In roughly 10 minutes of audio time at the Celtics media day yesterday, Rajon Rondo gave us a lot of information to ponder. He talked about trade rumors, the loss of the Big Three and his new coach with the same unreadable tone of voice he always displays around the media. Some things are comforting in their familiarity.
One nugget that seems to have been buried (understandably, given all of the Brad Stevens material that surrounded it) was a comment regarding Jeff Green running the floor. Rondo was asked if he gained any new perspective on the team watching them after his injury.
“Some things I need to adjust for when I come back and play with these guys. I know Jeff loves to get the ball off the rebound and go himself. When Jeff gets the ball this year, I’m just going to run the floor. He can bring it up himself, he’s his best when he’s doing that at his position.”
Rondo is (BREAKING!) an astute observer of the game, and this is yet another example. According to MySynergySports.com, Green averaged 1.26 points per possession in transition this season, which ranked him 60th in the NBA. Rank isn’t especially important in this case; If a player is scoring at a 1.26 PPP clip, they should be trying to score in that way as much as possible as long as the efficiency holds up. But Rondo’s observations go beyond the numbers, and his comment — somewhat of a throwaway — holds up to a micro-inspection. Here are some examples of what he was seeing.
Many of these clips are from the New York series (which, incidentally, one would assume Rondo was watching with keen interest). The Celtics realized more and more as the series progressed that they needed to push the ball ahead to beat the Knicks, given Avery Bradley’s increasingly desperate performance as a point guard. As a result, Boston looked for the first available ball handler after a rebound often, whether that handler was a guard like Crawford or Bradley or a forward like Green or Pierce.
Green handling the ball in transition worked surprisingly well last year considering:
It only gets weirder from there. Green, who drew fouls on just 9.4% of his overall plays, per Synergy, drew fouls on 21.6% of his plays in transition. By way of comparison, James Harden — prolific at drawing fouls, perhaps the best in the NBA — went to the line on 17.7% of his plays in transition.
Green draws his fouls by forcing the officials’ hand. His drives are statements: “You are either going to call fouls tightly this game, or you are going to have to allow a lot of contact. Either way, you are going to be forced to make a decision.” Given how quickly transition plays usually unfold, Green is likely to get the benefit of the doubt even if an opposing player strips him cleanly. It’s for a defender tough to make a play in transition look clean, no matter how little hand the defender slaps.
What’s most effective about Green’s game, appropriately, are the paradoxes; many of the flaws actually work in his favor when he is dribbling in transition. He doesn’t have a good handle, so instead of getting fancy, he attacks the rim. He’s not a good passer, so he goes right into and through his defender. He often moves faster than he can dribble, but he doesn’t need to dribble much when he is able to stretch his legs into long strides. He is best as a straight line drive slasher, and most fast breaks are a straight line or, at most, a slightly curved line.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Green plays the ball off the backboard very nicely. When it doesn’t work, his soft touch often misses embarrassingly badly, hitting the bottom of the rim or just the side of the backboard. But when it does (the first clip is an example), it’s a beautiful roll.
Somehow, the combination works — a series of chaos dominos stacked perfectly to form an inexplicably efficient transition basketball player. In an unorthodox and at times unseemly way, Green produces at a high level in the open floor. Fortunately for the Celtics, if anyone appreciates unorthodox success, it’s Rajon Rondo, which is why his quote about letting Green handle the ball is so telling.
It’s also important to note that Green is not exclusively successful in transition. With so many essential chaos dominoes stacked, something small (Tyson Chandler realizing that Green is going straight to the basket and stepping in the way to absorb the charge, for example) can send a fast break toppling down.
As you can see in the video, it often only takes one defensive adjustment to force Green into a turnover. Sometimes, a defender realizes that it doesn’t take a lot of goading to force Green’s high-bounce dribble into a turnover. Sometimes, when the lane is cut off, Green attempts a poorly advised lob pass that sails well out of Brandon Bass’ reach. Sometimes, when he tries to perform a crossover in transition, the ball is knocked away easily.
The concern going forward, obviously, would be that defenses would find ways to adjust to Green’s play in transition, especially if he isn’t able to shore some things up. Kevin Durant aside, a mediocre ball-handler improving his handle isn’t an incredibly common occurrence. Green will certainly never be an elite finesse transition player.
But he doesn’t need to be. He needs to score, and he is likely to continue to do so. His lay-ups will still have English on them. His drives to the basket will still initiate too much contact for a referee to realistically pretend nothing happened. His length will still allow him to stretch over less physically gifted opponents.
He will, in short, continue to be Jeff Green. The good news is that it seems Rondo sees the benefit in allowing Jeff Green to be himself.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.