The following article is a post from guest CelticsHub contributor Romy Nehme. Romy’s work can also be found at 2 girls 1 ball
For a while there, the Celtics were doing their best impersonation of the serially severed worm that wriggles on, refusing to die. But for all their valiance, the Barbosa injury might just have been the final dispiriting blow. Having just plucked Jordan Crawford from the Wizards in exchange for a gum ball — a player whose own double helix falls into the same broad archetype bucket as the Brazilian Blur’s (“SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION”) — it remains to be seen if the Celtics can summon the same chemistry that made them, well, splendidly and effectively “confusing”, in Doc Rivers’ words, this season … and beyond?
This season has been a topsy-turvy one for the Boston Celtics. Hailed as a surprise contender after deftly tippy toeing around the stricter edicts of the new CBA and remaking their roster on the fly, Boston lost its pulse somewhere between Waltham and Causeway, looking abjectly catatonic to open the season — even for an aging team that could be forgiven for holding back some of its might for more meaningful stretches of the season. Posed in the form of a riddle to even the sharpest NBA minds, no one could make sense of the 2012-2013 edition of the Boston Celtics.
However, the Celtics faithful still held out a smidgen of hope that the Celtics could fulfill their promise with the return of Avery Bradley, which would once again make whole last year’s surprise playoffs starting lineup. What happened next revealed the truth in those tarot cards as the Celtics reeled off a season-high 6-game winning streak… Only to evince any credibility the winning streak lent the team by turning around and matching that total with an equal number of consecutive losses. What other bizarre stretches of NBA basketball could the Celtics possibly conjure up with roughly half of the season yet to be played out?
For all the creativity the Celtics failed to display on the court, their most dizzying stretch of basketball was yet to come. Over the last baker’s dozen games we have been witnesses to perhaps the strangest metamorphosis that has transmuted the pedestrian Celtics and turbo charged its anemic roster — current, and third round of lineup rejiggering and understandable period of acclimation notwithstanding — resulting in a surge that coincided with none other than the apocalyptic demise of its superstar.
Is this just a classic case of a speculative bubble, caveat emptor, or should we buy into its underlying motifs?
Channeling the effervescence of the Boston Tea Party, the Celtics have not only played their most productive but also their most watchable brand of basketball since Rondo’s demoralizing ACL tear. If what they ran with Rondo granted wide-sweeping executive powers was akin to an autocracy, then what the Celtics are currently operating within more closely resembles anarchistic communism, with the modus operandi of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”.
Once again, the NBA cognoscenti merged together to shed light on the matter; Some attributed it to the same shot of dopamine a team inevitably gets after the dismissal of a coach, a few rejoiced in sinking their sharp canines into the already injured Rondo while others, clearly more restrained than the rest of us, claimed it was an unsustainable anomaly, an outlying blimp in the data that would prove to be just that in the weeks, if not the games to come.
There was only one problem: the winning streak endured despite the mounting toll of casualties, the data kept on piling up and the narrative emerged clearer by the day. Not one, not two, not three, but four of the underperforming carcasses the Celtics brought in over the summer all arose from the dead. Even more damning: Pierce and KG, two clear-cut beneficiaries of Rondo’s ball-dominating ways — right? I mean these guys are old and almost entirely dependent on Rondo parting the sea for them to contribute, right?? — looked invigorated.
A number of variables began disentangling themselves from the marsh, and stepped forward into the sunshine and onto the evidence table. No matter, the same Celtics, previously a collection of 14 players whose riddled whole was previously much lesser than the sum of its parts, were now playing together, united, as a team. Fancy that.
The Counterintuitiveness of Rajon Rondo
There’s been a lot of talk lately about systems: the ones that work, the ones that don’t and the ingredients that act in concert to create a successful one. Chris Paul is such a rare specialist that his absence creates a black hole that none of the Paul-less Clippers are able to reconstitute with any permutation of the remaining pieces. Just like your office’s ancient secretary who hoards information, Paul rarely cedes control, but the Clippers are better for it. So what’s the difference between a Chris Paul system and a Rajon Rondo system?
Rajon Rondo is guilty of dribbling a lot this year, but that by itself should not be a point of contention; Nash often dances his way along the baseline tightrope, comes out on the other side, expands a few more bounces, all the while scanning the floor and luring defenders into his orbit until they find themselves in a compromised position. Same with Chris Paul who seeks to make the defense vulnerable by attracting a crowd and spotting the player who has been freed up by the strain placed on the defense.
Unfortunately, there are risks in seeking such advantages. The principle difference between the Chris Paul System and the Rajon Rondo System is that Rondo is often shackled by cerebral deadlocks; an inflexibility marked by a quasi-obsession with identifying and compulsively pursuing mismatches or perceived advantages — like a computer whose algorithm refuses to take into account ambient feedback data and forces one and one answer only based on its superior processing capabilities alone. Sadly, ignoring secondary and tertiary options amounts to a program being stuck in an infinite “IF” statement, unable to ever move on to the queued “ELSE” statements as the shot clock loses patience.
How many times have we witnessed a dazed Rondo, pounding the ball into the floor at the top of the key, just waiting for a play (e.g. a double screen to free up a three point shooter) to develop the way he’s conceived of it in his (unquestionably potent) mind only to finally surrender the ball — with nothing giving — to KG with a defender draped on him 18 feet away from the rim and just a tick left on the clock? That’s not to say that Rondo doesn’t frequently leave a slew of stunned defenders and onlookers in his wake. He does, but too often, the marvel gives way to sticky stagnation.
Quickness alone does not a quick tempo make. If we could extrapolate outcomes from raw abilities alone, we could more accurately model player worth and performance, home and aways wouldn’t produce such starkly different results and the construction of the optimal basketball roster wouldn’t be so complicated, dammit. Innate talents atrophy unless they are properly recognized, honed, and deployed within a system. I have no doubt that there’s a beautifully lush and complex orchestra playing in Rondo’s head, only on more than one occasion over the course of a game, those harmonizations remain trapped in Rondo’s mental space and his orchestra, confused, can’t follow the direction intimated by his brilliant baton.
To think that all this time, we believed that the Big 3 were holding Rondo back; That their collective age and mileage were repressing what was his and the team’s biggest gift and promise for the future — a run-and-gun style held back by the stuck-in-tar regime of its elders.
I’m hoping that an idle and restless Rondo can learn from Bill Russell, who spent less time fixating on dissecting the other team’s strategy than on scouting his own teammates. Rondo might be one of the best catalysts in the game but most players need to be activated the way Jeff Green and Co. have benefited from Paul Pierce’s literal head’s up play and proclivity for advancing the ball with a pass instead of tempting the 8-second clock.
So what happens when the rigid hierarchy crumbles?
Behold the rise of the oppressed, now free to enjoy the freedom of their gifts and exercise the rights and responsibility that should come with one’s means of production.
The Lesson: It Doesn’t Always Have To Be So Complicated
With no clear-cut superstar left on the team and two Hall Of Famers lubricating the offense, we’ve seen a brisker pace, better ball movement and an equal opportunity offense that makes use of the full width of the court. Paired with an occasional pestering full-court press, the system begins to resemble Malcolm Gladwell’s prescriptions of unconventional means through which David can beat Goliath.
Running with the theme of unorthodox strategies, Rivers has had the team executing a thinned out playbook so slight it could be mistaken for a Jehovah Witness pamphlet. This is not by design, of course, but it has to have been a revelation for Rivers, who as the ultimate architect of the offense, has to shoulder much of the blame for the “brilliant PG at the helm/lifeless naphthalene-reeking offense” paradox.
Whether or not the decentralized proletariat model could have been sustainable given the current personnel was never really the question. There’s no real precedent for this type of depleted team configuration (Linsanity? The Rockets’ 2008 22-game winning streak? The plots don’t quite match up but the team ethos and the togetherness that adversity bred, do) and no one realistically expected these Celtics to threaten the powers reigning atop the East come May anyway. There’s a reason why I keep on slipping into the “imagine how good this team could have been if Rondo wasn’t injured” brain fart, only to realize that the injury was the impetus for the team’s newfound success in the first place: Rondo’s been Carmelo’d , but as the (November) Knicks showed us, an improved system can carry with it a world of undiscovered riches.
Gaining Something By …. Losing Half Your Team?
What the lack of natural order gave way to was a set of modulating parts, all shifting together to compensate in areas where the Celtics were newly lacking — Whether it meant Pierce averaging more than 9 rebounds a game or KG getting reacquainted with the post, returning him to a more multifaceted and prominent play-making role. And that, can be informative for how the Celtics approach life after Pierce and KG.
Because this fleeting Cinderella story contradicts everything we know about how a basketball team functions; That the NBA is a superstar-driven league and how clearly delineated roles are crucial to the success of a team; That layers of ruse and offensive decoys are the easiest ways of outsmarting your opponent. But success is not always a function of the degree of complexity inherent to the schemes you load into your playbook. Quite to the contrary, in fact: You can almost liken the dumbing down of the Celtics’ offense to the way Tony Dungy made his fame in the NFL, making a case for extending and perfecting core elements of this accidental offense even once Rondo returns to the lineup. Take this passage from “The Power of Habit”:
Dungy has opted for the opposite approach [of complication and obfuscation] because, in theory, he doesn’t need misdirection. He simply needs his team to be faster than everyone else. In football, milliseconds matter. So instead of teaching his players hundreds of formations, he has taught them only a handful, that they practice over and over until the behaviors are automatic. When his strategy works, his players can move with a speed that is impossible to overcome.
Now consider Chip Kelly, the architect of the Oregon Ducks’ “Blur Offense” as described by Chuck Klosterman in “Speed Chess”:
The premise is that a simple offense snapping the ball every 15 seconds is more effective than a complicated offense running at regular speed, because an accelerated tempo manufactures its own momentum. It’s the reason so many of the Ducks’ opponents seem to tire and collapse.
Players don’t get paid for being effective cogs in a routinized and mechanized process, and fans don’t pay the big bucks to see an assembly line either, but this mastery-over-complexity philosophy can yield even more beautiful play. It’s why “pure talent isn’t necessarily as entertaining as doing more with less.”
As Trotsky once warned us, ideas themselves are never inherently nefarious, which is why the promise of communism can only be soiled by humans. So far, Paul Pierce has resisted the temptation to revert to his old “hero ball” ways, and the Celtics have thrived.
The Celtics didn’t bring their metal detector to the beach but they have definitely uncovered something. It remains to be seen whether or not Rondo can riff off of the new script when he comes back to a team that may have very little in common with the one he left.
Romy Nehme is a Canadian hoops junkie who grew up worshipping the Boston Celtics and is a regular guest contributor for CelticsHub. Romy can also be found at 2 girls 1 ball, which is not nearly as salacious a site as the name might imply. — Ed.]
 Carmelo’d, definition: passive verb; injured player once believed to be the team’s superstar, now vilified and perceived as being the team’s root problem.