Rajon Rondo

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.

Larry Bird: Kevin McHale won’t coach Pacers

Larry Bird
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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1. Kevin McHale withdrew from the Kings’ coaching search.

2. The Pacers fired Frank Vogel.

Will McHale reunite with former Celtics teammate Larry Bird in Indiana?

“I would not do that to Kevin, have him to work for me,”Bird said at a press conference today. “That’s just not fair. I respect the man too much, and we’ve been through too many battles together to bring him in here and be my coach. I would love for him to be my coach, but it ain’t going to happen, because our relationship.”

It would have been compelling to watch Bird and McHale work together, but I’m not convinced McHale is the best coach available – though that’s not the only concern.

After all, Bird just ousted someone who might be a better coach than any replacement.

Frank Vogel out as Pacers coach

Larry Bird, Frank Vogel
AP Photo/Michael Conroy
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After leaving Frank Vogel hanging for a few days – something he explicitly said he hoped to avoid – Pacers president Larry Bird finally ousted the coach.

“It’s time for a new voice around here,” Bird said at a press conference today. “Sometimes my job really sucks, and this is one of the toughest things I’ve done.”

Bird clarified that Vogel wasn’t fired, that his contract had expired and wasn’t being renewed.

Will there be a search now to replace Vogel? Kevin McHale has already been mentioned as a candidate, and he’d make sense. He played on Bird’s Celtics and learned an up-tempo system with the Rockets.

Vogel is now free to interview with the Rockets, and I think he’d be a home-run hire. Vogel’s defensive skills are badly needed in Houston, and perhaps the the Rockets’ institutional knowledge could fine-tune his offense.

Report: Rockets talking to Jeff Hornacek, Sam Cassell, Stephen Silas, Chris Finch

Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek directs his players in the second half of an NBA exhibition basketball game against the Houston Rockets Monday, Oct. 13, 2014, in Houston. The Rockets won 95-92. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
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There are the big names: Jeff Van Gundy, David Blatt, Mike D’Antoni and Frank Vogel.

There’s the catchy name: Kenny Smith.

And there’s the eliminated name: J.B. Bickerstaff.

Expect many more names in the Rockets’ coaching search.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Houston owner Les Alexander and general manager Daryl Morey met with Bickerstaff on Monday, as well as Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Sam Cassell and Houston assistant Chris Finch, league sources said.

Conversations with potential candidates are expected to include several prominent college coaches, sources said.

Among the NBA candidates with whom the Rockets are working to set up interviews are former Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek and Charlotte Hornets assistant Stephen Silas, league sources said. There could be 10-15 – perhaps even more – candidates interviewed in the process, league sources said.

Hornacek coached the Suns and looked pretty good doing so until this season, when he feuded with Markieff Morris, used too many strange lineups and saw the team quit on him. If he can explain this year’s troubles, he’d be a solid hire. But the Rockets have the best job available, so they can probably aim a little higher.

Cassell, like Smith, played for the Rockets. An intelligent player, Cassell has successfully transitioned to coaching, though I’m not sure he’s ready for a top job. He mentored John Wall with the Wizards before joining the Clippers. From afar, it’s just tough to judge his contributions to a loaded coaching staff in Los Angeles.

Stephen Silas broke into NBA coaching on his dad’s staffs with the Hornets (turned Pelicans) and Cavaliers. Paul Silas even let Stephen serve as head coach for games during the 2011-12 season. Between and after stints with his dad, Stephen has impressed at other stops around the league. Maybe someone who learned offense from Don Nelson and defense from Steve Clifford and gets along well with players would make a good head coach. The biggest question is how his rapport with players would translate to the head chair, but that’s a concern for any assistant.

Finch coached in Europe for more than a decade until the Rockets tabbed him to coach their D-League team. After a successful stint there, he moved to the bench in Houston. He’d be more of a daring hire at this point, but he could perhaps unite the Rockets’ front office and coaching staff better than anyone.

Reports: Kevin McHale withdraws from Kings coaching search, could join Pacers

Kevin McHale
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports wrote a few weeks ago about the Kings coaching search:

Kevin McHale is steadily gaining internal support, league sources told The Vertical. If Cousins truly is the future, the Kings have to hire a coach he will buy into, and McHale, a respected voice and one of the game’s all-time great post players, certainly seems like a good fit.

They won’t get him, of course

McHale indeed emerged as a candidate, and though it took him a little longer than other prominent former head coaches, McHale also came to the conclusion Mannix foresaw,

Marc Stein of ESPN:

This is part of the reason Sacramento talking to everybody. The Kings don’t know whom they can get.

An owner who has changed course too often in Vivek Ranadive, a general manager with too little experience in Vlade Divac, a top player who repeatedly feuds with coaches in DeMarcus Cousins – who’d want this job? Probably not someone who could get one of the NBA’s other 29 head-coaching gigs, and that might apply to McHale.

Mitch Lawrence of Sporting News:

Frank Vogel is still twisting in the wind, but it seems unlikely the Pacers keep him.

There’d definitely be something intriguing about former Celtics teammates Larry Bird and Kevin McHale teaming up in Indiana. McHale’s experience with the Rockets could help him install an up-tempo offense, too.