and there's no evidence to suggest that can change.

Nearly 70 percent of Rondo's made two-point field goals have gone unassisted for his career. Though that number climbs to 52 percent when he steps beyond the arc, only 4.9 percent of his career makes are from long range. He is also hitting on just 33.7 percent of his shots off the catch this season, which is actually up from 30.6 percent in 2013-14. 

None of this is especially shocking when looking at Rondo's career shooting splits. His jumper is a nine-year work-in-progress, and he has yet to piece together consecutive seasons of salient improvement in any one area:

Unless Rondo suddenly adopts a different play style or severely sharpens a dull outside touch, the burden of adjusting and adapting falls solely Ellis.

That's no good, either.

Like Rondo, most of Ellis' made buckets go unassisted. Just over 32 percent of his baskets have been assisted on this season, and he too is used to operating with the ball in hand, acting as a score-first combo guard who attacks the rim and creates opportunities for others by collapsing defenses.

Displacing him from the rock, even if only periodically, rips Ellis from that comfort zone, relegating him to spot-up shooter duty—a role he has never once been fit to play.

Ellis is shooting 33.8 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities this season, including 32.3 percent from behind the rainbow. That's down from 39.4 and 39.9, respectively, in 2013-14.

He also struggles to consistently convert shots outside eight feet:

Not surprisingly, Ellis' efficiency is suffering now. His offensive decline doesn't perfectly align with Rondo's late-December arrival, but he's shooting 40 percent from the field since Feb. 1 (25.6 percent from three), down from the 46.3 percent clip he posted through January (32.8 percent from deep).

To his credit, Ellis won't blame Rondo for anything. As he explained to SI.com's Josh Planos:

There’s no problem (with Rondo). Rondo is a great asset on both ends of the floor. It takes a while for the player to really get adjusted to a new system, new personalities, figuring out where guys want the ball. I think it’s going to work out for the best for us once we get over the hump.

On the most fundamental level, Ellis is correct. His shooting percentages are actually better with Rondo on the floor.

But the Mavericks' offensive efficiency plummets by 5.7 points per 100 possessions when Rondo is in the game. And in the 851 minutes Ellis and Rondo have shared the floor, Dallas is a minus-1.9 per 100 possessions, miles south of its net rating overall (4.4).

Separately, each is a statistical plus. Placed alongside one another, they're identical to the Brandon Jennings-Ellis twosome the Milwaukee Bucks bombed on two seasons ago—an obstacle the Mavericks have not—and will not—overcome.

Off-Court Logistics

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 27: Monta Ellis #11, Rajon Rondo #9, and Chandler Parsons #25 of the Dallas Mavericks stand on the court during a game against the Memphis Grizzlies on January 27, 2015 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: U
Danny Bollinger/Getty Images

The problem with Dallas' Ellis-Rondo dyad extends off the hardwood. There are no indications the two aren't willing to play with each other, but their individual relationships with the organization have come under fire.

According to ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon, Ellis has appeared dour during his recent slump, spurring concern from the Mavericks about the impact his "moodiness has on the team’s soul."

Head coach Rick Carlisle has rebuffed such talk, mocking those reported concerns following Ellis' 38-point outing against the San Antonio Spurs on March 24, per Mavs Outsider's Bryan Gutierrez:

Rondo himself was suspended for one game back in February after a heated mid-game exchange with Carlisle. That incident was downplayed as well. Said Rondo at the time, per MacMahon: "Everything is back to normal now." 

These apparent snafus could have an impact on how the two guards and Dallas approach free agency. Rondo will hit the open market no matter what, and Ellis can decline a player option to do the same. Both are expected to test the waters and look for raises.

How much is Rondo worth to the Mavericks? What about Ellis?
How much is Rondo worth to the Mavericks? What about Ellis?Glenn James/Getty Images

Ellis is seeking market value for his services, according to Basketball Insiders' Steve Kyler, which should comfortably exceed the $9.1 million he's due next season. If Rondo's preseason sentiments are any indication, he'll be looking for a max contract—a price tag owner Mark Cuban didn't appear turned off by at the point guard's introductory press conference.

But while the Mavericks will have cap space, they're already footing more than $21 million for this backcourt—the same one that's a net minus. That commitment will only skyrocket if both players grab the raises they're after.

Are the Maverick supposed to invest $25 million to 30 million annually in this coupling? When both are fast-approaching their 30th birthdays?

The expected cap boon in 2016 will warp financial modes of thinking, but there isn't a scenario—ballooning salary cap included—in which handsomely paying an unevenly built and aging backcourt makes sense.

There Can Only Be One, But Which One? 

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

Deciding between Rondo and Ellis is not an extension of the blame game.

No one player is at fault for the Mavericks seesawing between contender and pretender status. Their constant state of flux is a group effort.

This group just looks better without Rondo.

Before he arrived, the Mavericks were more in sync. Their offense was historic, their chemistry evident, their place among Western Conference contenders secure.

In the time since, they have suffered—visibly and drastically:

The Mavs: Pre- and Post-Rondo
Win%Off. Rtg. (Rank)Def. Rtg.Net Rtg.
Pre-Rondo70.4113.6 (1)105.1 (20)8.5 (2)
Post-Rondo57.7103.4 (13)101.5 (12)1.9 (11)
Source: NBA.com.

Plugging a new starting floor general into the rotation isn't ideal, no matter the team, system or point guard. Chemistry and familiarity are fragile luxuries, and the slightest change can derail everything.

Indeed, the Mavericks are a better defensive team since Rondo's arrival, but they're no longer elite in either category. They're also still sputtering against Western Conference playoff outfits; they are 8-9 when facing such squads since the trade.

At best, Rondo hasn't hurt the Mavericks. But incoming "stars" aren't supposed to be lateral moves. As Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding wrote on the heels of Rondo's one-game suspension:

Rondo is 29 and just 6'1" in the first place. He doesn't have the same athleticism (or desire to defend) that he did before his Jan. 2013 ACL tear. He is a mind-bogglingly bad shooter.

In a league where good point guards are everywhere, it's far better business to invest your precious dollars elsewhere.

The problem with targeting that money for Rondo isn't that a team would have to pay for his brazenness. It's that he doesn't have the game to back it up.

Unlike Rondo, Ellis was part of the Mavericks at their peak this season. The team knows what it has in him. The Mavericks know they can contend with him.

They also know they have two in-house point men to replace Rondo. Devin Harris and J.J. Barea are both having better statistical impacts on the offense, and the Mavericks have survived while burning through starting point guards since their 2011 title run.

Relative to what Rondo could demand on the open market (a max contract), and knowing how his performance compares to those of actual star point guards, there is no decision to grapple over.

There is room for only one of Ellis and Rondo in the Mavericks' future, and that one is Ellis.

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com and are accurate heading into games on March 27. Salary information via HoopsHype.  

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