Celtics are still CONTENDERS (Rondo's injury is NOT a death knell)

It's days like this that I wish I had a national podium to discuss basketball. I watch the various NBA experts on different channels discuss the Rajon Rondo injury, and what it does or doesn't mean to this team, and it makes my TEETH hurt. I would almost pay them to let me have a seat at their round table discussions, because there is an entire body of evidence that isn't being discussed on a national scale right now. The discussion is entirely one-sided, and (unless Danny Ainge blows up the team and/or Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce go down to injury) the discussion is ENTIRELY WRONG. Let me tell you why.

Rajon Rondo is an amazing talent, and a uniquely special basketball player. He was coming into his own as a star this year, and his injury is a tragic turn for such a competitive and promising young player. But I'll tell you guys a dirty secret...The Celtics are very likely to do (much) better in the second half of the season without Rondo, than they did in the first half of the season WITH him.

And let me get my disclaimers out the way, I'm not a "Rondo hater". And no, this isn't a rah-rah article purely for the sake of being different or a fan. And no, this isn't even a case of me trying to put the best face on a bad situation. Coming into this season, in August of last year, I very soberly predicted, using my interpretation of the stats and player strengths/weaknesses of the Celtics, that THIS Celtics team would be a 55 - 60 win team if Rondo were out with an injury. . And after watching them for half of a season, I believe it even more now than I did then. I defended the statements in the above link in a separate discussion on August 27, 2012, so let me post a few facts that aren't in that original link that support why I think this Celtics team will be more than fine without Rondo. And I'll do so by addressing three misconceptions about this Celtics team.

Misconception 1: Rondo was the best player on these Celtics:

"Off the bat, I have to make note of the team's performance without KG or without Rondo over the last 3 years when they've missed time. This will be in no means rigorous or declarative, because teams can adjust (or not) over short periods in ways they wouldn't over longer stretches. That is a given. Still, this is a decent starting point when wondering how the team would do if someone went down. From 2009/10 - 2011/12:

KG missed 31 games #; Celtics 15 - 16 with a scoring margin of +0.7 without him

Rondo missed 27 games; Celtics 17 - 10 with a scoring margin of +5.5 without him

Again, just a starting point. Not rigorous. But worth noting.
(# Pistons game where KG left injured in 1st quarter counted among missed games)

*Next, let's look at the RAPM estimates. Another starting point exercise, to see what the current state-of-the-art in impact stats says about KG and Rondo. From 2009/10 - 2011/12:

2010 (season + playoffs)
- KG: +4.5 (8th in NBA), Rondo +0.2 (~116th in NBA)
2011 (season + playoffs) - KG: +6.5 (3rd in NBA), Rondo +0.9 (~90th in NBA)
2012 (without playoffs) - KG: +5.6 (5th in NBA), Rondo +1.0 (~92nd in NBA)
2012 Playoffs (on/off +/-) - KG + 35.8/100 possessions, Rondo +2.4/100 possessions

It should be noted that these are per-possession stats, which means that Rondo's bigger minutes played would help him and KG's fewer minutes would hurt him in an overall game sense. Nevertheless, I think this is a second point that illustrates their relative impacts on the Celtics."

All of this is a backdrop to lead into a rebuttal for misconception 2, which is...

Misconception 2: The other Celtics needed Rondo to set the table for them

"Let's examine that NEED that KG/Pierce have to be set up by Rondo on offense. Up through 2009, Pierce and KG set themselves up just fine without Rondo. Then, starting in 2010 the offense has run more and more through Rondo with Pierce and KG (and Ray) moving more to finishers instead of setting up their own. The assumption has been that the vets are slowing down, and thus they can only get theirs if Rondo sets them up. But is that really true? Well, the +/- data would suggest that (at least in limited minutes) Pierce and KG are able to set up their offense adequately enough for the team to succeed when Rondo isn't around, and in the 27 games that Rondo has missed outright over the last 3 years that has been corroborated on the court.

So perhaps the movement to a Rondo-centric offense wasn't sparked so much by the vets need for Rondo to run things...maybe it was instead sparked by "running things" being Rondo's primary skill set, and if the team wanted to make best use of him then that could only be done if Rondo ran the show with the vets as finishers...and the vets are great finishers, so it works out for the most part. And it takes a lot less energy to finish than to set up, which suited our other mid-30-something vets just fine. But that if Rondo WEREN'T there, the vets could still do what they've done for their entire careers, at least to some extent in shorter minutes."

Misconception 3: KG and Pierce would wear down if asked to carry the team without Rondo for a whole season

"But if Pierce and KG had to run the offense full-time for 82 games, surely they would wear down at their ages? Actually, I think you have a point there. But this is where the additions of this offseason really impact the story. Over the last couple of years, I agree that the team was screwed energy-wise without Rondo when it comes to competing at the highest levels over long periods (heck, we saw that over a short period against the Heat in the 2011 playoffs, when the vets just obviously ran out of gas with Rondo attenuated).

But the additions of Terry (especially), Bradley (from last 1/3 of last season on), Lee, Green, Bass (last year) and Sully with the subsequent absence of Ray changes the dynamic around here for two reasons. 1) Now Pierce and KG wouldn't have to do the heavy offensive lifting alone for the majority of the game without Rondo, and 2) now Rondo isn't the only young player that can be counted on for production."

Also, and this is another key, the Celtics don't have to last a full season without Rondo. They have to last 3 weeks until the All Star break, and then they'll have the final 2 month push in which the vets were extremely likely to be picking up the pace anyway to prepare for the postseason.

Conclusion and predictions:

With that said, here are my predictions for the rest of the 2013 season (again, assuming Danny doesn't blow it up and KG/Pierce don't go down to injury)...and this IS mainly from that August link above:

*Starting Bradley, Lee, Pierce, Sully and Garnett the Celtics have the #1 defense in the NBA moving forward and the best since 2008

*KG still does his 5-5-5 plan, meaning that there are three distinct units that get run. The first unit features Pierce as something like a point forward (averaging at least 5 assists per game) and the leading scoring option, followed by KG with Bradley/Lee as shooters/cutters that play off of them and Sully as the garbageman with very underrated passing/shooting skills (modifying with Sully taking KG's role and Green taking Sully's when KG subs out at 5 minutes). We've seen variations of this unit in limited action in the 27 games Rondo has missed in the past three seasons, but this one has more talent and better fitting pieces. It has been successful in short stints already this year (beating the Knicks in NY and Heat yesterday, sans Rondo)...I believe it would be successful over larger periods.

*The second unit features Terry, Barbosa, Green, Bass and either Sullinger or Garnett. The main set for this unit is the Terry/Big pick and roll/pop. Green will be the primary weak-side scoring threat opposite the pick-and-play, and Bass will be the outlet off of the main action. Barbosa is a wild card, that (when on) often runs his own 1-man offense.

*The third unit is the one that will close halves and games: Terry, Lee (or Bradley), Pierce, (Green or Sullinger), and Garnett. This will be the most dynamic unit on the team, with 5 legitimate scoring options that all have range out to at least 20 feet. The unit will revolve between Pierce-centric and KG/Terry-centric action, and will be one of the most dangerous closing unit of the Big Three era.

That team, again with the caveat that no one gets injured, would finish with at worst a top-15 offense to go with the #1 defense in the league. Championship contender.

I hate that Rondo went down. It's sad for both him and the team. But this squad has a lot of talent that didn't fit with the style that Rondo played in the regular season, but should work very well moving forward. This team is NOT done. I just sincerely hope that Danny lets this play out, because the team's success is going to shock a LOT of people...

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