CSNNE posted this clip of an early practice during training camp and even though it offers only a brief glimpse of what happens behind-the-scenes, it perfectly captures what Brad Stevens is trying to do with the his motion offense:
You can hear Stevens calling out, "attack and get rid of it! Maximize your dribble! Deliver passes with some zip!" That may just sound like coach speak, but his players, particularly his point guards, should take those words to heart. Throughout the preseason, we've seen this new read-and-react approach in action. The Celtics finished the eight-game exhibition schedule ranked 5th in AST% just behind offensive juggernaut Golden State and the team that Stevens would like to model his Celtics after, the San Antonio Spurs. Although the new system promotes sharing the ball and giving an opportunity to all five players to either make a shot or make the pass, Stevens has utilized two point guards to trigger the offense while Rajon Rondo recovers from his broken hand.
In a lot of ways, Marcus Smart is the ideal point guard for this system. Although he doesn't seem like much of a playmaker, the rookie's aggressive style complements what Stevens is trying to accomplish: get the ball, make a quick decision, and move deliberately. Everything with Smart is done with force. After watching him over the last three weeks, I've been really impressed with how quickly he's translated his college game to the pros. Whether he's driving the ball hard into the paint and kicking it out, findin a shooter on the weak side, or delivering the perfect bounce pass to a cutter, his court vision is just as impressive as his physical strength.
That's not an easy pass to make to Gerald Wallace. Smart has to throw it hard and on the money.
A hook pass with his off hand.
Hard drive to the soft dish.
Another lefty bounce pass in traffic.
A cross court pass right into Avery Bradley's shooting pocket.
If Smart is your power pitcher with the triple digit stuff, Turner is the more crafty reliever that dances in and around the strike zone. Jeff will kill me for making this comparison again, but Evan Turner reminds me so much of Paul Pierce (and Wizards teammate Andre Miller, for that matter), players that play at a different speed (re: slow), but find clever ways to beat you. Turner is 6'7--three inches taller than Smart--and uses his height and above average handle to find players as he meanders moseys into the lane. In Philadelphia, he had a reputation for pounding the shot clock away, but so far in Boston, he's proven to be a very savvy pick-and-roll ball handler with the ability to keep his dribble alive, probe defenses and find the chink the armor.
That extra crossover dribble makes Nerlens Noel commit to the drive and leave Kelly Olynyk for the three.
Turner keeps his dribble alive and as the defense retreats, he finds an open Brandon Bass for the fifteen footer.
Three consecutive plays, three consecutive soft passes to the rolling Tyler Zeller.
High PnR's with Jared Sullinger. Turner waits until the defense commits to his penetration and then delivers a catchable pass.
Smart and Turner have done it different ways and it's clear that there are several PG styles that can be successful in Stevens' system. So where does that leave Rajon Rondo in his "79%" chance to return Wednesday night? Well, there's a reason why Rondo finished second in this week's GM survey as the best passer in the league and in my opinion, why he's the best pure point guard since John Stockton. This isn't a referendum on Smart or Turner, but Rondo can play with Smart's speed and forcefulness and manipulate defenses and play pick-and-roll just like Turner. We've seen him cut up defenses his entire career.
Those are highlights from Rondo's last healthy (half)-season before he went down with his ACL in 2012. Of course, there's some room for concern that Rondo's game won't translate with this new offense. For six years, he served as an extension of Doc Rivers. Rondo was surrounded by Hall of Famers and Doc made his job was easy: get them the ball in the right spots. And for a while, he was on the outside looking in on the Big Three but after two Finals appearances and four All-Star Games, he eventually was recognized as the team's best player.
So here's the conundrum that Danny Ainge faces: your supposed franchise player is a pass-first point guard who is used to having guys like Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett catching his passes, but with the team in rebuild mode, the new coach has preached a system that doesn't rely on one player to make it work and moreover, promotes ball movement between all five players and not just from one focal point. What do you do?
Nobody has a November like the Celtics do this season and if the team struggles, we'll start to hear the clamor to trade Rondo and get value before he hits free agency. That's a little short sighted, haters.
Sure, Rondo is a notorious stat stuffer, dubiously passing up an open lay up to get a teammate an open but sometimes more difficult shot and some of that criticism is justified. But that's 2008-2010 Rondo. That's the Rondo that was more game manager than game changer. He hasn't played meaningful basketball in over two years, but the last time it counted, he killed it:
For anybody worried that Rondo won't fit in, remember that he put up 21-7-11 in that series and nearly lead a Celtics team decimated by injury passed LeBron and Miami. He wasn't the best point guard in those seven games; he was the best player. Stevens' motion offense is predicated on sharing the ball, but what we don't talk a lot about is being effective at the point of attack and that's where Rondo is at his best. In the preseason, we've seen the ball move like a hot potato in Stevens' new system, but it's usually triggered with some action involving the point guard. He may no longer be the "engine that stirs the drink," but he's still the best piston and the best guarantee that it's running on all cylinders.
If the Celtics miss the playoffs again for the second straight year, we'll be four years removed from that Game 2 performance. Boston has one nationally televised game this season (four if you include those on NBATV), so Big Game Rondo may only be on triple double watch a few times this year. His numbers might dip and pundits like Bill Simmons talk a lot about how it's a shame that a guy with Rondo's talent be wasted on a team like this and how much he deserves to be on a contender. History and YouTube will show that Rondo only shows up when he's motivated to be great on the big stage.
But if that's all true, I think he steps up to the biggest challenge in his career: hanging banner 18 and finishing his career as a Celtic. Rondo is a contrarian on and off the court. As the media speculates on his return to the floor tomorrow night and possibly re-signing next summer, it has been Rondo's M.O. to keep everybody guessing and second guessing. When you think he'll zig, he zags. He's thinking two, three steps ahead of his defender and his teammates' defenders and don't think that he hasn't already mapped out the rest of his time in Boston.