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

14 Comments

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.

Report: Victor Oladipo looking to leave Pacers this offseason

Pacers star Victor Oladipo
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Victor Oladipo was reportedly leaning toward leaving the Pacers in 2021 free agency.

He might prefer to exit sooner.

Jared Weiss of The Athletic:

Victor Oladipo looking to move on this offseason, according to sources

Oladipo has had an enjoyable and fruitful time in Indiana.

It’s also easy to see how he’d hold bigger ambitions on and off the court.

The Pacers control the situation for now. Oladipo is under contract next season at $21 million. But the specter of him leaving in 2021 unrestricted free agency applies implicit pressure. Indiana could trade him rather than risk him walking for nothing.

Of course it’s not fait accompli Oladipo would leave the Pacers in 2021 free agency. They’re looking for a new coach, and maybe that hire would help motivate Oladipo to stay. Indiana could take the upcoming season to sell him on a new direction. If going that route, the Pacers could still pivot before the trade deadline. That plan would allow Oladipo time to get healthy and boost his trade value (or suffer a setback and tank his stock).

Oladipo’s impending free agency also gives him some leverage in trade talks. He can signal an intent to re-sign with only certain teams, motivating those teams to trade for him (and dissuading other teams).

But at this stage, even if Oladipo is ready to leave, Indiana still holds most of the cards.

LeBron James first star in decades to face former team in NBA Finals

Lakers star LeBron James vs. Heat
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

When LeBron James left the Heat in 2014, he claims someone from Miami told him, “You’re making the biggest mistake of your career.”

Heat president Pat Riley said his plan for Miami “all of a sudden came crashing down.”

Six years later, LeBron and the Heat are in the NBA Finals.

LeBron remains a driving force of championship contention. After Miami, he led the Cavaliers to the 2016 title (proving wrong his doubter with the Heat). Now, he’s flourishing with the Lakers. Even at age 35, LeBron is a superstar who held the allure to recruit a co-star in Anthony Davis. That’s a championship recipe.

The Heat have nearly completely turned over their roster since LeBron left. (Only Udonis Haslem remains.) Riley remained committed to winning immediately throughout this post-LeBron era and hit on the right combination of players for this moment. Miami lured Jimmy Butler, drafted and developed Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, traded for capable veterans Goran Dragic, Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala and found undrafted gems Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. It’s a remarkable story of team-building.

Now, LeBron and his former team meet on the biggest stage.

This is just the third time an All-Star has faced his former team in the NBA Finals:

  • LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers) vs. Miami Heat in 2020
  • Wilt Chamberlain (Philadelphia 76ers) vs. San Francisco Warriors in 1967
  • Ed Macauley (St. Louis Hawks) vs. Boston Celtics in 1957

After years of coming up short, Wilt Chamberlain and the Warriors grew tired of each. San Francisco traded him to Philadelphia, bottomed out and drafted Rick Barry. Barry and Nate Thurmond – who moved from power forward to his more-natural center with Chamberlain’s exit – lifted the Warriors to the 1967 NBA Finals, where they lost to Chamberlain and the 76ers.

The Celtics were so smitten with a young center from University of San Francisco, they traded star center Ed Macauley to the St. Louis Hawks for the No. 2 pick in the 1956 NBA Draft… Bill Russell. Russell led Boston to more than a decade of dominance, NBA Finals trips in his first two seasons coming against Macauley’s Hawks. The teams split, the Celtics winning in 1957 and St. Louis winning in 1958.

A few other players were All-Stars in another season and still producing near – using that term generously in some cases – that level when facing their former team the NBA Finals:

  • Adrian Dantley (Detroit Pistons) vs. Los Angeles Lakers in 1988
  • Paul Westphal (Phoenix Suns) vs. Boston Celtics in 1976
  • Charlie Scott (Boston Celtics) vs. Phoenix Suns in 1976
  • Paul Silas (Boston Celtics) vs. Phoenix Suns in 1976
  • Dick Barnett (New York Knicks) vs. Los Angeles Lakers in 1970
  • Ed Macauley (St. Louis Hawks) vs. Boston Celtics in 1958

It’s obvious why these situations are rare. When on a team that could be good enough to reach the Finals without him, stars usually stay put. After losing a star, teams usually fall off.

But these are unique circumstances.

A Northeast Ohio native, LeBron wanted to win in Cleveland. Then, he wanted to live in Los Angeles. He still has the talent to dominate and the power to get his teams to mortgage their futures to surround him with immediate talent.

Riley is one of the greatest executives in league history. He created a culture in Miami that helps the Heat get through thick and thin. It’s one of the reasons LeBron joined the organization. Even after he left, the Heat focused on winning quickly and player development – then hit enough right breaks on this run through the bubble.

Make no mistake: Miami is the underdog of this story. LeBron’s continued reign was far more predictable. The Heat have been in precarious situations over the last few years before coming out ahead now.

That’s why Riley was so upset in 2014. He said he even considered going Dan Gilbert until a friend talked him out of it.

In his infamous letter, Gilbert wrote, “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE.” Of course, the Cavs came up comically short. They were awful while LeBron won two titles in Miami.

And LeBron has already won a ring since leaving the Heat. But Miami has the opportunity for revenge that Gilbert could only dream of.

LeBron has an opportunity, too. In 2016, when the Cavaliers and Heat had a chance to play in the Eastern Conference finals, LeBron called it his preferred matchup. That was somewhat about his friendship with Miami star Dwyane Wade, who has since retired. But there are are still plenty of familiar faces in the Heat organization.

You know what they say about familiarity…

Report: 76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons don’t get along

76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

76ers stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons aren’t the cleanest on-court fit. Occasionally, they’ve shown signs of personal animosity.

But is there a full-blown rift between Embiid and Simmons?

Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer (writing about Tyronn Lue’s coaching candidacy, which has taken a backseat to Mike D’Antoni’s):

As a Los Angeles Lakers player, Lue won NBA titles in 2000 and 2001 while playing with Hall of Famers and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal, who like Simmons and Embiid didn’t get along.

The Shaq-Kobe feud cut wide and deep. Does the Embiid-Simmons situation really match that?

It doesn’t have to in order to be a problem.

Shaq and Kobe were such good basketball players, they won three championships together despite their issues. Winning cures most ills. Shaq and Kobe worked through their differences while the Lakers were on top.

Though premier young talents, Embiid and Simmons aren’t Shaq and Kobe as players. The 76ers lost in the first round, a disappointing result that only increases pressure and tension.

For years, Philadelphia has committed to building around Embiid and Simmons. That appears to remain the plan.

That’s tricky enough simply based on their skill sets. It’s even more difficult if those two don’t get along.

Boston offseason: Offer Tatum max extension; watch Hayward pick up option

Jayson Tatum
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

Boston fans may be frustrated that their team didn’t advance to the NBA Finals — the Celtics beat the defending champion Raptors in the second round, while the top-seeded Bucks had been cleared out of the path — but this is still a team that made strides this season. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown evolved into franchise cornerstones, with Tatum now looking like a No. 1 option, plus Kemba Walker proved a better fit with this team than Kyrie Irving. Throw in role players like Daniel Theis stepping up, and there are reasons for optimism even as the East gets better.

Two things to expect from Boston and team president Danny Ainge this offseason: Paying Tatum the max and watching Gordon Hayward pick up his $34.2 million option.

There will need to be other moves to add depth — they have Memphis’ No. 14 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft and two other first-rounders, as chips to use — but Tatum and Hayward are the most expensive decisions.

With Tatum, it seems a no-brainer now to offer him a max extension to his rookie contract. He has become the alpha for this team, averaging 23.4 points and seven rebounds a game this season, even if he learned some hard lessons this past week about the demands of that role deep in the playoffs. Tatum made Third Team All-NBA this season, meaning he is eligible for 28% of the salary cap, make the team again next season and that jumps to 30%, meaning a max extension worth more than $189 million over five years (if the salary cap stays flat at $109 million, more than likely it goes up from there).

“I ain’t even thought about that yet,” Tatum said of an extension after Miami eliminated Boston from the postseason. “I was just focused on this season. Like you guys know, that’s a process the front office and my agent have to talk about it…

“So stuff like that, when it happens, if it happens, that’s not really my concern right now. I’m not even thinking about that. Just trying to think about the great season we had and the great players, great guys I was around. This was a hell of a year and I enjoyed it and I’m appreciative of everybody. But at the end of the day, this was fun. I’m not really thinking about the other stuff right now.”

With Hayward, the buzz around the league is he will pick up his player option for $34.2 million.

This also is pretty obvious. While Hayward showed flashes of being the All-Star player he was before his devastating leg injury, and versatile wing players are in demand around the league, there is not anything near $34 million waiting for him on the open market. Especially not in a coronavirus-impacted world where NBA owners have taken a financial hit. Hayward is going to take his money then see what the demand for his services looks like in 2021 (which looks to be a very deep free-agent class).

Boston will make some roster tweaks, but will run back the core of a young team — Tatum is 22, Brown is 23 — that is improving. A core than made strides this season, but will find those final steps into contender status are the toughest ones.