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

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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.

James Harden throws alley-oop to Chris Paul, pair puts on show at Houston charity event

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What chemistry problem?

There are legitimate questions about how Chris Paul and James Harden will share the backcourt and ball with the Rockets, but none of those were on display on Sunday. That’s when CP3 joined his new teammate in Harden’s charity game (raising money for Harden’s charity, which helps children from single-family homes get a higher education), a kind of pro-am with some names thrown in to draw a crowd.

Harden and CP3 put on a show for the fans.

This is a charity event, not every team is going to defend like this or the Phoenix Suns. It’s going to be harder when the games matter.

But the Rockets are going to be entertaining to watch this season. No doubt.

Tampering is common in the NBA, but proving it is very difficult

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Want proof there is tampering in the NBA: Free agency starts on July 1 at midnight Eastern every year, and every year a number of new contracts for players with new teams are announced at 12:01 a.m. There is no way that a complicated NBA contract — even one where the two sides are both interested and will agree quickly on the price — is negotiated faster than it takes to get an In-N-Out Burger (or Five Guys burger, if you prefer the inferior).

Those deals are announced that fast because everything’s already been agreed to through back channels. Same with meetings when a major (or even mediocre) free agent starts talking to teams on July 1. Yet, the NBA rarely investigates, and even more rarely punishes a team for tampering. Why? Because it’s very difficult to prove.

The Lakers are being investigated for tampering with Paul George while he was under contract to the Indiana Pacers, an investigation reportedly started at the request of Pacers’ owner Herb Simon. Teams are not allowed to recruit or entice players under contract. The Lakers have denied any wrongdoing. Lakers president Magic Johnson went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and, with a wink, joked about what he’d tell George if they met this summer, and that ticked Simon off. The Pacers had to trade George, and because everyone around the league knows he more likely than not is a Laker next summer (long before Magic went on TV), his trade value was diminished. The Pacers got back Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him the day before free agency opened (although there may have been better offers on the table, and the choice and timing were odd). The Pacers think if there is an agreement in place between the Lakers and George that would have driven down the trade market (because he was a one-year rental, that market was already depressed).

Good luck proving tampering. Unless Magic did something stupid like text George directly, it will be almost impossible to prove.

NBA agents and front offices know how to avoid tampering using “back channels” — not unlike how governments who are public enemies still communicate. Someone, a couple of people removed from the agent/GM, can talk with someone a couple of people removed from the other side and set something up that gets brought back and agreed to. Or, an agent can have one of his other players do some of the work for him — players recruit each other all the time on social media (and off it), and the league doesn’t see that as tampering, unless specifically ordered by a GM/owner. James Harden recruited Chris PaulDraymond Green and other Warriors recruited Kevin Durant, and the league shrugged, but GM Bob Myers could not have done that (or directed the players to do that… again, good luck proving it if you think he did).

There are a few reasons it will be hard to prove the Lakers did anything. First, the Lakers’ GM Rob Pelinka is a former agent and knows how to work the system — he’s not getting caught. Look what another agent told Kevin O’Connor at The Ringer.

“Pelinka for sure knows how to tamper without getting caught,” one agent told me. “Pelinka will do whatever it takes to get players. Magic could easily have done something dumb and got caught for it, though.”

To prove tampering, Magic needs to have left a “paper trail,” which more accurately is a digital trail of texts or emails. But even that can get tricky. If Magic was texting with George’s agent Aaron Mintz that alone proves nothing, he also represents Julius Randle on the Lakers and D'Angelo Russell, who the Lakers traded a week before the George trade. It will take an email or text specifically talking about George for the Lakers to get in trouble, and Magic is smarter than that. Well, we think he is.

The bottom line is tampering is common and almost impossible to prove. Unless Magic screwed up, it will be unprovable here. Maybe the Pacers made their point, maybe Simon feels better, but it’s hard to see how this is going to be tampering.

Joakim Noah talks of “bounce back” year for himself, Knicks

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In a season of disappointments in New York, none was bigger than Joakim Noah.

There was plenty of scoffing around the league in the summer of 2016 when Phil Jackson signed the oft-injured, already declining Noah to a four-year, $72 million contract that was seen as one of the worst of a summer (and it was an ugly summer for contracts). He only played in 46 games, averaging 5.5 points on 49 percent shooting, plus 8.8 rebounds a game in those (and basically being averaged on offense and a step slow defensively). He missed time with a rotator cuff surgery and got a 20-game suspension for testing positive for Androgen (he has 13 of those games left and can’t play until Nov. 13).

Noah realizes how poorly last season went he told the “Truth Barrel’’ podcast, doesn’t think Jackson deserves all the blame, and said his goal is to make it up this season (hat tip The New York Post for the transcription).

“It’s tough, man, because I got a lot of love and respect for Phil,’’ Noah said. “He gave me an opportunity to play back home. Somebody I read all his books as a kid. I was just a big fan and still am. I have a lot of respect for him. It didn’t work out. That sucks. It’s something I have to live with. He believed in me, and I kind of let him down. That’s frustrating. He got a lot of blame that it was his fault. But we didn’t lose all those games because of Phil Jackson…

“I went through a lot of adversity,’’ Noah said. “You go through injuries. I lost my confidence this year. It’s about bouncing back and showing who I am through these tough times. It can really show what you’re made of.”

This is the only attitude Noah should have — look forward, get healthy, and look to right his wrongs next season.

Once he finishes his suspension, Noah likely will come off the bench behind Willy Hernangomez. (The Knicks should spend more time with Kristaps Porzingis at the five, but that’s another discussion.) Noah is going to get his chances, but nothing he has shown the past few seasons should have Knicks’ fans expecting a return to form. Noah has been an average to below-average player for a couple of seasons, he’s not moving the same way, and he’s not getting younger.

Noah can still have a positive impact on this team, he has a role to play, but it has to start with him getting back on the court.

Add Milos Teodosic to long list of stars missing EuroBasket

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The last Olympics in Rio saw a long list of NBA players sitting it out, either due to injuries, concerns about Zika virus, a serious dislike of açaí berries or just choosing to do something else with their time.

Now it looks like EuroBasket is suffering the same fate.

The latest name to come up is Milos Teodosic, who signed this summer with the Clippers, could never get healthy, and is out for Serbia. He joins a long list — Sportando put together a list of NBA players and stars who are out.

More than just one someone is missing, guys such as Ivica Zubac, Mario Hezonja, Paul Zipster, and others are out as well.

Spain, led by Pau Gasol, remain the heavy favorites to win EuroBasket 2017, with Serbia, France, and Lithuania potential contenders. There may be a lot of players missing, but there is still a lot of talent, and when guys are playing for national pride there is plenty of emotion and fire as well.