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The Rajon Rondo Effect: How One Bad Trade Completely Changed 3 NBA Teams

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistAugust 5, 2015

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Through a turbulent stretch spanning less than seven months, Rajon Rondo shifted the long-term fates of three different NBA franchises for better and worse.

Now a member of the Sacramento Kings, an organization he latched onto via free agency, Rondo made 22 regular-season appearances for the Boston Celtics and 46 for the Dallas Mavericks during the 2014-15 campaign. Three teams in about a half-year's time is a scarce feat for any player, even if he's yet to represent that third home on the hardwood.

Rarer still is the impact Rondo had and continues to have on each of their futures. Players of his stature—even those with fading reputations—aren't known for switching teams this frequently. And when they do, it's not something that can be passed off as inconsequential for any of the affected parties.

What if the Dallas Mavericks never traded for Rondo? Would the Celtics have sent him elsewhere? Re-signed him in free agency? Let him walk in free agency?

How would the Kings have approached their offseason if Rondo was unavailable, either because he was dealt somewhere he wished to stay or remained in Boston?

The answers to these questions won't change what's already happened. But they do provide a glimpse into what could and, in some cases, should have been.

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Boston Celtics

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Trading Rondo has proved key to the Celtics advancing their rebuild.

It didn't do a whole lot immediately. They posted a better record without him, mustering a playoff berth in a woeful Eastern Conference, but there weren't any statistical surges that, on their own, implied addition by subtraction was at play:

Boston Before and After Rondo
Boston...W-LOff. Rtg.RankDef. Rtg.RankNet Rtg.Rank
Pre-Rondo Trade9-14102.419103.215-0.817
Post-Rondo Trade31-28101.419101.611-0.219
Source: NBA.com.

Failing to pawn off Rondo on the Mavericks would have instead cut into the Celtics' present-day asset cupboard of trade chips and building blocks. They'll own Dallas' first-round pick next year if it falls outside the top seven, and they used Brandan Wright, who was acquired in exchange for Rondo, to help land Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns.

Jae Crowder, another holdover from the Rondo blockbuster, wouldn't be part of the Celtics' long-term plan. And from the looks of the five-year, $35 million deal he signed to stay in Boston this summer, he figures heavily into that long-term plan.

If the 2016 second-rounder the Celtics also gleaned from Dallas turns into the next Manu Ginobili or Paul Millsap, hindsight will fall more squarely in their favor. But the direct returns are already valuable enough.

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 29: Jae Crowder #99 and Isaiah Thomas #4 of the Boston Celtics celebrate during a game against the Los Angeles Clippers on March 29, 2015 at TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

And then, of course, there are the indirect returns. The Celtics selected Marcus Smart at No. 6 in the 2014 draft. Moving Rondo cleared the way for him to assume starter responsibilities, a springboard that helped him earn All-Rookie Second Team honors and finish fifth in Rookie of the Year voting.

Purge the Rondo trade from Boston's record, and Smart doesn't average nearly 30 minutes per game through his final 57 appearances. The Celtics would also be down two players in Crowder and Thomas who averaged at least 24 minutes during their respective stays.

Maybe Rondo would have been traded anyway. His future with the Celtics was left in constant flux once they shipped out Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce prior to the 2013-14 crusade. They were already hoarding intangible assets, gearing up for an extensive rebuild, and with nearly a decade of NBA experience to his name, Rondo wasn't a surefire cornerstone for a years-long reclamation project.

Nor did it help that his stock was slowly plummeting ahead of free agency. He missed more than 47 percent of all possible regular-season contests between 2011-12 and 2013-14, and his true shooting percentage at the time of the trade was far and away the worst of his career (42.2).

Selecting Smart never once looked like a safety net, either. Top-seven picks aren't insurance policies. They're foundations upon which to build. If the Celtics didn't deal Rondo to Dallas, chances are they would have opened up Smart's pipeline to the starting lineup by sending their veteran floor general to another team, even if it was for an inferior return.

There's always the possibility they would have let him walk in free agency, but they wouldn't have received anything in exchange for his services. Either way, they would still be working with less than they are now.

BOSTON, MA - NOVEMBER 05: Marcus Smart #36, Rajon Rondo #9 and Jared Sullinger #7 of the Boston Celtics look on after a play against the Toronto Raptors at TD Garden on November 5, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Mike Lawrie/Getty Images

That includes if they decided to re-sign Rondo, which would have been an option. The Celtics and Rondo have a history. They won a title together. Rondo nabbed four All-Star selections and a spot among the league's best point guards in Boston. He even made friends with new head coach Brad Stevens, a franchise pillar in his own right.

As Celtics president Danny Ainge said of Boston's head honcho, per ESPN.com's Chris Forsberg:

Brad is one of the smartest coaches in the NBA. He’s learning the game still. But he’s a tireless worker, he’s a great communicator. It's exciting for me that Brad is getting the accolades that he’s getting. We’ve always known that about Brad. He’s going to have some ups and downs through his coaching career, but, it’s my opinion that, in 10 or 20 years from now, we’ll be talking about Brad as one of the great coaches to ever coach in the NBA.

Stevens is already reaching other Celtics on an X's and O's level. Avery Bradley (12.7), Evan Turner (12.8) and Tyler Zeller (18.9) have each posted career-high player efficiency ratings during his brief reign. 

Those are all minor victories, some of them borne from the learning curve young and inexperienced players traverse. But who's to say Rondo, a former megastar, couldn't have eventually hit his stride under Stevens? It's at the very least possible, if not likely.

Not that this is a hypothetical worth losing sleep over. Yes, Rondo could have returned to prominence, to where he routinely led the NBA in assists and steal percentage. But the Celtics still made the most of his departure—an exit deemed inevitable one way or another.

And they're much better off for it.

Dallas Mavericks

Brandon Wade/Associated Press

The Mavericks' motives were clear at the time of the Rondo trade.

Dirk Nowitzki had accepted a massive discount in free agency, they re-acquired Tyson Chandler over the summer and Chandler Parsons was handed an above-market deal after it became clear neither Carmelo Anthony nor Chris Bosh would be joining the cause. The Mavericks, like they always are, were committed to winning immediately.

Rondo offered a theoretical upgrade at point guard. That he had never shot even 32 percent from deep for an entire season or established himself as an off-ball threat didn't matter. He had a reputation, albeit an inconsistent one, for playing defense, and this deal could be justified because of the reasonable price tag and the fact it fell under the "talent figures things out" umbrella.

But this batch of talent never figured anything out. Rather, Rondo's arrival proved to be subtraction by addition:

Dallas Before and After Rondo
Dallas...W-LOff. Rtg.RankDef. Rtg.RankNet Rtg.Rank
Pre-Rondo Trade19-8113.61105.1208.52
Post-Rondo Trade31-24104.113103.0171.015
Source: NBA.com.

Some of that onset success is jaded. Only five of the Mavericks' first 27 games came against what would become top-six Western Conference teams—all of which they lost—and their 19-8 record was only good enough for sixth place.

Still, the status quo was better than what came next. The offense was 5.5 points per 100 possessions worse than its season average with Rondo on the floor, and it says a lot that Jameer Nelson and Wright, two players Dallas forked over in the deal, finished the season with team-high net ratings.

At minimum, the Rondo trade cost the Mavericks a shot at home-court advantage. At worst, though equally likely, this move was the driving force behind another roster-razing.

Dallas dismissed Rondo midway through its first-round playoff loss to the Houston Rockets, according to ESPN's Tim MacMahon. He clashed with head coach Rick Carlisle, and his sour mood was apparently infectious, visibly impacting Monta Ellis' demeanor.

Shortly thereafter, MacMahon reported that the team would let Ellis, its first leading scorer not named Dirk Nowitzki since 1999-00, walk in free agency if he opted out of his deal. Well, Ellis opted out and then signed with the Indiana Pacers for just $1.6 million more than he was slated to earn with the Mavericks in 2015-16. Chandler ended up on the Phoenix Suns while owner Mark Cuban and friends turned their attention to DeAndre Jordan, who would inevitably renege on a verbal agreement.

Tim Sharp/Associated Press

What if the Mavericks didn't shake up the rotation midseason? Had they maintained that net rating of 8.5, it would have been the second best in the league, at least assuring them of home-court advantage through the first round of the playoffs.

And if they snagged home-court advantage, their opening opponent isn't the second-seeded Rockets. Perhaps they make it out of the first round or flirt with a second-round berth as they did against the San Antonio Spurs in 2014. And perhaps that, in turn, convinces them to divvy up cap space between Chandler and Ellis while chasing mid-end additions such as Arron Afflalo and Jeremy Lin.

This is admittedly presumptive. The timing of Rondo's arrival (mid-December) implies desperation. The Mavericks wanted to make a splash, to significantly shore up their title chances on paper. That inclination wouldn't have vanished without Rondo. Not as the Mavericks continued navigating their way through a brutally built Western Conference they hadn't yet fully experienced at the time.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 25:  Tyson Chandler #6, Rajon Rondo #9, Dirk Nowitzki #41 and Monta Ellis #11 of the Dallas Mavericks take the court following a timeout during the second half of a game against the New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Cente
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

While riffing on the perils and pratfalls of the Rondo trade with Zach Lowe of Grantland on an episode of the Lowe Post podcast, Cuban made it seem like Dallas would have turned its attention to others if the deal with Boston fell through, via MacMahon.

"We debated that off and on," he said of pulling the trigger on Rondo. "We debated it continuously, but we just felt that if we didn’t improve defensively at the point guard position that we weren’t going to get past the first round no matter what. And so that’s why we took the risk."

Ty Lawson, now of the Rockets, apparently caught the Mavericks' attention ahead of the NBA draft, per MacMahon. They could have tried dangling the package that landed Rondo in hopes of prying Lawson away from the Denver Nuggets before last February's deadline.

Reggie Jackson, now of the Detroit Pistons, is another player they could have targeted. The Oklahoma City Thunder flipped him at the deadline for less than a king's ransom. Jackson would have changed Dallas' plans substantially, likely commanding a max-level contract in restricted free agency.

In the event the Mavericks finished the season as previously constructed and still faced massive turnover, along with Jordan's about-face, they would've had more of an incentive to make good on what, per MacMahon, amounted to a tanking threat:

Tim MacMahon @espn_macmahon

Mark Cuban admitted this was a DeAndre or doom summer. Mavs would have gone in tank mode if they struck out.

Should everything break right, Dallas looks like a 42-win, maybe 45-win, team after lucking into Deron Williams, acquiring Zaza Pachulia and rolling the dice on Maurice Ndour. That puts the Mavericks in line for a bottom-two playoff seed or, worse, a lottery berth.

So, in essence, they'll spend another season in the hellhole that is mediocrity, without a first-round pick to offset the struggle, before chasing free-agent ghosts next summer. That's a vicious cycle, and one the Mavericks have perpetuated since winning a title in 2011.

It's unequivocally naive, then, to blame all this on the Rondo trade alone. But it's most definitely a primary symptom of Dallas' situation.

The assets they gave up, insignificant though they appeared, were commodities the Mavericks could have turned into another midseason acquisition, used to rebound from Jordan's indecision or, similarly important, kept for themselves.

Sacramento Kings

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 13: Rajon Rondo #9 of the Dallas Mavericks talks to DeMarcus Cousins #15 and Rudy Gay #8 of the Sacramento Kings prior to the game on January 13, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ac
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Throwing Rondo one year and $10 million isn't an issue if you're the Kings. It ensures he has the opportunity to leave next summer, but it also safeguards them against being locked into a bad long-term contract.

Of course, the deal can be looked at through a different lens. As Grant Hughes wrote for Today's Fastbreak:

If Rondo defies the odds and plays semi-decent basketball for the Kings, he can hit the market again and walk away next summer.

Sacramento gave up a mint to get Rondo, and it’ll have to either overpay to keep him or watch him leave in a year. And in the meantime, maybe he’ll sprinkle around some of the dysfunction he brought to Dallas last season.

Fun!

To manufacture the cap space that helped get them Rondo, the Kings needed to unload Carl Landry and Jason Thompson. And in order to do that, they sent Nik Stauskas (a top-eight prospect) and a top-10 protected first-rounder in 2018 to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Depending on how Sacramento's commitment to the Chicago Bulls plays out, the Sixers could also have the rights to swap first-rounders with the Kings in both 2016 and 2017. That's a lot to give up for any high-profile player, let alone one who's two years removed from his last All-Star selection and can leave next summer.

Turning the rest of their cap space into Marco Belinelli, Caron Butler, Seth Curry and Kosta Koufos does little, if anything, to improve the outlook. A boatload of questions must be answered in the affirmative if the Kings are to even contend for the West's final playoff spot.

Yes, eighth place, and a foreordained first-round exodus.

Chief among those question marks is Rondo and his ability to make positive contributions while playing prehistoric basketball or evolving in ways he hasn't over the previous nine years.

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 13: Rajon Rondo #9 of the Dallas Mavericks looks on during the game against the Sacramento Kings on January 13, 2015 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dow
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

"Rondo still does the same things; everyone in the arena is still in the know," Ian Levy underscored for Vice Sports. "It just doesn't work anymore. Some of that is a slower body. Some of that is a different system. Much of it, though, is just Rondo's disappearance into his own rigidity."

Rondo's 35.2 percent clip from long range in Dallas would be a career high and remains encouraging. But his actual career high is 31.4 percent, and he's eclipsed 30 percent just twice.

Kings coach George Karl must now slot Rondo among two ball-dominators in DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay. Rondo shot just 34.9 percent when working off the rock last season, and only 30.6 percent in 2013-14.

Darren Collison, the point guard Rondo will replace in the starting lineup, converted a higher percentage of his spot-up looks in 2014-15, including a 36.5 percent success rate on catch-and-shoot threes. He is, as of now, better suited to captain a modern-day offense. 

If the Kings were looking to tinker with the point guard position, out of sheer preference or fear Collison's core muscle injury would resurface, they could have selected Emmanuel Mudiay at No. 6 in this year's draft instead of Willie-Cauley Stein, who plays the same position as Cousins.

Denver also traded Lawson to Houston for less than Sacramento gave up in its salary dump with Philadelphia. Karl would have surely jumped at the chance to reunite with the floor general he coached to prominence.

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 16: Rajon Rondo #9 of the Dallas Mavericks handles the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets during the game on January 16, 2015 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and
Glenn James/Getty Images

There's no way the Kings could have known Lawson's trade value would tumble further by way of a second arrest in less than six months for driving under the influence. And by the time they did, Rondo was already en route. 

But they had to know that the Nuggets, as CBS Sports' Ken Berger reported, were shopping him like mad ahead of the draft. And had Rondo never been traded to the Mavericks, maybe he doesn't tempt the Kings' hand in free agency. Maybe he re-signs with the Celtics or syncs up with a contender that has no reason to fret a chemistry implosion like what occurred in Dallas. 

Instead, the Kings ended up with Rondo. The same Kings who have become billboards for instability both on and off the court over the years. They're now playing home to the NBA's most delicate redemption case.

If they're lucky, Rondo will return to form in time for a ridiculous raise next summer, one they may or may not foot.

If his career trajectory continues its downward spiral, the Kings, like the Celtics and Mavericks before them, will be left to cope with the consequences of realizing Rondo is but a reminder of what could have been.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise cited. Salary information via Basketball Insiders.

Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @danfavale. 

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