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Western Conference hopefuls gear up to catch the Warriors

On the Eve of Christmas, Western Conference playoff hopefuls are already re-tooling their rosters in an effort to catch up to the NBA's elite. With a still-sparkling 23-4 record, the Golden State Warriors are square in their sights. We take a look at what the latest trades mean for the playoff landscape, and the title hopes of the Warriors.

Rajon Rondo and Josh Smith join an already heated Western Conference playoff race.
Rajon Rondo and Josh Smith join an already heated Western Conference playoff race.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Last night's crushing loss to the Los Angeles Lakers aside, things are looking pretty good in Golden State right now. At 23-4, the Warriors are still sporting a beastly 15-4 record against the west, and a championship-caliber 13-3 road record. And they've done this while missing at least one major player (Lee, Bogut) in every game this season.

But western conference rivals are already taking steps to counter the Dubs, as well as the other elite teams. In the past week, we've seen two big name trades intended to upgrade western conference playoff hopefuls (Rajon Rondo and Dallas, Josh Smith and Houston). What do these deals mean for the playoff landscape? And most importantly, how will this arms race affect the Warriors?

Here's a look at the first two impact deals of the 2014-2015 NBA season.

Rajon Rondo: FINALLY

On December 18th, longtime Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo (now in the final year of his contract) was traded to the then 19-8 Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks have been one of the NBA's very best offensive teams this year, currently leading the NBA in scoring and ranking second in efficiency. But their defense has been every bit as bad, placing 29th out of 30 in points allowed per game, three-point percentage defense and personal fouls. Woof.

As far as personnel, the Mavericks had featured an odd platoon of veterans at point guard (that is, a platoon where the worse player played as many minutes as the far better player): a replacement-level Jameer Nelson started, and was spelled by the underrated Devin Harris, an efficient offensive player with a slick three-point shot. Both players have been poor defensively this season. In the front court, the Mavericks played a surprisingly good defensive role player in Brandan Wright and third-year bit player Jae Crowder who, both of whom have entered the final year of their contracts.

The logic here appears to be simple: Dallas trades a one good player (Brandan Wright), two meh or worse players, and two draft picks for a former star point guard with a Championship ring and a reputation for defense. Although Rondo's play has tailed off a bit since the Celtics' core was broken up, Dallas is willing to bet that playing with Dirk Diggler, Monta Moped and the Chandler brothers will perk him right up.

The problem here is three-fold (and that's a lot of folds, let me tell you).

  • Firstly, betting on a player to 'turn it around' and paying the 'already-turned-around' price is bad business. You're paying a premium for an investment that only might be worth it in the best case scenario.
  • Secondly, Rondo isn't quite as good as people remember him, and his skill set may present problems for the Mavericks roster (any roster, really).
  • Lastly, the price paid hurts the Mavericks in the future.

As far as Rondo, he's got two enormous red flags that, taken together, should scare most teams off. He can't stay healthy, for one: he's averaged 47 games per season for the past four years. And even more frighteningly, he can't shoot at all. He can't shoot free throws (61% for his career, and 33% this season!), he can't shoot threes (27% and yet he takes almost two-and-a-half per game!), and he hasn't shot better than 40% from the field since 2012-2013.

Mavericks fans may think they have enough offense to make up for Rondo, but it's not quite that simple. His shooting is so wretched, he tends to break offenses the same way Stephen Curry's remarkable distance shooting breaks defenses. With Rondo on the court, defenses sag off or ignore the mercurial point guard entirely. This allows them to 'cheat' off of him to help out elsewhere. I have a lot of faith in Rick Carlisle's ability to scrape some floor spacing out of a lineup featuring Rondo, but remember: this is the pending free agent they paid a premium for. Against elite defenses, things could get ugly.

Case in point, the Celtics have been worse offensively with Rondo on the court each of the past two-and-a-half seasons. Yes, you can say that he'll play harder with good teammates (as he appeared to do when he shared the court with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett), but you also need to be realistic. Do you want to bet on a guy who supposedly goes years without giving his all? And also, how bad are you if you're a net-negative to a openly rebuilding team that upgrades you with the likes of Jordan Crawford and Jerryd Bayless?

Rondo will get assists because he commands the ball and monopolizes them in an offense. And because he's afraid to shoot or get fouled, his usage percentage (an estimate of the possessions he uses per game) will remain reasonable. But make no mistake: his brand of basketball will not help the Mavericks hoist another O'Brien trophy.

Even worse, this deal will make the Mavericks worse in the future, too. Many would be surprised to see that Brandan

Wright was second on the Mavericks in Value Over Replacement, and first on the team in Box Plus Minus. Despite playing 18 minutes per night, Wright remains the most efficient player on the team by the minute: essentially a not-even-that-poor man's Taj Gibson. Although he's due a pay raise as a free agent this off-season, he remains a very valuable trade piece (see sidebar). Add in the first round and second round draft picks, as well as the Jae Crowder throw-in and this deal becomes highway robbery.

I get that the Mavs want to win now while Dirk is still in town. But completing this trade for Rajon Rondo doesn't make them better. Per BPM and on-off numbers his defense doesn't make up for his offensive shortcomings, and it hasn't in a few years. I'm surprised that a Mavericks organization--one that I have a lot of respect for--was willing to make this deal.

Grade: D - Could've been worse. They could've somehow forced Devin Harris on Boston instead of Jameer Nelson, I guess. I know Rondo is supposed to play better for a contender, but making deals for under performers with the hopes of fixing them is not how to build a Champion. If and when it works, you need to realize that you're lucky--not smart.

Impact on the Warriors: Negligible. I fully expect Dallas Mavericks fans to realize that Devin Harris is a better fit for them between now and April. And even if Rondo presented an upgrade, the Mavs are now without one of their more valuable players in Brandan Wright. Personally, I think the Mavericks just made themselves a worse team.

Josh Smith: Shopping at the Clearance Rack

Just hours ago, the Rockets just agreed to terms with Josh Smith, a talented veteran who just can't seem to get out of his own way on the basketball court. Josh Smith was waived with two years and $26 million due to him by Detroit, and he subsequently passed waivers. The Rockets were then able to sign him as a free agent for less than $2 million. In order to secure the deal, they promised Smith a starting gig, as well as a chance to contend.

As with the Mavericks and Rondo, I'm a little surprised with this deal.

  • Why would a Rockets team with an elite defense and below average offense promise a starting spot to a brutal offensive player who couldn't cut it with the 5-23 Detroit Pistons?
  • Why would a team that exemplifies the "corner-three-or-rim" offensive philosophy get a stretch four who can't shoot, but seems obsessed with shooting?
You can better understand the answer to both questions by comparing this deal to the Rondo trade. While the Mavericks gave up a bundle of assets to acquire a player who might not even be an upgrade, the Rockets, on the other hand, may have picked up an upgrade at their power forward position for basically nothing (less than two million in salary this season).

This is a low risk, high reward deal. Morey was willing to jump on an unexpected opportunity--even if it didn't completely fit with the roster--because there's more upside than downside. However, that doesn't mean this deal is perfect, either.

Josh Smith was a disaster in Detroit, and there's no guarantee that he'll improve significantly from here on out. He began to trend down across the board since his last few seasons in Atlanta, as his points, PER, shooting percentages, free throw percentages and offensive efficiency all took a tumble. And as a 6'9" power forward nearing 30,000 minutes for his career, the 29 year old Atlanta native may already be on the decline.

Despite his vaguely decent-ish looking basketball card stats this season (13 points, 7 boards, 5 assists), Smith's Pistons stank out-loud. This year, the Pistons were almost a whopping 10 points worse on offense for every 100 possessions Smith was on the court. The team even performed better defensively without the athletic power forward, allowing 2.5 points fewer per 100. The year before, Smith was significantly better, and even then he was just a net-plus 0.8 per 100 possessions (in other words, he didn't help as much as his box score stats would seem to suggest).

The Detroit Pistons' struggles probably have a lot of causes, but playing this version of J-Smoove 32 minutes a night was surely chief among them. As a net negative of 12 points per 100 possessions, he's arguably the least valuable player in the NBA. He had better step his game way, way up if he wants to keep a starting job in the Association.

Grade: ? - Well he was free. Worst case scenario, the Rockets cut him and eat less than two million this year. Tough to find fault with this kind of move. Best case scenario, he still doesn't provide the floor spacing that could take the Rockets to the next level, but he does provide yet another plus defender in the front court. That could prove valuable in the playoffs.

Impact on the Warriors: Less than you think, but still noteworthy. J-Smoove has had incredible (borderline shocking) trouble with the Warriors defense in recent years, and that probably won't change with Draymond Green on the roster. Best case scenario, though, this move does improve the Rockets, and it bolsters their bench by moving Montiejunas to the second unit. And it's never good to see your rival pick up an athlete with a Lebron James-like body for free. It will be interesting to see how J-Smoove adapts his game to the Rockets in the coming weeks.

Let us know what you think of these deals in the comments section!

*All stats from unless otherwise noted

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