The playoffs were always the silver lining with the Dallas Mavericks' acquisition of Rajon Rondo. Maybe the first few months wouldn't go great. Maybe the offense would struggle to find a role for his ball-dominating style. Maybe the team would stumble into the playoffs in the process. But Rondo has shined in the postseason before. He would surely step up on the big stage.
Rondo played just 10 minutes in the Mavericks' 111-99 Game 2 loss to the Houston Rockets on Tuesday night. He was benched early in the third quarter in favor of J.J. Barea and Raymond Felton and didn't see the court again as the Mavericks fell to a 2-0 deficit in their first-round series.
Dallas is in trouble, yet it doesn't look to be turning to Rondo. Instead, a coaching staff that clashed with the veteran point guard during the regular season may be moving on from him already, even though the offseason and free agency don't start until the team is eliminated.
Rondo's time with the Mavericks was always going to be defined by what happened in the playoffs, not the regular season, but we're quickly seeing that little has changed. A partnership that didn't work in January still hasn't coalesced in late April, and now it seems like both Rondo and the team are simply waiting to be rid of each other. "Around Rondo, the energy is toxic," Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski wrote after Game 2.
The playoffs aren't over for the Mavericks this year, but their commitment to Rondo as a key cog seems to be. This didn't just happen in a flash, though. Here's how we got here.
Regular season decline
When Dallas acquired Rondo from the Boston Celtics in mid-December, the team was near the top of the standings and owned one of the league's best offenses. It was a fun, exciting team to watch, but not one necessarily built to handle the rigor of a championship run.
So the Mavericks traded for Rondo, a former All-Star and champion with the Celtics, and hoped he would eventually become the final piece to the puzzle. At the time, we praised the Mavericks' leadership for being willing to take a chance and add a potential game-changer to their roster.
It turns out Rondo changed Dallas for the worse, however. Since the Mavericks made the deal, their defense slightly improved, but their offense took a massive step backwards. The net difference was a firm negative for the team, which went 19-8 before the deal and 31-24 afterwards.
Rondo's numbers also took a huge dip, from a borderline double-double in Boston to just nine points and under seven assists per game with Dallas.
Clashing with Carlisle
One of the challenges with Rondo was fitting him into the Mavericks' system. A veteran player known for being stubborn and liking to dominate possessions, he was never going to the kind of player you could easily plug into what the team was already doing.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle learned that the hard way as he struggled to figure out what to do with Rondo. The point guard often found himself benched in fourth quarters as the team went to guys who could actually shoot. Things boiled over in late February when the two could be seen arguing on the sideline during a game.
According to Wojnarowski, Rondo asked, "Why the [bleep] did you bring me here?" to Carlisle during the argument, underscoring the struggles in the relationship between the two. Carlisle and the Mavericks seemed to have a good thing going before Rondo arrived, and it's possible the past few months have cost Rondo a lot of money on the open market, which he'll hit this summer.
So a lot of this stuff has been simmering below the surface for a while. Carlisle may have wanted to go to Barea and Felton earlier, but felt committed to keep trying to get Rondo minutes considering his pedigree and what the team gave up to acquire him. With no more time to wait in the playoffs, however, Carlisle is going with his guys, even if it means giving up on Rondo.
More on Rondo
More on Rondo
It all leads to the question of what's next for Rondo and the Mavericks, not just in the playoffs, but beyond. Rondo seems likely to play a minor role in the team's playoff run from here on out. He might play more than 10 minutes, but it's clear he's not getting the starring role envisioned a few months back.
The team will have to decide what to do after that, and according to Wojnarowski, it's either going to be Carlisle or Rondo. The two sides have all but given up on working together, so Dallas will have to choose between one of the league's brightest coaches and a veteran point guard who's struggled in his time with the team.
It is hard to picture the Mavericks letting Carlisle go, which puts the long-term picture for Rondo and the team on shaky ground. Most likely, Rondo will do what he planned before the trade and seek out a lucrative deal as an unrestricted free agent. The Mavericks presumably won't offer him a chance to return, or at least won't give him the money he would've previously expected.
What's certain is that everyone involved should be disappointed it got to this point, because Rondo is a talented player and the Mavericks are a smart organization. Sometimes things just don't work out, though, and this might just be one of those cases.