Death, taxes, and plenty of turnovers by the Boston Celtics. If there were ever three things you could count on over the past five years, those would be safe bets, with the safest choice being plenty of miscues from Doc Rivers’ crew.
Since Danny Ainge put together an All-Star trio back in the summer of 2007, the C’s have had a recurring turnover problem that buried them in the bottom-six of the NBA in team turnover rate (turnovers per 100 possessions). The numbers are so glaring and consistent over this stretch, it makes you wonder whether someone needed to have an intervention with Rivers and his roster to help the team solve the problem.
Turnover rate (league rank)
2007-08: 14.9 (29th)
2008-09: 15.0 (29th)
2009-10: 14.5 (27th)
2010-11: 14.5 (28th)
2011-12: 14.7 (25th)
Early on during the Big Three era, Boston was able to get away with having a subpar turnover rate due to the fact they made up for it in other parts of their offense. They shot the ball with tremendous accuracy, hit plenty of 3-pointers (thanks Eddie House!) and got to the free throw line at a healthy clip. For a couple years there, believe it or not, they were actually an above-average offensive rebounding team as well, which should give you yet another reason to miss Leon Powe.
As the veteran stars have aged over the past three years, Boston’s shooting accuracy and ability to get to the charity stripe regularly has, understandably, declined. Those realities, combined with the inflated turnover rate and non-existent offensive rebounding, meant Boston had one of the worst offenses in the league last season. Little has changed over the horrendous first half of this season as the C’s posted a 99.8 offensive efficiency rating over 43 games (24th in the league) prior to January 27th — the pre-Rajon Rondo era.
Once Rondo went down with a torn ACL during the last week of January, the masses (including some of us here at the Hub) started to worry even more: Who would handle the ball? How would the C’s handle ball pressure by opposing teams? Boston’s turnovers would surely go way up without their All-Star point guard…right?
Instead, the opposite has happened. The C’s are taking better care of the ball than ever, which leads us to an important question…was Rondo the C’s biggest turnover problem?
The short answer is yes – yes he was. Outside of Pablo Prigoni and Earl Watson, Rondo had the highest turnover rate for any rotation point guard in the NBA this year, giving the ball away to the opposition a whopping 22.6 times per 100 possessions. For some perspective, other elite point guards generally have turnover rates in the low teens or even single digits. They value the ball while Rondo didn’t show the ability or inclination to do the same.
There are plenty of reasons why the C’s offense has struggled over the past couple years, but Rondo’s tendency to lose the ball is at the top of the list, especially when you consider the fact he was on the floor for close to 40 minutes most nights. Any time you give away a possession nearly once out of every four trips down the floor, you are in trouble. In fact, outside of Jason Collins, Rondo had far and away the highest turnover rate on the team for the past two seasons.
Turnovers have been a major issue for Rondo throughout his career, especially as his usage has increased the past three seasons. Two seasons ago according to Basketball-Reference, his turnover rate was 24.3. Last year it was 22.8. These high percentages are largely due to his high-risk passes, which are incredibly pretty when they work, but cost Boston precious possessions when they don’t.
Rondo does tend to take better care of the ball when the bright lights are on in the postseason, where his career turnover rate drops a few points. However, it’s still been above 18 percent for the past three postseasons according to B-R, which is just not a good mark for any point guard around the league. Rondo’s stellar scoring, assisting and rebounding made up for the turnovers during those postseasons. Still, regular season Rondo had been a walking turnover for years now and hadn’t done enough to make up for it most nights in other facets of his game.
What about the rest of the team? They are obviously just as involved in the team’s turnover issues the past five years. After dispatching high-turnover players like Ryan Hollins, Greg Steimsma, and Marquis Daniels this offseason, Ainge restocked the roster with career low-turnover guys like Courtney Lee, Jason Terry, Leandro Barbosa, Jared Sullinger and Jeff Green.
This philosophy worked for the first half of the season, as the Celtics became a middle-of-the-road team in turnover rate despite Rondo’s issues.
Before Rondo went down, the C’s gave away the ball about 15.3 times per 100 possessions, which was good enough to vault them into the top-15 for the first half of the season.
I talked to Rivers about the team’s improvement earlier this season:
“It’s been a lot of personnel and a lot of emphasis,” Rivers explained. “Through training camp, we had clock number, you got to run more [if you turn the ball over], everything’s been on it.”
Despite the improved personnel surrounding Rondo, I don’t think even Rivers could have expected what came next after his All-Star point guard fell victim to an ACL tear.
As the Celtics have switched to a spread offense without their offensive general, a system which relies on plenty of ball movement, the C’s have become one of the best teams in the league at taking care of the ball.
How good have they become? Over the past 15 games, Boston has turned the ball over on just 14.1 percent of their possessions, the 3rd best mark in the entire league since January 27th — the post Rondo era.
“With us, they are offensive-minded more than our other teams. They know what our numbers show, when we turn the ball over that we really hurt our team as well as we are offensively,” said Rivers.
A quick sampling of individual turnover rates on the C’s tells an even bigger story.
That, my friends, is an elite group at protecting the basketball, even with increased ballhandling duties for the guards with Rondo on the shelf.
The best part of these reduced rates for Rivers is they are all relatively sustainable. Throughout their career, all of these guys have low-turnover tendencies, meaning that despite the limited sample size, Boston should be able to keep protecting the ball for the remainder of the season.
The team’s improvement in the turnover department has translated into their overall offense as well, as the team’s offensive efficiency has jumped from 99.8 to 101.9 (18th in the NBA) without Rondo at the helm.
Now am I saying the C’s are better without Rondo? Absolutely not, although I won’t go as far as to completely rule out the possibility. More data is needed. As I wrote a few weeks back, I thought Doc’s predictable and stale offense was just as much, if not more to blame, than anything Rondo did.
However, there is no denying one thing: the C’s, for the first time in a long time, don’t have much of a turnover problem. As we watch to see whether Boston can keep this up, we are also left to wonder if Rondo can cut his miscues in a new-look spread offense upon his return, one that relies less on him handling the ball.
(Note: all numbers taken from nba.com/stats and Basketball-Reference.com)