Sir Isaac Newton introduced the three laws of motion in 1687, which changed the world and laid the foundation for classical mechanics. Centuries later, during the mid-1970s, in a game where the goal is to put a round object into a basket, Indiana's Bob Knight popularized and perfected something called "the motion offense."
His philosophies revolutionized basketball, changing the landscape of how coaches look at the game. Even today, it still has an influence on basketball aficionados around the world.
One of those people happens to be Brad Stevens, who ran "motion" for years at Butler University. He took that style to the pro game, and installed it as the offense for the Boston Celtics.
A motion offense preaches unselfishness, discipline, spacing, constant movement in the form of quick passes, on and off-ball screens, layups, and the three-pointer.
Boston stuck to this system early in the season and had mild success. On January 16th, the Celtics were 14-26, and had just broken a nine-game losing streak. But then something changed; there was a new variable in the form of Rajon Rondo.
The world champion point guard was ready to return from a torn ACL after becoming one of the premier players in the NBA. But Rondo flourished in Doc Rivers' slow-it-down half court offense for seven seasons, and now he was going to work in a system that required constant motion, something he had no experience in.
There were plenty of growing pains for the Celtics after Rondo returned. They started out 0-5 and Rondo's ball-dominant style initially wasn't a fit. They finally notched their first victory with him on February 2nd against the Magic; Rondo nearly had a triple double with 19 points, 10 assists, and 6 rebounds.
After the game, Brad Stevens explained that the offense's execution was "crisper," but he suggested that the system was changing. "Obviously the ball is in one person's hands a little bit longer," said Stevens. "But that's because he's kind of your playmaker and leader, the person that can create for himself and others."
Around that same time, an NBA scout pointed out that both Brad Stevens and Rajon Rondo would have to adjust their styles. In other words, Stevens' motion and Rondo's dominance were not entirely compatible.
"They have to meet in the middle," the scout declared. "Rondo needs to make sure he is able to adapt to a new style of offense. At the same time, Stevens needs to put his best player in a position to excel. If that means amending the offensive sets to cater to Rondo's abilities, then this is what needs to be done."
And that's exactly what has happened since the trading deadline. After weeks of a bumpy transition, the newly renovated Boston Celtics are playing at a higher level as of late.
Brad Stevens and Rajon Rondo are in the process of constructing the skeleton of the offense, but it will be Danny Ainge's job to put the meat on the bones this offseason with new pieces that fit the system.
The First Law: Rondo's Ball Dominance
Despite being only 20 games into his recovery from a torn ACL, Rajon Rondo has possessed the ball at a higher rate than any other player in the NBA. According to SportVU, Rondo possesses the ball for 7.4 minutes per game, which is third most in the league.
More remarkably, Rondo possesses the ball 23.3 percent of the time he is on the court, which is the most in the NBA. This is the statistic that matters because it shows that Rondo is in control nearly a quarter of the time he is active; the madness of it all is that he still isn't even playing at full strength.
By comparison, Phil Pressey only touches the ball for 16.4 percent of the time, and when Jordan Crawford was with the Celtics, he did for only 20.3 percent.
Some of the other top point guards don't hold the ball nearly as much either, including Chris Paul (20.3 percent), Tony Parker (20.2), Ty Lawson (19.6), and Goron Dragic (18.4). When this time is averaged out over 48 minutes, Rondo has the ball over a full minute more than any of them.
There are plenty of other factors that go into that stat, including a team's pace of play and time spent on the defensive end, but it does imply that Rondo is leaned on as the team's orchestrator more than any other player in the NBA.
This is where the compromising has occurred. Boston still runs Brad Stevens' motion offense, but Rondo is allowed to pound the ball like he used to in past seasons. They've also integrated some sets similar to the plays Doc Rivers used the past six years.
When asked about the revisions, coach Stevens said, "It's what we've tried to do all along. I'm trying to cut back on some things that we don't run quite as much."
By cutting back on certain plays, Stevens means that they don't run motion with Rondo nearly as much as they do with Pressey, or they did when Crawford was with the team. Instead, they take a more balanced approach, with plenty of motion, but with a heavy dose of popular sets like "horns," and other general plays.
"I think the more we can get movement prior to action, the better for us, whether it's ball or player movement," said coach Stevens. "If you get both, it's really good."
Stevens' last statement is very important. Statistically, Rondo is dominating the ball right now, but he's still willing to defer just like he did for years alongside Paul Pierce. But instead dumping it off to another player, he's just going along with the flow of the motion offense. Here's an example of Rondo is being integrated into the system:
Rondo ends up finishing off the play with a fantastic pass to an open Brandon Bass, but everything that happens prior to that is what Stevens is looking for. There is good, quality ball movement, but also lots of motion off the ball. This scrambles the defense, which is why Rondo's able to so easily penetrate the paint to open up Bass. Ideally, this would happen sooner in the shot clock, but it's a productive play.
On the flip side, the incorporation of some of Boston's old set plays isn't going as smoothly. The following play is similar to what the Celtics used to run for Ray Allen:
Jerryd Bayless runs through a series of off-ball screens meant to spring him loose for a jumper while Rondo pounds the ball. However, Bayless is defended extremely well, so time on the shot clock is wasted. The secondary option appears to be a pick and roll with Kris Humphries, since he slips the screen and heads towards the rim. Rondo uses a quick pass fake to free himself for a relatively open three-pointer.
At the beginning of the season, Stevens probably would've been angered by this possession, but they were rarely, if ever, calling set plays like this anyway. But with a player like Rondo, he knows he can create plays outside of motion, so it's best to utilize him in that way.
The Second Law: Rondo's creativity
"[Rondo is] one of the most unique passers around with his ability to run offense," explained Brad Stevens. "With the team we have and the guys we have on the court right now, there's probably less spreads and some more general actions that fit Rondo."
Those types of plays have changed the offense drastically, as the NBA scout suggested it would when Rondo returned. "Rondo's return to them team was Stevens' first real test as an NBA coach," an anonymous NBA scout proclaimed.
"Now, Stevens has amended his offensive strategy to a player, something he probably has never had to do at the collegiate level. The NBA is a different beast and he is learning this lesson as the season progresses."
It should come as no surprise that the offense runs much more efficiently with Rajon Rondo on the court, which is a sign that he and Brad Stevens have worked together quite well.
Rondo is averaging 8.6 assists per game right now, which is sixth in the NBA, but SportVU shows that he is still passing more than most players despite the changes to the offense. He passes the ball 2.14 times per minute, the fourth most in the league.
His skill distributing the ball has generated 19.6 points created by assists per game, which is sixth in the league. Rondo's passing also leads to 27.3 shot attempts per 48 minutes, which is the second most in the NBA, only behind Chris Paul.
In the past ten games, the Celtics have attempted a dunk or layup 26.8 percent of the time with Rondo on the floor. But without him, that percentage drops to 23.4. It may seem insignificant, but the success rate of shots near the rim is much higher than any other types of looks.
Rondo's creativity leads to easier shots for his teammates because of his ability to work within the system, but also when freestyling. That's why Rondo is able to get his teammates more productive shots, which, as a result, increases their chances of winning basketball games.
The Third Law: Finish the play
"We have an unbelievable playmaker," Brad Stevens said of Rajon Rondo. "As long as we hit our open shots, I think we have a great chance."
So far, the Celtics have done a solid job of doing that when Rajon Rondo is playing. Since the All Star Break, Boston is scoring 102 points per 100 possessions with Rondo on the floor. During those games, they're 1.6 points worse without him, with an offensive rating of 100.4.
"When you're playing with [Rondo], you don't need to force anything," explained Avery Bradley. "Just get to your spot and he creates for everybody. He's an amazing offensive player and helps this team out a lot."
The epitome of Rondo's supremacy was put on display when he had 18 assists and zero turnovers against the Pistons. Whether it was in the half court or in transition, Rondo found his teammates and put the ball in the perfect position for them to score. At that point, it's up to his teammates to finish the play with a basket.
On Rondo's 18 assists, Jared Sullinger said, "A lot of people can't do that, especially passing the ball that many times and the way he passes it with that difficulty. That's one hell of an accomplishment. When he plays like that, it's kind of hard to beat us."
"It's unbelievable. You can really see him starting to excel even more. He was great when he came back but now he is taking it to a whole 'nother level," echoed Kelly Olynyk. "Seeing greatness before your eyes is something special."
Rajon Rondo's increased productivity is something special considering his circumstances. It's arguably the least talented team he has played on, but he's still putting everyone in a position to succeed.
"He's really impacting the game," said Brad Stevens. "It's hard for me to say that he's where he ultimately can be, because every game he gets a little bit better. I kind of like this steady climb that we're on."
If he continues to progress at this rate, Rajon Rondo and Brad Stevens might be able to write the definitive book on the motion offense by the time it's all said and done.