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:
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.
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)
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%
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
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
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