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The Extra Pass: How the Celtics can survive without Rajon Rondo

Jan 28, 2013, 9:00 AM EDT

Rajon Rondo AP

The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, we look at the Celtics without Rajon Rondo

When the official word came down that Rajon Rondo had torn his ACL, it felt like a death knell for the Celtics. The natural reaction, and it might be the correct one, is that it’s time for the Celtics to move on to a new era. Maybe it would be different if they were rolling through the Eastern Conference, but even with Rondo, the Celtics were a struggling team under .500.

Given their history, however, it’s still worth wondering whether or not the Celtics can make one final playoff run without the services of their All-Star point guard.

Without Rondo this year

It only tells one small part of the whole story, but Plus/Minus numbers can at least give you an indication of what the Celtics might look like without Rondo.

The Celtics have played 744 minutes without Rondo on the floor this season. In those minutes, they have been better offensively (100.4 Offensive Rating to 99.2 with Rondo) and slightly better defensively (100.0 defensive rating to 100.5). There are a lot of factors at play here, but it is interesting that the Celtics haven’t suffered a drop-off with Rondo on the bench this season. The question is though, why not?

Slow down

The Celtics have given Rondo a few more toys to play with in transition, but this is still a team that’s largely conflicted when it comes to running. No one would describe the Celtics as fast — they’re 20th in the league in pace — but they seriously grind to a halt once Rondo leaves the floor. According to NBA.com and HoopData, the Celtics pace factor is 90.5 when Rondo sits, a number that would make them the second slowest team in the league next to New Orleans.

If that trend continues, the slower pace could help the Celtics survive the loss of Rondo in a few ways. While Boston has been dreadful offensively this year (27th in offensive rating), they’ve been particularly bad at scoring in transition, as they’re just 25th in the league in Points Per Play in that setting, according to Synergy Sports.

For years and years, the Celtics have avoided crashing the offensive boards as a strategy, and that’s why they’re 29th in offensive rebounding percentage this year. While that plan is supposed to limit easy buckets on the other end, Boston surprisingly has the league’s worst transition defense (points per play) this year according to Synergy.

What’s all that mean? Although it’s hard to imagine the Celtics will be better in the halfcourt offensively without Rondo, slowing things down to a crawl could be beneficial. Limiting possessions is a tried and true underdog strategy, and without Rondo, that’s exactly what the Celtics will be.

Point guard by committee 

Let’s set aside whether the Celtics need to make an outside move for now and evaluate the roster as is. Courtney Lee, Jason Terry and Avery Bradley are far from “true” point guards, but there is some positive evidence that together they can handle the duties.

Boston’s third most used lineup this season is the group of Lee/Terry/Green/Sullinger/Garnett, and they’ve absolutely killed it in 95 minutes together. That unit has posted an offensive rating of 115.8 and a defensive rating of 90.9 for a net rating of +24.8. To put that in better context, no lineup in the NBA that has played at least 95 minutes has a better plus/minus per 48 minutes than that group.

An awful lot of that has to do with Jared Sullinger playing next to Kevin Garnett, as they are the Celtics’ best regularly used two-man pairing by a large margin. Playing Sullinger and Garnett may not be a direct remedy, but it can help in the grand scheme of things.

But back to Rondo’s potential replacements. Jason Terry’s overall numbers are down across the board, but he’s using the least amount of possessions he has in his entire career by a large margin with just a 17 percent usage rate. A very underrated pick-and-roll player, Terry is 15th in the league in points per play as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, and his spot-up and off screen numbers are both in the top 35. It sounds simple, but Terry’s numbers suggest that he’ll benefit from having the ball in his hands more often.

With Lee, Bradley, Barbosa and even Paul Pierce open to taking some of the point guard duties, it’s still Terry who seems like the best bet for point production with the ball, mainly because the others do their most efficient work away from it. Lee is a year removed from being the most effective corner 3 shooter in the league, Bradley is at his best when he’s cutting around the baseline, and Pierce is a guy who could use more true post-up opportunities. None of those skill-sets lend particularly well to point guard play, and Barbosa hasn’t exactly wowed in his minutes at the point this year.

Call on Doc

Ultimately, losing Rondo shifts a lot of the responsibility to head coach Doc Rivers. Without Rondo’s freelancing or creativity, Rivers will have to run a heavily scripted halfcourt offense to generate results. While Rivers and the Celtics are capable of doing that, the looks are undoubtedly going to get tougher for Garnett and Pierce no matter how good the sets are. You just don’t lose the league leader in assists and not feel it offensively. However, if there’s a saving grace, the Celtics couldn’t really get much worse offensively anyway.

The defense, however, can still be elite and in a weak Eastern Conference, that can certainly be enough. The Pacers have the 29th ranked offense, but they play to their stingy D with a plodding pace that milks the shot clock, and they’re 26-18 because of it.

The Celtics are 9th in defensive efficiency, which means there is room for improvement. Losing a steal magnet and defensive rebounder like Rondo wouldn’t seem to help the defense directly, but backups like Lee and Bradley are two of the game’s most ferocious individual defenders. It’s plausible that with a slower pace and with more minutes for Lee and Bradley, the Celtics could very well improve on the defensive end — and that’s the true path to survival. Just ask Chicago.

Stats from Synergy Sports and NBA.com were used in this article.

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