The West Gets Deeper: How the Addition of Two Enigmatic Veterans Will Affect the Bestern Conference

The Western Conference has been dominant this season. With at least ten playoff-caliber teams and eight legitimate championship contenders – yes, eight (compared to probably two or three in the East) – the disparity between the two conferences may be as large as ever. Three of the most reliable analytics-based power rankings, Hollinger’s, NumberFire’s, and TeamRankings‘, all rank ten Western teams in the NBA’s top fifteen.

It seems the rich are getting richer: in the past week, two of the East’s most talented players in Rajon Rondo and Josh Smith left the Northeast for Texas. Nothing’s for certain, though, as both players have been centers of controversy over the past couple seasons, especially in analytical circles. While both are very skilled, they have the potential to be poor fits for any team, including their new respective squads. Let’s take a look at the possible pros and cons in each situation.

Rondo to Dallas

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Some people think Rajon Rondo is the best point guard in the NBA, while still others contend that he’s merely average, if that.  He’s known as an excellent defender, with long arms and great on-ball instincts, while being an elite playmaker (Rondo has led the league in assists per game in three of the past five seasons, and has been top 5 in that category in five of the past six) and a nightly threat for a triple double (he’s led the league in triple doubles in three of the past four seasons) considering his prowess as a rebounder for his size (4.7 per game for his career, including 7.3 per game this season).

His clear weakness, however, for his entire career, has been his inability to shoot from the outside. His career mark of .472 from the field seems pretty good at first glance, but it’s due to a shot selection mostly around the rim – he’s a .253 career three point shooter, and a dreadful .614 career free throw shooter. However, he’s always been able to attack with his speed and athleticism, averaging as many as 13.7 points per game twice in his career. Things have been different for him lately, though. Aging and coming off an ACL tear, Rondo’s precious speed and athleticism have suffered. He’s shooting a career-low .400 from the field this season, second only to the .403 mark that he put up – you guessed it- the previous season. Take a look at these brutal splits, courtesy of NBA.com:

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Rondo’s dwindling finishing ability (a 35.9 percentage in the paint) is a real problem, as it’s the only way he’s ever been able to consistently put the ball in the basket, which, no matter how many assists you get, is literally the name of the game.

The Mavericks have plenty of scoring to go around on their team, though, as they lead the league in points per game and are second in field goal percentage. Does this make Rondo a perfect fit? It helps his case, but the situation is far more complicated. His inability to shoot from the outside makes him a true liability offensively unless he has the ball in his hands, as his man is free to clog the lane and help elsewhere without worrying about a swing pass to him ending in points. Throughout his career, this hasn’t really been much of a problem, as he’s spent much of his time in the NBA playing with guys who don’t need the ball in their hands. The Big Three era in Boston saw Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett, all excellent spot-up shooters, spreading the floor while Rondo could wreak havoc in the lane. Although the three hall-of-famers could create their own shots if needed, Rondo always had the liberty to run the offense due to the scheme fit.

The Mavs, though, still have their starting pseudo-point guard on the roster in Monta Ellis, whose 4.5 assists per game has led the team this season (not counting Rondo). Ellis has thrived in a role similar to that of Rondo on the Big Three Celtics – as a below-average three-point shooter (.319 for his career and .324 this season) with an excellent handle, he’s been a great option as a playmaker and pick-and-roll initiator.  Recent evidence has shown that backcourts consisting of two ball-dominant guards don’t work, especially when they’re not both elite three-point shooters. Monta learned this himself while struggling to mesh with Brandon Jennings on the Bucks. Jeremy Lin was relegated to the bench and eventually shipped away from James Harden’s Rockets (and now is on the bench of Kobe Bryant’s Lakers), while Dion Waiters, too, has been given the sixth man treatment and seemingly can’t wait to leave Kyrie Irving’s Cavaliers. Charlotte’s Kemba Walker/Lance Stephenson project has thus far been a huge failure, and the Pelicans are struggling to stay afloat in the West, despite having perhaps this season’s best player in Anthony Davis, with Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans both hungry for the rock. Gregg Popovich, likely the best coach in the NBA, learned years ago that the Spurs would be better off if Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili weren’t co-starting.

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Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings spent plenty of time trying to figure out a fit in Milwaukee.

What the Rondo/Ellis pairing does have going for it is Rick Carlisle, another elite coach with a championship under his belt. Ellis’ improved corner three-point shooting (.385 from the left; .455 from the right) is a sign of hope for Dallas’ precious floor spacing, especially with the long-range abilities of Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons. And defensively, the Mavs should be better off with Rondo over Jameer Nelson at the point. Although Rondo likely isn’t as elite a defender as he once was – according to Basketball Reference, he hasn’t cracked 4 defensive win shares (which would have been good for just twentieth in the league last season) since the 2010-2011 season – he’s still a weapon on that side of the ball, as he’s fifth among point guards in steals this season and ranks fourth at the position in ESPN’s DRPM. His ability to hound opposing ball handlers with his length makes him a nightmarish matchup for any guard.

Despite that upgrade, though, the Mavs gave up some solid pieces that they’ll miss in the future. Brandan Wright is a very respectable rim protector and rebounder, who ranks an excellent 41st in the league in CornerThree WAR this season, that gave Dallas the ability to spell Tyson Chandler’s absence off the bench. The only other big men on the roster are Greg Smith (1.6 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 0.1 BPG this season), Charlie Villanueva (4.3/1.5/0.0), and Dwight Powell (1.5/0.2/0.0), so Dallas will either have to make another trade or sign 36-year-old Jermaine O’Neal – neither option confirmed and both options far from guaranteed successes – to have any hope in the frontcourt past Dirk and Chandler. Dallas also gave up their 2015 first-round pick, which due to its nature could fall anywhere from useless to a franchise centerpiece. Either way, the trade represents a gamble on the part of Mark Cuban and the rest of the Mavericks front office.

Nevertheless, as many Celtics fans will tell you, Rondo has nights when he simply doesn’t try his hardest. He’s infamous for taking games off, and many fans have been disappointed with his occasional lack of effort the past couple of seasons for a non-contending Boston squad. That should all change this season with the Mavericks, who have the talent to contend for a championship, and should be a lock for the postseason. Despite there clearly being some big concerns regarding Rajon Rondo’s marriage in Dallas, the promptness of the move (before Christmas) gives Carlisle and the Mavs plenty of time to figure out schemes and offensive strategy before playoff time.

Smith to Houston

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With reports agreeing that Josh Smith will sign with the Rockets, what affect will he have on Daryl Morey’s squad? Even more so than Rondo, Josh Smith has been one of the most controversial players in the NBA for the past couple of seasons. He’s truly been nothing short of a disaster in Detroit, so much so that when Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy couldn’t find any biters in trade talks, he decided to cut his losses – and Smith. With rising young players Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond commanding the 4 and 5, respectively, Smith was forced to play out of position at small forward, with catastrophic results. Being constrained to the perimeter with non-shooters Monroe and Drummond in the paint, Smith, a career .278 three-point shooter, launched a career-high 265 three-ball attempts last season (3.4 a game, also a career high). This had a large hand in forcing his field goal percentage to a career-low .419. This season, Smith has continued to regress, shooting a dreadful .391 from the field and amassing a stark total of 0.0 win shares – he posted an aggregate of 1.1 in last year’s campaign after not posting less than 4 win shares in a season since 2005-2006. It’s clear how bad Smith has been in Detroit, but the question is whether that will change with the scenery. Is Smith a bad small forward, or has he become a bad basketball player?

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This Pistons’ big three had a tough time winning during its tenure.

Despite the small sample size, what we have to look at is Smith’s games since November 30th – the first day that Stan Van Gundy relegated Greg Monroe to the bench to apparently give Smith a few weeks to prove himself at the 4. The improvements were marginal at best – over the course of December, Smith’s averaged 13.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.8 blocks, and 1.6 steals per game, numbers that aren’t exceedingly promising considering his season-long numbers of 13.1/7.2/4.7/1.7/1.3 (and even less so when considering his superior career-long averages of 15.4/7.8/3.3/2.0/1.3). And that makes sense, considering Van Gundy’s decision to cut ties with Smith less than a month after the lineup change. This is discouraging news for the Rockets and their fans, but there is hope that Smith will become an asset – which he truly wasn’t in Detroit – in Houston, due primarily to the construction and talent of their roster, courtesy of their elite GM Daryl Morey.

The hope is that Smith will fit as the full-time 4 in Houston, which is a big need considering Terrence Jones’ return from injury is without a timetable. There are reasons to be sanguine about the fit, the two biggest being James Harden and Dwight Howard. Playing with two superstars will affect Smith’s game, as he’s never been a third option in his career, and will probably see very different shots in the new situation. Instead of iso-Smoove, he’ll likely be used only on baseline cuts, post-ups, and the occasional kickout when Harden or Howard are doubled. In terms of floor spacing, he’s no worse an option than incumbent starter Donatas Motiejunas, who’s currently shooting threes at just a .283 clip.

Of course, no one knows for sure whether or not Smith will discontinue his constant hoisting of bad shots whenever he touches the ball, but a combination of the ego hit he must’ve taken when the Pistons cut him, the brevity of his new one-year deal with the Rockets and the need to prove himself before impending free agency, and the presence of high-school buddy (and the best man at his wedding) Dwight Howard is cause for optimism.

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Smith and soon-to-be-teammate Dwight Howard are no strangers.

Just as with Rondo and Dallas, though, no matter the effect on the offensive end, Smith will provide a big upgrade defensively, the key to this move for Houston. Smith’s strength, size, quickness, and athleticism make him not only versatile defensively, with the ability to guard multiple positions, but elite. He’s posted higher defensive win shares than offensive every year of his career, and not just because he’s struggled offensively. This season, he’s sixth among power forwards and 15th overall in the NBA in ESPN’s DRPM, while his ability to amass possession-changing plays (he makes an impact in both the steals and blocks department) leads to his ranking of 17th overall in CornerThree WAR. A lineup of Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Josh Smith, and Dwight Howard has elite – or, at worst, above average – defense at four of the five positions (and great improvement on that end this season from Harden, the odd man out), but still just as much offense as Houston had before the move.

Considering the nature of Smith’s short, cheap contract, this looks to be a low-risk, high-reward move that, if absolutely nothing else, should improve Houston’s depth in the frontcourt. On the other hand, the Rondo move has a different vibe, due to the length of Rondo’s contract and the commitment Dallas has made to him by giving up depth and future assets, but still has the potential for high reward due to the undoubtable upgrade in talent level. In all, despite varying risk levels, both teams made moves that will likely help them compete this season in the bloodbath that is the Western Conference.

by Derek Reifer, Northwestern University

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