The Fundamentals: C’s hard-pressed to stay afloat without Rajon Rondo
By Rob Mahoney
It’s been less than 24 hours since the news of Rajon Rondo’s torn ACL made the rounds, and yet some fans and media types have already propagated the bizarre thought that the Celtics might actually play more effectively without their All-Star point guard. It’s a claim that to some extent is supported by the data available (Boston’s margin is about 1.7 points better per 100 possessions with Rondo off the court; the Celtics are 21-13 without Rondo over the last four seasons, according to ESPN Stats & Info) and the anecdotal evidence of Sunday’s double-overtime win over Miami. But those numbers say more about the dangers of context-less statistics and small sample sizes than some greater truth about Boston’s performance.
Everything that Boston does begins with Rondo, a fact that earns him a prized piece of real estate on the front page of scouting reports around the league. That placement isn’t just flattering; the emphasis opponents place on Rondo is so significant that it offers as much benefit as anything Rondo tangibly provides. It frees Paul Pierce and Jason Terry from having to grapple with an opponent’s top perimeter defender. It demands that opponents study Rondo’s tendencies, potentially at the cost of paying more due to one of the less prominent Celtics. It creates an environment in which Boston’s non-Rondo lineups can fly by night, operating with a very different means of play action against unsuspecting foes.
With Rondo out for the remainder of the season, Boston will be left to grind it out against progressively more informed opponents. The Celtics may have enough versatility to manage a B-side rotation when Rondo rests during games, but the dynamic shifts entirely when a single torn ligament recasts the rest of the Celtics in more prominent roles. Nothing in Boston could possibly be the same, as the absence of a unique a distributor will create an undue burden on coach Doc Rivers, as well as each member of the flexible — but incomplete — roster that will scrap in vain to make up for what’s been lost.
Two things separate Rondo from many of his point guard contemporaries, Celtics or otherwise:
1) A quick, slippery game that makes him almost impossible to stay in front of.
2) The first-rate court vision necessary to not only set up teammates while on the move but also make fantastic reads and passes from a standstill on the perimeter.
Of the three guards (Avery Bradley, Jason Terry, Leandro Barbosa) most likely to fill in as Boston’s nominal point guard, only Barbosa can even remotely claim to have access to either attribute, though his quickness comes with the heaviest possible asterisk. Quick though Barbosa may be, his driving style is both too wild and too ignorant of playmaking possibilities for him to be anything more than the microwave role player he is. That’s valuable to the Celtics (as Barbosa showed in Sunday’s victory against the Heat), but not the kind of channel through which Boston’s offense could realistically operate on a more regular basis.
Beyond that, Bradley and Terry can each be effective in their own way, but suffer when forced to assume full-time ball-handling duties. When Bradley works from the top of the floor, he more or less camps out with the ball until he can set up a teammate with a basic feed, and though it’s good that his operations come with little risk, that style demands a lot of the Celtics’ wing players and big men. At some point in an offensive sequence, some player or another is forced to actually make a play, and as useful as Bradley is as both a defender and off-ball guard, his slim skill set forces that playmaking burden onto the recipient of the pass rather than the initiator of the play.
Terry is a bit more skilled when operating in a point guard capacity, as evidenced by his No. 15 ranking in points scored per play among ball-handlers in pick-and-roll situations, per Synergy Sports. That’s largely because Terry ranks among the best pull-up jump-shooters in the game, with but a single screen allowing him to leverage his impeccable balance and form. Terry is also adept at finding a shooting big man or perimeter option in those situations, but realistically he doesn’t have the nuance in his passing game necessary to run a successful offense on the basis of his high pick-and-rolls. Terry is the best spot-up threat of the bunch and a functional passer, but he can’t probe or push defenses in the same ways that Rondo can.
Looking at Rondo’s previous absences this season (minutes off the floor and games out of the lineup) as a precedent, much of Boston’s offense is actually initiated by Kevin Garnett, Pierce, Jeff Green and a gluttonous dose of dribble hand-offs. With no replacement even approaching Rondo’s level as a passer, the Celtics generally opt for a hyper-conservative motion look that brings Garnett above the three-point line to set up his teammates with a hand-off and screen. Pierce is a common recipient, though it’s worth noting that these kinds of plays give Boston’s typical curls (in which Pierce moves off the ball, curls around a defender and receives a pass from Rondo) a certain claustrophobic subtext. Compacting the ball-handler, screener and shooter into a small area often makes it difficult for Pierce to get the step on the defense needed to create an open shot, thereby resulting in more difficult attempts that nonetheless appear rather similar on the shot chart.
This is an effective approach for temporarily managing the absence of an elite playmaker, though hardly the kind of semi-permanent solution the Celtics will now need to deal with Rondo’s year-long absence. The hand-offs limit risks and at least get the ball in the hands of the right players, but the shot clock and the energy of Boston’s top offensive players are drained in the efforts to simply progress the possession, leaving players such as Pierce, Terry and Courtney Lee sapped and often limiting Boston to a single contested shot attempt. These are the perils of working with a lineup that has plenty of serviceable ball-handlers but a lack of internal order.
What’s worse is that those hand-off sequences will only prove more difficult to execute once opponents home in on their importance and patterns. With no Rondo to account for, defensive attention and efforts will instead be paid to Garnett and Pierce, who are on tape running this exact sequence on possession after possession. There are variations by which Garnett eventually makes it down to the post or Pierce triggers “floppy” pick-and-roll action from the top of the floor, but nothing so creative that it can’t be solved. Boston had an inefficient offense with Rondo at the helm (the Celtics rank 26th in points per possession), but his very presence lent the enterprise a bit of volatility. Without him, his team is effectively trapped in running what it can, which puts a huge creative burden on Garnett and Pierce while also pulling them away from their favorite spots on the floor.
Boston will suffer for the 16 percent of its free-throw attempts that are now lost, the discrepancy in both attempts and percentage of shots at the rim that’s sure to result; and the beneficial transition scoring that was almost solely Rondo-generated. (His presence alone was the difference between a league-average pace and a rate of play almost identical to the league’s slowest team.) But it’s the gravitational pull on each of the Celtics’ most important offensive players that may hurt the most of all.
Oddly enough, the eighth-seeded Celtics may still get into the postseason, if only because their defense doesn’t stand to lose that much in Rondo’s absence and the rest of the Eastern Conference bubble teams are just that bad. Rondo may have the reputation of an All-NBA defender, but his off-ball freelancing and on-ball gambles make him more of a liability than most realize. As much as he offers the Celtics in terms of defensive flexibility (Rondo is big and pesky enough to cross-match as needed or switch picks in case of emergency), Bradley and Lee figure to pick up some of the slack and should prove just as helpful to the Celtics’ overall defensive efforts.
But if Philadelphia, Detroit or another team does have a chance of sneaking up on Boston to snatch away the eighth seed, it could come by way of a defensive trickle-down. Bradley and Lee may be able to cover most of the opponents to whom Rondo would typically be assigned, but with Pierce and Garnett assuming more prominent offensive roles, will they both be able to bring the same intensity defensively? The latter is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who is paramount to all that Boston executes on D, and the former is a clever and dogged perimeter defender who often wrestles with the league’s elite forwards. Any regression on their part could result in the drop-off needed for a challenger to make a run at the Celtics’ spot, though, frankly, I’m not willing to assume that a historically stubborn team like Boston would so easily fall out of the playoff picture. That outcome is certainly in play, but if this team deserves any benefit of the doubt at all, it’s in the playoff-worthy efficacy of its collective defense.
Of course, even the possibility of maintaining the eighth seed won’t quiet calls for Celtics president Danny Ainge to blow up this team’s core — nor should it. The problem with that notion: Aside from Garnett (who has a no-trade clause on his current deal), Pierce (who is movable, but as ESPN.com’s Marc Stein suggested on Twitter, perhaps less than amenable to the idea of relocating) and rookie big man Jared Sullinger, what pieces does Boston have that are really worth cashing in? Most of the players on the roster are either overpaid or unattractive assets altogether, leaving the Celtics with little choice but to mount a doomed last stand rather than give up their best players for uninspiring returns.
There are seemingly no right options, and no ways out. But Ainge, Rivers and the Celtics will have to press on with the season, which has been left without shape or direction in the wake of a truly unfortunate injury.
A look at some of the relevant quantitative trends and tidbits emerging around the league.
This week, we’re ignoring 29 teams in this space to focus on a particularly unexpected excellence. The Raptors have been on an incredible tear since mid-December, putting up some statistical marks well worth mentioning.
• Over the last 20 games, no offense has been more efficient than that of the Raptors, who have scored at an absurd rate of 109.4 points per 100 possessions. Of course, it makes complete sense that Toronto has been able to produce that onslaught with a roster only marginally upgraded from the one that ranked 29th in offensive efficiency a season ago.
• Also worth noting: Toronto has posted the seventh-best net rating (pace-adjusted point differential) over that same span, smack dab between the beloved Warriors and the resurgent Pacers. That’s almost solely because of their offense, but the fact that the Raptors have been prolific enough on either side of the floor to rank as one of the best teams in the league for such a lengthy stretch is incredible.
• For those keeping track at home, the Raptors’ recent play makes them a solid 4.3 points better on offense per 100 possessions when Andrea Bargnani is off the court. Bargnani’s absence has played a big role in Toronto’s surge, though not entirely due to his ball-stopping style; it’s only because of injuries to Bargnani and rookie big man Jonas Valanciunas that Ed Davis was able to become a relevant part of the rotation, and he’s had a terrific run of 14.7 points and 8.5 rebounds per 36 minutes in the last 20 games.
• Part of the reason why Raptors fans have rekindled their love for Jose Calderon: Toronto has managed this deluge of scoring without sacrificing its ball control. The Raps rank third in the league in turnover percentage in those 20 games, and regardless of how you view Calderon’s game in relation to that of starter-turned-sub Kyle Lowry, the Spaniard’s heady playmaking style prevents a team without top-tier shot creators from devolving into chaos.
NOTES FROM AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
1. Andre Drummond, lying in wait
When a small guard draws a big man on the perimeter because of a switch, the offensive typically bends over backward to exploit that mismatch. Even the most athletic big men can have trouble when a speedy ball-handler sizes them up, and the very nature of that mismatch puts the entire defense on edge and often makes some players overeager to help.
It can be a dicey situation, but Drummond is having none of it. The Pistons’ rookie has played possum on the perimeter many times this season, be it against a switched perimeter player or a big man merely facilitating at the top of the floor, only to jump the pass at the last moment and fire off into the open court. It’s truly a sight to behold; the 6-foot-10, 270-pound Drummond has no business dribbling in traffic, but he’s stable enough to mount a fast-break assault on the rim that most participating in and watching the game never saw coming.
2. The shots start to fall for Danilo Gallinari
Denver’s Gallinari, whom Mike D’Antoni once referred to as the best shooter he had ever seen, has a spotty record from three-point range. His career started out successfully enough, but the more Gallinari played (and the bigger role he assumed), the further his three-point percentage fell. A rookie mark of 44.4 dropped to 38.1 as his minutes more than doubled, then to 35.2 and 32.8 as Gallo assumed more responsibility with the Knicks and Nuggets. His declining percentages called his shooting prowess into question, and Gallinari’s poor start to the season did nothing to dissuade doubts over his ability to effectively space the floor.
But things are looking up for Gallinari of late. In a positive development for the Nuggets, their volume-shooting wing shot 41.4 percent on long-range attempts in 15 December games and 42.5 percent in his first 13 games this month.
3. Patrick Patterson, and appreciating the little things
We tend to value what we can measure, and thus one of the greatest conflicts in basketball comes from weighing quantitative measures against the little bits of influence and impact we see in player or team performance. One particular discrepancy — at least in regard to traditional counting stats — is that of Patterson, a third-year Rockets forward averaging 10.9 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Every bucket and board that Patterson gets matters, but he’s also a characteristic “little things” player who came into the league with no assembly required. It takes some time for most to pick up the tricks of the NBA trade, but Patterson’s game is chock full of the kinds of positioning tricks that it takes most players far longer to master.
4. An open question
Does any coach so regularly stomach the head-scratching decision-making of a role player as often as Gregg Popovich puts up with the blunders of Gary Neal? The 28-year-old guard’s shot-making is really valuable, and I understand that Pop has essentially given him an inextinguishable green light. I’m just amazed that between the defense, shot selection and over-dribbling, Neal hasn’t yet crossed a bridge too far.
5. Kyle Korver hits the minutes jackpot
Atlanta lost a huge piece of its offense when Lou Williams went down with a season-ending knee injury. The Hawks will have a tough time replacing what Williams provided as both a shooter and ball-handler. But in filling those minutes, it’s clear that coach Larry Drew prefers a floor-stretching sharpshooter as opposed to an off-the-dribble guard such as Devin Harris. As such, Korver has logged at least 41 minutes in three straight games and at least 35 minutes in five of his last six. It’s a sensible decision considering the kind of player that Harris has become, but hardly a given considering how prominent a role Harris still assumes in the Hawks’ rotation.
6. Whatever happened to the Mayo-Nowitzki pick and roll?
O.J. Mayo’s arrival in Dallas naturally inspired comparisons to the outgoing Jason Terry, a player with similar raw skills, of similar size and of more or less the same positional potential. Dirk Nowitzki and Terry had shared a special bond running the pick-and-roll in Dallas, and though no one expected Mayo to pick up right where JET left off, there was at least a vague notion that he would be able to operate in the same capacity.
That really hasn’t happened, largely because of a lack of trying. Mayo and Nowitzki have had some meager chances to work the two-man game this season, but for the most part that duty has been left to Darren Collison, Mike James and Vince Carter while Mayo spaces the floor. I’m still waiting for Mayo and Nowitzki to get some legitimate, familiarity-building reps together in the most pivotal sequence of Dallas’ offense, though perhaps doing so is complicated by Collison’s inconsistent long-range shooting and other lineup factors.
7. JaVale McGee, rebounding thief
The closest thing the NBA has to a state of nature is McGee’s working against his own teammates on the glass. Watch how much work he puts into uncontested rebounds; anything even remotely in his range necessitates a scramble to the ball, regardless of whether a teammate may be in more convenient position to get to the rebound first. McGee’s is hardly the only cannibalistic rebounder, but I find him by far the most entertaining.
8. A thought experiment, featuring Al Horford and Joakim Noah
The careers of Horford and Noah are and will forever be linked by their back-to-back NCAA championships at Florida, so much so that I often wonder how differently fans might think of both players if their situations were reversed. Atlanta’s Horford and Chicago’s Noah are both hugely valuable defenders with helpful offensive skill sets, though the former is more versatile on offense while the latter has a greater defensive reputation. But, if you’ll indulge a hypothetical exercise: How would both players be perceived if Horford had been drafted by the Bulls and coached by Tom Thibodeau, while Noah was picked by the Hawks and left to navigate the ensuing chaos?
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.