Realistic Optimism 3: Rondo's playoff history and matchups

So, I've gotten some good feedback on my first two "Realistic Optimism" posts, but there has also been an elephant in the room.  While I've been focusing on specific things that should make the team much better REGARDLESS of what else changes (i.e. the KG/Pierce combo that dominated the league this year getting about 25% more on-court time, and the lack of back-to-backs and games-on-same-day-as-travel-on-road)...many of those that comment have focused on a key issue that I haven't yet tackled: the performance of Rajon Rondo.

Rondo is a lightening-rod player for this team, in that there is a sub-population that considers him the best player and key to the team while another subpopulation considers him merely a product of an excellent system/situation and focuses on his shortcomings more than his positives.

I don't fall into either camp with Rondo.  I think he is a very good young player, and would be so regardless of his team situation.  On the other hand, I also believe that he is the member of the Big 4 whose game is most influenced by both his teammates and his opponents.  Rondo has a very specific skill-set that makes him ultra-valuable when he can get to the rim, disrupt defenses, set up his teammates, create turnovers and push the pace.  On the other hand, his lack of shooting ability allows certain defenses (those with strong rim protectors and savvy perimeter defenders) to blunt his main strengths, and if he's not in full synergy with his teammates and/or doesn't have the advantages of his athletic burst his offensive impact can go from hugely valuable to even vague liability.  In other words, I think he's a great young player if the situation is right but he has a large variance in what his output can be.

And in the last couple of months, Rondo's output hasn't been nearly as good as it was earlier in the season.  It's obvious on the court, it's obvious in his numbers, and to many it seems clear even in his body language.  His issues really came to the forefront right after his best friend was traded, so many attribute some of his lesser play to the Perk trade.  Several of the commenters to my other RO posts have said, in essence, that if Rondo can't get it together the team can't win the title.

I'm not sure I would go that far (I actually think they'd have a shot even if he's not balling out of control), but their collective points are well received.  A Rondo at maximum output would make this championship run a lot easier, that's for sure.  So, what are the odds that we get "good Rondo" vs "bad Rondo" in this postseason?  Well, if history is any judge, we're much more likely to see the Rajon we all know and love than his evil alter ego.  Why is that?  I'm glad you asked.

First of all, for a player so young, Rondo has a well established history now of stepping up and carrying a large role for this team in the postseason.  I wrote about it earlier this year, but Rondo has led the Celtics in on-off-court +/- in each of the last two playoff runs.  This is significant, because he's never been a +/- leader in the season.  In both '09 and '10 Rondo trailed Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett in on/off +/- during the year, only to step up hugely in '09 when KG was out and then co-lead with KG in the '10 playoffs.  And even this year, though Rondo far-trails Pierce and KG in the +/- stats on the season, during the weeks when Garnett was injured earlier this season it was Rondo (who stepped up the most with huge +/- stats (+17.8 for Rondo vs +9.8 for Pierce in KG's absence).  Of course, +/- isn't the be-all/end-all, but what it does show is that Rondo has a 3-year history now of stepping up as a leading impact player on the team in key situations.  Based on that, the odds would certainly suggest that he will do so again in the postseason.  But we can go a lot further than this.

Let's look specifically at how Rondo has finished each of the last 3 regular seasons, and how he then performed in the postseason of the first two to see what it suggests for the third:


09 March/April 20.0 12.7 7.5 4.7 1.6 2.3
09 Round 1 7.0 19.4 11.6 9.3 2.7 2.1
09 Round 2 7.0 14.3 8.0 10.1 2.3 3.3

10 March/April 25.0 12.8 9.5 4.4 1.9 3.3
10 Rounds 1 & 2 11.0 18.0 11.1 6.3 2.1 3.4
10 Rounds 3 & 4 13.0 13.9 7.8 5.0 1.8 2.7

11 March/April 21.0 10.0 9.1 4.0 2.0 2.6
11 Rounds 1 &2 ? ? ? ? ? ?


I put just the basic counting categories on their for simplicity and readability, but the percentages and advanced stats would reflect the same story.  In each of the last two years, Rondo's stats in every major category have gone through the roof to start the postseason.  And while some of that may be due to increased postseason minutes, check out the assist-to-turnover ratios...his assists (and scoring and rebounding) go way up, but his turnovers stay constant.  So he's not only producing more output, he's doing it more efficiently.  So, why the change?

Well, beyond just a nebulous "stepping up" or "flipping a switch", there is a tangible reason for his improvements: the matchups.  Rondo is murder in the postseason against teams that can't defend him (read: lack dominant rim protectors and strong perimeter defenders).  In '09 it was the Bulls that couldn't slow him down.  In '10 it was both the Heat and the Cavs that lacked the manpower.  Of course, in both years the teams in the later rounds with better interior defenders really curtailed his production...but that wasn't until later on.

And this year, again, the Celtics are set up to face a series of teams lacking that interior presence.  The Knicks are a joke defensively in the middle.  And if we look beyond, the '11 Heat look exactly like the '10 Cavs on defense...and Rondo TORCHED the '10 Cavs.

So, in summary.  Rondo has looked shaky of late, but not much different than he usually looks in March and April.  Rondo has ouchy injury issues (which I didn't go into, but I blame for his performance MUCH more than I blame the Perk trade), but he's had similar issues in previous seasons and been able to thrive in the postseason format with more rest between games.  Rondo has a history of stepping up in big situations, AND he has a history of torching postseason teams that can't defend him...and neither of the opponents on the horizon are built to do so.

In other words, once again, there is realistic and quantifiable reason to believe that we will get "good Rondo" starting Sunday night, which is a very tangible reason to expect the Celtics to be very good in the postseason outside of flipping some mystical switch.  Just purely off of player history and match-ups.

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