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The Surprise Uprising of The Boston Celtics Proletariat

 

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 [1], 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.]

=============

[1] 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.

  • Ersatz

    This is freaking fantastic, particularly the guiding metaphor. Bravo!

  • CG12

    Sorry, but I stopped reading half-way through. Too much overblown prose and no clear point.

    • Josh_5

      I did the same exact thing, for the same exact reason.

      • fabzzz

        Language aside (some of it definitely felt forced but some I liked) I liked some of its points.

        Mainly that maybe we shouldn't focus on making Rondo a superstar or replacing half our roster with one superstar but should focus on complimentary players.

        She's wrong, though, there is a model and they are called the Denver Nuggets. Lawson is superior to most but definitely no superstar.

        But yeah, its Basketball not Criticism. C'mon.

        • CG12

          I like basketball. I like to read about basketball. But I did not enjoy this article. It seems like it could make its point more effective with about 25% of the words and without the tortured intellectual metaphor. My guess is that the writer is a perhaps a younger person who would like to be a journalist. It sounds like someone trying things out. I give my opinion not to be a dick (although I may indeed be one), but rather to give feedback, which may be helpful.

  • KillerGymRat

    Nice to have guest contributors, but this one (IMO) was quite verbose and overly dense (as if the writer is more interested in showing off their vocabulary and being clever, than conveying an informed opinion or provoking new discussions on a new topic). But I guess you had to know what you were in for when an author uses "proletariat" in the title of a basketball blog. The vague point made has already been exhausted on this site. But I guess offhandedly vilifying Rondo for being "guilty of dribbling too much" and "shackled by cerebral deadlocks" is good enough filler now that all the intensely debated trade talks have ended (thankfully).

    It's obvious that the injuries have forced this team to use an offensive system that is markedly better than the offense it was running before. But the offense hasn't really been all that impressive when you look at the overall numbers. Sure role players have been more effective and this team is much more interesting to watch. But in truth, the latest winning streak (which has now been offset by a not-so-impressive road trip record of 2 – 3) is more aptly attributed to the dramatically improved defensive play. Since Rondo's injury the team has stepped up it's defensive intensity overall and has been the top-rated defense in the league over that stretch.

    It's also worth pointing out that shareball (aka the spread offense) clearly isn't effective in crucial moments – as evidenced by the team reverting to PP isos and running the offense through him when it really matters and it's obvious that this team struggles to score just as much with the spread as it did with the prior offense in key game-defining moments when it needs a basket.

    We're still win by the PP iso…or die by the PP iso so it's hard to agree with the statement – "So far, Paul Pierce has resisted the temptation to revert to his old “hero ball” ways, and the Celtics have thrived."

    PP hero ball was responsible for at least 3 wins during this current stretch of proletariat uprising, and it was hero ball at it's finest. And damn we're lucky he can still do that, because with Rondo gone, nobody else on this roster can take over a game like that.

  • hydrofluoric

    Really enjoyed the piece (in spite of the plethora of dependent clauses); I liked this better than her "Ode to Avery Bradley." Also, the link to Gladwell's piece in The New Yorker was a fantastic read.

    • check12check

      I was also put off by the cringe worthy punctuation running through the article( the author seems to have little understanding of using parentheses, commas, and hyphens in an EFFECTIVE manner, and she also throws some commas in at random). a few sentence fragments nearly made me gag as well.

  • High Rollers

    I actually like the article’s implicit defense of Rondo, but KGR has a good point about the D.

    I don’t blame anybody for failing to make an overhauled roster gel over a mere half a season. That said, Doc’s imperative of “Get it to Rondo! Get it to Rondo!” is probably now taking on a healthier evolution toward a less constipated O.

  • Morpheus

    WOW this was like a guy just pulled out his big english PHD and jizzed over everybody.

    Can we please keep it simple and normal, i felt like i had to pull out the dictionary to understand this *insert more appropriate word*

  • High Rollers

    CP does seem the tiniest bit more flexible than 9, but really the guys being rewarded with the ball by these two floor generals have to make open shots and also make good decisions. CP’s personnel was just doing a better job of that in the first half of the season. For as much pounding of the ball we saw from 9, there was an equal amount of missed wide open looks and/or turnovers from his ‘mates. Everyone in green was failing the execution test early on.

  • Disappointed Reader

    This is possibly the worst article I have ever seen on this site. The analogies are strained, the Communist motif is blatantly inaccurate (perhaps anarcho-capitalism is what you were looking for), and repeated, forceful attempts are made at producing eloquence, all of which end in a terrible mess of wordiness and leave the reader with impressions of the author's elitism. The forays into computer science, politics, and history (Boston Tea Party reference) are misguided and seemingly used only to boast of the author's perceived omniscience. I did find the quoting of Tony Dungy and Chip Kelly to be very effective and enlightening, but on the whole, the piece is riddled with a posturing elitism that does little to inform the audience. Poorly done.

  • High Rollers

    On a different note…

    We get GSW on the heels of their brawl with Indy. Not having to chase Curry (and/or Lee) around Friday night wouldn't be such a bad thing. If Rondo can get suspended for getting pulled into media row by Kris Humphries with his jersey over his head, Curry has to get something for trying (emphasize "trying") to tackle Hibbert, no?

    • KillerGymRat

      Thanks for bringing up something far more interesting than the blog.

      That was crazy! The refs really blew that entire situation. First they all missed the foul on Lee that instigated it all (shoulda been a T or at the very least a personal)…then they toss Hibbert, when all he did was shove back. They completely ignored that Lee through a shoulder at him in response to escalate the whole thing further, then they somehow ignore that Curry even further instigated it and forced it into the stands by (and you are correct) "trying" to tackle Hibbert.

      I don't know how both Lee and Curry weren't tossed for that. It's one thing to try and get between guys to calm a fight, but he was like a little pug, trying to take down a great dane, and he kept coming at him (laughably so) even when Hibbert wasn't doing anything.

      And man, do not mess with David West. That guy was throwing guys left and right with ease. (He definitely should have been tossed – he threw two warriors into the stands)

      I'd have to say the officiating all year on the physical play beneath the basket has been garbage, and is the real reason for all the scuffles. You rewatch the KG/Melo "honey nut cheerios" incident and you see it all happened because they refs ingnored the physical play so of course it's going to escalate.

      • High Rollers

        Glad you responded. Officials seem to be less and less consistent or accurate when it comes to physical play, and that's regardless of whether it gets out of hand or not.

        • High Rollers

          Also, have to think Mark Jackson was having a flashback to his Knicks days… then he remembered that he coaches the Warriors in 2013. And it's just not the same.

          At least they tried, I guess. But you're right. David West's team is not the right one to get your feet wet with. (How that guy let the Heat rattle him last postseason just boggles my mind and irritates the heck out of me. But that's another story.)

      • Hype

        I didn't watch the game, so I can't give a true analysis of how the whole game was, but I read that it was a very chippy game. The whole scuffle didn't start with Lee though, because if you watch the full replay, it started with Hibbert sprinting the full length of the court and smashing into Lee, to which Lee responded with a push after the play (and then it continued from there). Hibbert should have gotten an offensive foul for that, but the refs let it go by and thus this resulted. Also I don't know what Curry was thinking. If you want to separate players, you go in the middle and separate them. He wraps up the opposing team's player, which was very foolish. No one wants to be wrapped up like that in the heat of the moment, and especially not by the opposing team's player. Curry made it worse than it had to be. And as a side note, you are right about David West. He he is bulky and built like a tank. He does boxing for a hobby and do you remember the incident where he punched the Cavs mascot and put him in the hospital? Its better not to step up to him.

  • High Rollers

    Anybody else notice that the last time Miami lost it was to us? Man, I hate that it fueled their recent win streak but I love this rivalry. Bring it on.

    • High Rollers

      Oops… looked it up and saw that they lost to Indy two games after our 2OT win against them. My bad. (That was a 20T-er wasn't it? Feels like forever ago.)

  • Josh_5

    On a serious note, you guys have to read Malcom Gladwell's piece that's linked in this story. I found that story to be gold. It's long, but completely worth it.

  • Devin_in_Maine

    This piece just seems like it was written so the writer could read it back to herself and feel impressed. I got a little past the jump and realized that I just didn't want to commit the kind of time required to read such dense self-aggrandizing prose. Thumbs up for "Guest Bloggers" on CelticsHub…Thumbs down for this particular piece.

  • jman

    Excellent writing and observation. I can't wait to see who we'll get for a big with the Rondo trade. Hopefully we'll see kg and pierce diminish their roles next season to have a hell of a second unit. For all you rondo lovers and anti doc fans, look back on the beginning games this season and last season as well. It is clear that the ex pg Doc wants to run. It was rondo who chose not to. You can see Doc's expressions during the games that shows his frustrations. True, Doc should of benched Rondo to show the kid that he needs to change his ways. Doc clearly failed on that aspect. Doc is a pg folks. He played during the days of running for half-court ball in a defensive minded and more physical era was useless. And those that continue to say Rondo wanted to run but no one was running with him is pure BS. Danny do the team a favor and keep our perimeter players next year and try to persuade kg and pierce to drop down to the bench, but trade our so-called superstar pg while he is marketable as one.

  • TEH

    Post-Rondo Injury:

    Games: 13 (missing loss 3 nights ago due to lack of data)
    Offensive Rating: 103.83
    Defensive Rating: 98.24

    • OKCeltic

      Recommend showing what the Ratings were before RR's injury if you want to support your argument.

  • todd

    blowhard writing

  • Trevor

    Great column! I would only point out that "evince" is used improperly in it, and I suspect the author meant "blip" in the data, and not "blimp."

  • robin

    just read a 4th of it! damn! i thought i was reading a dictionary!

  • emg

    I think we should hedge toward allowing articles into the mix versus complaining about it too much.
    Also we could consider talking about the content because the only thing less interesting than unwanted prose, is unwanted prose about unwanted prose.
    Though unwanted prose about unwanted prose about unwanted prose is allowed.

  • http://twitter.com/michaeljavid @michaeljavid

    I have a bachelors in language/history and master's degree in science/ethics. I'm 2 years into medical school. And yet, I had to google twice to understand words in this piece. I can't help but wonder what a small, priviledged, microfraction of the world's population would find this worthy of their time.

    Don't get me wrong, the author knows the topic and makes good points, but it's so over the top. If C's fans had an educated hipster following, Romy Nehme would be their leader.

  • Iw

    He likes his own writing as much as Rondo likes handling the rock. Exhausted me just skimming his article

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