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Why Are The Celtics Playing Better Without Rajon Rondo?

 

The Celtics are not a better team without Rajon Rondo. That’s been the popular storyline floated out this week, but anyone who has watched the Celtics for the past four seasons knows how crucial Rondo has been and will continue to be to the Celtics’ success, especially during the postseason.

With that noted, it’s hard to deny that Rondo has had a tough campaign this season. Despite improved shooting and rebounding numbers, the team’s offense and defense has been better with him off the floor. Rondo’s win shares per 48 minutes played are at their lowest mark since Rondo’s rookie season. The turnovers are up, his free throw attempts are down and this uneven play was one of the numerous factors that caused the Celtics to limp out to a 20-23 record out of the gate this year.

Another truth about the Celtics is that from both an individual and team perspective, they are playing better without Rondo this season. That’s not just during this recent four-game streak either. There’s a larger nine-game sample size to look at (due to suspensions and Rondo’s hip injury) and they show (as you’ll see) some staggering numbers for several members of the Celtics in those games, along with a 6-3 overall mark for the team without their All-Star point guard.

So what gives here? If the Celtics aren’t better without Rondo, then why are they playing better now without him? Rondo’s absence is the easy target to place blame, but I believe it’s something bigger than that. It’s another change to the team’s offense. Let’s dig a little more into the numbers here first:

THE FACTS

Without Rondo this season, the Celtics are 6-3 overall.

Wins: Portland, @ New York, Miami, Sacramento, Orlando, LA Clippers
Losses: @ Brooklyn, @ Milwaukee, @ Golden State

There are also a few noteworthy considerations from those games we should go over. The losses to Brooklyn and Milwaukee were decided in the closing seconds. The Celtics had just two active guards in the blowout loss to Golden State, as the team was not only missing Rondo for that contest, but Leandro Barbosa and Avery Bradley as well. This brings us to another key mark.

The Celtics are 5-0 without Rondo, when Avery Bradley has been active. Those are the team’s five most recent wins without their All-Star point guard, including victories over Miami, New York, and a Chris Paul-less Clippers team.

THE OLD OFFENSE VS. THE SPREAD OFFENSE

The Celtics have run the spread offense in all nine of those games, out of necessity more than anything else. This team as constructed has no true point guard outside of Rondo, and with so many newcomers, the spread is an offense that everyone knows and is easy to execute, making it a natural fit for Doc Rivers to use with Rondo out.

The spread is also a sharp contrast to the offense Rivers has run with Rondo on the floor. Doc has leaned heavily on Rondo in recent years to run a precision-type offense, with Rondo dominating the ball for a large portion of possessions, doing most of the play calling himself, while also making decisions on where to go with the ball, based on who becomes open in the midst of a play.

This offense worked well in the earlier years of the Celtics’ Big Three era with Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett at the end of their primes, along with a bevy of lethal outside shooters (James Posey, Eddie House) surrounding Rondo. Much less was asked of the point guard back then, as his teammates were able to create more within the offense. Rondo was there to distribute and not do much else.

Those days are long gone though, as we all well know. Doc’s offense has remained virtually the same as far as the design goes, but in recent years, The Big Three have aged and there have been fewer strong outside shooters to kick the ball to, so the team has been leaning more on Rondo to create and score, something he hasn’t been able to do consistently through most of his career. The team’s offensive numbers have taken a sharp nose dive in the past three years with this added burden on Rondo, almost hitting rock bottom at the 27th spot in efficiency this season before Rondo’s injury.

New pieces brought in (Leandro Barbosa, Jason Terry, Jeff Green) weren’t being used well with Rondo on the floor, and were not able to provide the additional scoring firepower they brought in for while being used in roles that didn’t play to their strengths. The Celtics’ halfcourt offense most nights proved to be stale, predictable, and largely ineffective with Rondo at the helm.

In contrast, Doc had run this spread offense with the bench all season. They had also seen plenty of success with it themselves before Rondo’s injury, as the bench unit of Terry/Lee/Green/Sullinger/KG has been one of Boston’s top offensive 5-man units all season, posting a team-best 115.8 offensive rating for all lineups that had played more than 50 minutes together this year.

Other bench units without Rondo, (Barbosa/Lee/Green/Sullinger/Garnett for instance) had seen similar offensive success with the spread (107.6 offensive rating) besting Rondo’s spread-less numbers with the bench or starters. The issue with the bench’s success with the spread was that, with Rondo playing 36 minutes per game, the team had not been able to sustain what had been their most successful offense enough for it to make a noticeable impact on the team’s scoring production.

With all this in mind, I thought the question was fair to ask now with the team’s recent success. Has Doc Rivers had this team playing with the wrong kind of offense most of the time this year?

I posed the question to a number of Celtics around the locker room and Doc himself, to see if they thought the spread offense was a better fit.

IS THE SPREAD OFFENSE A BETTER FIT?

Jason Terry: ”Yes, just because its much more open, it’s free-willing…the defense can’t sit on particular plays. This league is great with scouting and they get used to you. They kind of know your tendencies. But in this offense, it’s very unpredictable. You don’t know who’s going to get a shot, but we know we’re going to get a good one.”

Paul Pierce: “I think so. There are a lot of guys who can knock down shots, drive the ball, slash to the basket. Jason, Jeff Green, LB. It’s great. We put four smalls and one big out there at times. We drive the ball, set picks, make the extra passes. When you have a combination of those guys off the bench who can knock down shots, especially from the 3-point line, and drive the ball all the way to the basket, it’s such a hard thing for teams to defend when you spread the court like that.”

Kevin Garnett: “I think more importantly man, the stops. We’ve been getting the stops. The fact we get stops and get in transition and that’s where their games come out a little more. Barbosa is one of the best in the open court. Very fast and elusive. Jeff Green is explosive. So those guys who get out on the wings and run. So the fact we are getting stops actually opens up their games themselves.”

Even Doc himself admits that the spread was probably the best fit.

“I’ve always thought it was. We really haven’t changed our offense much at all. It’s a call we have been running all year. We just haven’t been very good at it. The second unit over the past 10 games has been terrific running it. The first unit has not been. Now the first unit is doing what the second unit was already doing, so it’s been good.”

Doc is protecting himself a little bit with those remarks. As I mentioned before, the team’s offense had looked much better for a major portion of the season with the second unit running it. However, there’s no arguing with these upcoming numbers (see below) which indicate just how much better certain players have been under the spread offense (and in turn) without Rondo. Here are the numbers from the nine games without him and 38 games with him this season.

LEANDRO BARBOSA

Without Rondo: 9.5ppg, 50 FG%, 21.2 mpg, 2.4 apg 29-of-58 FGA, 5-of-14 deep (8 games)

With Rondo: 4ppg, 41.8 FG% 9mpg (19 games)

JASON TERRY

Without Rondo: 11.8 ppg, 4.7 apg, 31.4mpg 46.3 FG%, 44/95 FGA 1.3 TO per game,

With Rondo: 9.6 ppg, 1.8 apg, 27.2 mpg 42.6 FG%

JEFF GREEN

Without Rondo: 27.5 min per game, 13.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.7 apg, 1.1 bpg, 50 FG%, 10-of-20 from 3-point range, 2.6 TO per game, 8 of 9 games scoring in double digits,

With Rondo: 22.9mpg, 9.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 42.2 FG%, 29.5 3pt FG% 1.1 TO per game

PAUL PIERCE

Without Rondo: 43.5 FG%, 17.5 ppg, 33.8 mpg, 7.3 rpg, 5.4 apg. 13.7 FGA per game (54-of-124)

With Rondo: 42 FG%, 18.8 ppg, 33.6 mpg, 5.6 rpg, 3.7 apg, 15.1 FGA per game

KEVIN GARNETT

Without Rondo: 55% FG, 14.3 ppg, 7.4rpg, 29.8 mpg, 2.9 apg, 10.9 shots per game

With Rondo: 47.6% FG 14.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 31 mpg, 2apg, 12.5 shots per game,

As you can see, all five of Boston’s key offensive cogs are shooting better under this offense. As the ball moves around more in the spread, the scoring onus on Garnett and Pierce has also diminished under the spread, as both guys are averaging fewer shots per game, but have higher shooting percentages. They are also contributing more in other facets of the game with additional rebounds and assists.

It’s tough to place too much blame on Doc here for not going with this offense, though some is certainly warranted. It’s rare coaches tear up their playbook halfway through the season. The team probably could have executed the precision offense better with Rondo. Some guys were in shooting slumps. This was a recurring problem for Boston however for the past couple seasons, so some changes perhaps should have been explored even before Rondo went down with the ACL tear.

So if the team is really this much better with the spread offense, is it possible that the team could use it with Rondo on the floor next year? Doc answered that question for us yesterday as well.

“Yeah. Absolutely. I think it would be a good fit for anyone. He would have the ball less at times, do more cutting and spacing, but yeah.”

All things considered, it’s too early to make any binding declarations on the spread offense. Nine games is still a relatively small sample size. By the end of this season though, 40+ games will be enough to know whether this system (with this personnel) is actually the needed long-term fix for this team’s offense.

The unfortunate part of it all is that it may have taken Rondo going down with a season-ending injury for Rivers to realize it.

Statistical support in this post provided by NBA.com/stats 

  • gugurich

    They did not run the Rondo precision-offense in 2008. That offense was dominated by Pierce, Garnett and Ray. Rondo stood in the corner a lot.

  • tbunny

    Excellent article. My one problem is that you claim up front that the team is not better without Rondo, then you provide a wealth of data that suggest the team has in fact been better without him this year. I agree it's too early to say but I never agreed with people saying the offense would necessarily be much worse without him.

    • janos

      hi bunny

  • Robert

    “Yeah. Absolutely. I think it would be a good fit for anyone. He would have the ball less at times, do more cutting and spacing, but yeah.”

    I'm not so sure Rondo would be a good fit for the spread. Rondo WITH the ball gums up spacing because his man sags so far back into the paint. Rondo without the ball entices defenders to roam even more since the threat of the pass is removed.

    Rondo can definitely cut backdoor, Avery Bradley-style, but no defender is going to respect him spotting up in corner.

  • KillerGymRat

    I wish the Rondo bashing would stop and we could separate him from the obvious fact this post points out – that he was asked to run an offense that, by-design, was not really playing to the strengths of the team and demanded he hold the ball and direct traffic. Maybe that terrible offense was responsible for his decrease in production. It certainly never opened up space for him to drive and score. It basically let the entire defense focus in on him.

    Why Doc couldn't admit it wasn't working before the injury is the real question.

    Personally I think Rondo would thrive in the spread it's unpredicatble so teams can't collapse on him knowing he's going to drive and it creates lots of space for cutters. Unlike Green and Barbosa, once Rondo goes to the hoop he can still make passes to other players which, along with his improving jump shot, makes him probably the most dangerous weapon to have in that offense (save for Pierce).

    • OKCeltic

      I agree with you KGR. I believe RR would thrive in this offense also. The article only addresses one piece of the puzzle. The other piece is on the defensive end. Is this team better on defense without RR? When he's engaged, I say no. Unfortunately, RR being engaged on defense has become more of the exception than the norm.

  • swissflix

    the new situation is really a big opportunity for Jeff Green. And it seems like he's been using it – and so has Jason Terry.
    The most impressive player has been Pierce. He has been very relaxed scoring wise and it does him good. He looks a lot fresher towards the end of games and his FG percentage has gone up too. Also, it is very impressive to watch him rebound and pass the ball so well. I believe we can go far with this team if they continue to share the ball so well.

  • janos

    Rondos talent is rub of player other guys and make better on short term but overals;, not sustain

  • srb

    It's somewhat similar to the Bulls – everyone knows they are good without Rose, but hardly any would ever say the team is better without him.

    The obvious difference here is that the Bulls have been good with AND without Rose recently. The Celtics have been mediocre with Rondo and pretty good so far without him.

  • hydrofluoric

    Not always a fan of Zach Lowe, but I think he got it right by singling out just had unremarkable this run is given the opposition.

    - All four wins have come at home

    - Miami routine looks bad on the road (they got whipped by Indy about two days after our win – and Indy is missing Danny Granger)

    - Kings are 5-21 on the road, and 29th in points allowed per possession

    - Magic, 2-21 in the last 23 games, and missing Arron Afflalo, Glen Davis, and Jameer Nelson (for the second half)

    - Clippers team that had lost by 25 in Toronto two days earlier and has now lost six of eight without Chris Paul.

    Would be great if playoffs Miami played like regular-season Miami but worse, or if we were facing garbage teams in the playoffs… but that's not what's gonna happen. Also he mentions that teams will have some time to scout and gameplan against the spread offense.

    • Josh_5

      Laaaaaaaaaame and here are my cute fluffy stats:

      - All four have been WINS

      - Miami is the DEFENDING CHAMPION with the best record in the East

      - Kings were 11-8 against eastern conference teams coming into that game

      - Clippers have the 3rd best record IN THE NBA and not having Paul cancels out not having Rondo

      Scouting the spread is a legitimate point but unselfish ball movement, consistent aggressiveness, and patience on offense will trump that. Don't be a buzz killington.

    • Phil725

      I'm a big fan of Lowe, and have been since he was here, but I found that intro almost bizarrely strawman-ish and misleading. It's kind of insulting everyone's intelligence to argue it as if everyone is basing their arguments off of a 4 game sample size. The article doesn't even acknowledge the full 9 games on the season without Rondo, as well as the season long on/off data that shows similar trends to the last 4 games. In my opinion, this CH piece does a better job breaking down the situation as it pertains to Rondo.

      The rest of the Lowe article was spot on as it pertains to the Cs for the season though. It points out what's working now, along with what might not work later and what we should be looking out for.

    • The Cardinal

      Here we go again…the Celtics are without two of their starters but for some reason, you are so focused on the other teams so-called deficiencies that you can't see the forest for the trees. The Heat are THE HEAT and likewise with the Clippers. No doubt had the Celtics lost to Miami and LA, you'd be saying "see, they are pitiful/they have no chance/they can't beat the best teams!" <sigh>

  • The Cardinal

    Glad the light bulb appears to have gone on for Doc with regard to the offense ("appears" being the operative word). Now if he can stop reverting back to the staid, predictable high-pick-and-roll offense after the team builds a 15 to 20 point lead while playing moving-the-damn-ball-for-really-great-shots, we may actually hold on to some of those big leads and allow KG and PP to reduce their minutes even more! As hardheaded as Rondo can be, Doc is even worse (although I luv 'em both).

  • CG12

    I'm not inclined to lay the blame for the C's offensive struggles with Rondo at Doc's feet. If you watch the games, you can hear him bellowing at the team to push the ball up the floor and move it once they get in the half-court. It just didn't happen as much with Rondo being the pre-designated QB. Rondo would stand and wait for someone else to take the ball out of bounds, rather than just grabbing it and inbounding it to someone. And there were times where he would walk the ball up the floor and do basically nothing with it for 15 seconds. You don't need to go at a dead sprint, but how about a light jog? I think that this time will be educational for everyone by showing them the value of moving the ball in getting everyone more engaged in what is going on.

  • Phil725

    Very nice summary on the situation. I've always thought the answer to why they were playing better now was pretty simple; what they were doing when Rondo was healthy wasn't working. You can blame whoever you want, and there's probably some validity to it. Rondo was playing poorly on the year, and Doc's system consistently fed the ball and all of the responsibility to him anyway. It's not hard to see why taking the focus off of a player being asked to do what they can't/are unwilling to do would improve things.

    The problem is, that poor stretch and what will probably be a better run in the second half of the season, will turn into a referendum on Rondo, when it really shouldn't. All it really tells me is that I should be extremely nervous giving Rondo even more responsibility throughout 82 games; which is what you want to do if you want to build the team around him. He was put in a position he wasn't ready for this year, and the team as a whole has benefited from a better system. That doesn't change the fact that this team's ceiling is higher with Rondo, and I know how good he is when the pieces/system fit around him.

    For the record, I put more blame on Doc. I can't get too up in arms about Rondo coming into the season as the same player he's always been. It's not on him to say that he's not ready for the responsibility of being leader and have a ceremony where he hands the title back to Pierce. It's Doc's responsibility to realize that a bench with less skilled players are putting up better numbers than the all stars and adjust accordingly. It's possible that he had the long term (playoffs) in mind, but I'm not sure there's a situation where Rondo doesn't show up in the playoffs because he wasn't made the leader. I think he just bet making Rondo the leader would make him bring it every game, and he couldn't find a good way to extricate himself once he realized it wouldn't.

  • High Rollers

    Only three situations where you need a traffic cop… when there’s a bottle-neck, when the lights stop working, or when there’s an accident. First of all, I don’t care how smooth traffic is redirected in the short-term, it’s not good for the traffic cop to go down in the accident. Second, I agree with those who believe the lights stopped working and there was some degree of failure to address the system before an accident (not causing the accident but definitely lamented after the fact). Third, the problem with a bottle-neck is that systematic flow kinda goes out the window, and it might not be noticeable until rush hour.

    • High Rollers

      Thankfully, when all is said and done, we have a four man rotation of traffic cops (9, 34, 5, and Doc). As Mr. Rivers put it so bluntly, you're going out there to ball, might as well be responsible for it.
      http://www.csnne.com/basketball-boston-celtics/ce

    • High Rollers

      Thankfully, when all is said and done, we have a four man rotation of traffic cops (9, 34, 5, and Doc). As Mr. Rivers put it so bluntly, you're going out there to ball, might as well be responsible for it.
      http://www.csnne.com/basketball-boston-celtics/ce

  • Phil725

    Good quotes too. Most player quotes are just cliches, but these actually answer a question of the time that we're all wondering. I love what I've seen from the spread offense all year, so it's good to see the players acknowledge that they like it and think it's better as well.

    Classic KG too: 'what do you think of the new offense, KG?' – 'the defense is playing better.' No one would ever question where his mind's at.

    It's also fitting that Terry and Pierce gave those quotes, because they're the two who's numbers since the injury stick out to me the most. Terry's up 3 assists since the injury! He's handling the ball more, and it's improved everything about his game. He's picking up a ton of the Rondo slack, and I feel validated for sticking with JET all year, and saying he needed to play with Rondo less.

    JET going back to his career averages isn't a huge surprise though. What's happened with Pierce since the injury is. I was ready to watch Pierce assume a crippling usage load once Rondo went down, but it's actually gone the other way. The offense is getting more shots for others, and Pierce looks as good as he has all year. The best part is that it doesn't seem unsustainable. The extra rebounding Pierce is being asked to do worries me for the long term, but that's not on the Rondo injury (miss you, Sully.)

  • Rav

    As some mentioned, Rondo's more of a threat with the spread offense as he becomes less predictable. However, as others mentioned, he'll be a negative when he's without the ball, because defenders don't need to respect his jumpshot (we'll see, I guess, whether he can remedy that with smart cutting, but Rondo's general lack of effort without the ball – excepting rebounding – doesn't bode well for that)

    Rondo in the regular season is much different from Rondo in the playoffs (in fact it's really Rondo on National TV vs. Rondo not on National TV that's the difference). He seemed to have stopped trying even a bit when defending opposing PGs this year, something I feel would be rectified in the playoffs.

    I wonder if Rondo's inability to shoot will bar him from ever becoming an upper-echelon player. Sure, there have been PGs who can't shoot (e.g. Magic, Kidd), but even then, those players were only bad with 3pt-FGs. They could make the open 18-footer with enough regularity that their defenders would remain at least that close to their man, or could make FTs well enough that they could derive their scoring through driving in and drawing fouls.

    Jeff Green, without Rondo (although that may not have anything to do with it) is rebounding at 6.1 per 36, which would actually not be terrible for an SF.

    • KillerGymRat

      I agree with you on Rondo's inconsitent play, but while he still lacks confidence as a shooter, he's clearly put in a lot of work to improve his mid-range jumper and it's showing.

      Rondo was shooting over 48% from the floor, which for a PG is pretty stellar, and though a lot of that is from layups, he was consistently knocking down the 18-footer. If you removed his terrible 3 point shooting from the equation (24%) he'd shoot well over 50%. Teams that have left him open this season have paid. He dropped 30 (mostly J's) on the last team to ignore his improvement. But you are absolutely right about his free throw shooting. He has to improve that. 65% for a PG is terrible and is going to get you fouled everytime you go to the hoop.

      And just FYI both Magic and Kidd developed into solid 3 point threats. Kidd is making almost 2 per game and shooting nearly 40%. In Magics final 3 seasons he averaged 37% on 3's or the same as Kevin Durant is averaging for his career from behind the arc.

  • http://nba.com Rayray

    I solved it

    Rondo was struggling to make the Cs more effective while on the court due to the absence of Ray allen

    Half of what made ray good was the fear he inspired and the constant threat he posed to defenses…. This attention he drew made rondo significantly more dangerous to score or assist

    His assist numbers have stayed the same but tos are up along with a worse fg% and a worse wp48

    Also rays numbers have shown year after year that he makes his teammates better while sharing the court with them

    Rondos only year without ray was his rookie season along with fhis year… I bet rr doesnt realize how he more rhan any other C misses #20

  • skeeds

    Doc's set offense has been deteriorating year after year. Sure, as long as the best shooter in the world was on the floor, and PP was also shooting lights out, it made sense. No one can underestimate Ray's 18 ppg off of assists.
    But with the changing roster, comes a changing collective skillset. You have PP, Green, Rondo, Terry and Barbosa, all of whom are way, waaaaay better off the dribble. Doc was essentially beating on a dead horse with his sets this year.
    As for Rondo's blame, I'll say this. His defense is purely a matter of mood. He's been unfocused, even bored, and frustratingly refuses to commit to his assignment if he's not feeling like it. I've seen him play Rose, Westbrook and CP3 to a standstill, so I know that it's only a matter of effort.
    I can't blame him for his offensive contributions though. We know what kind of game Rondo thrives in. Chaos. Un-set defenses, fastbreaks, quick p&rolls, open court plays. Quite the opposite than what Doc has him doing night in and night out. Sure, part of it is that his 2 best scorers are 2000 years old and can't get up and down the court without a week's notice, but part of it is really a lack of creative play-making on the coach's behalf.
    I just wish that this guy has an opportunity at some point in his career to be paired with a player fitting his style. I have a secret hope that Green can be that guy eventually. In the meantime, I'll just keep imagining what Rondo and Iguadala would be doing on the court if that trade ever happened…

  • http://sportssleuth.tumblr.com/ Joey

    With the Rondo being the caliber of player he is, a spread offense shouldn't be too hard for him to handle when he returns.

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