The Ewing Theory is an idea spawned by Dave Cirilli and described by Bill Simmons. It describes a counterintuitive circumstance; Patrick Ewing's teams always seemed to play better without him, despite his undeniable status as an elite player. It postulates that a team can lose its absolute best player, and actually improve. This notion has been reinforced repeatedly in the NBA (Rudy Gay's departure from Toronto would be a more modern example) and it has gained traction in the inner circle of pundits and analysts. It says that a team's collective identity is more important than the skill of its best player. We may be seeing this theory in action yet again; the Boston Celtics may be better off without Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green.
Clearly, the 2014-15 Boston Celtics are not the Ewing-era Knicks, and they have not suddenly become title contenders in the past few weeks. They were a lottery team before, and they will likely be a lottery team now. We are not talking about a turnaround that will bring Banner 18 this season.
However, after the trades of Rondo and Green, the Celtics have most definitely changed. They are playing with a consistent fervor that has been somewhat lacking on the parquet in recent years. They are playing with a purpose, and an identity, which is certainly a welcome relief for their fans. Perhaps most significantly, their change in play is being met with success in the W/L column.
Before Green and Rondo were traded, the Boston Celtics were 9-14, for a winning percentage of .391. Since those trades, the Celts are 8-9, with wins against Atlanta, New Orleans, and Portland. So, what happened? Were Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo simply just not that good?
Well, things are never that simple, but the short answer is of course they're good; they are both high-quality players, and one of them is arguably in the top ten at his position in the league. Their athleticism, talent, and experience make both of them valuable members of any team. However, they did not fit with the current complexion of the Celtics, and the system that Brad Stevens has decided to run.
Rajon Rondo had his most successful seasons when he was surrounded by Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Kevin Garnett. These three players had more in common than being consistent all-stars, and likely hall-of-famers; they were fantastic jump shooters. What's more, they were the backbone of a team that was among the best defenses in the league. With this team around him, Rondo's strengths were able to shine. With Kendrick Perkins and KG at his back, he could gamble somewhat on defense to create more turnovers without worrying as much about his man finishing at the rim. With the Truth, the Ticket, and Shuttlesworth around him, he could create open jumpshots for others within a slow, half-court offense and trust that they would knock them down.
These seasons turned him into the player that he is today; possibly the best passer in the game, capable of forcing turnovers on the defensive end, and with a propensity for playing his best games under the brightest lights. However, it has also given him a propensity to slow down the transition game, and wait until the middle of the shot clock to start moving the basketball. His game is tailored to thrive with rim protection and great shooting (both talent and selection). Those two characteristics are hardly calling cards of the current iteration of the Boston Celtics.
The most successful personal season that Jeff Green ever had was likely in 2012-2013, when he posted career highs in PER (15) and TS% (.561). He was the fourth offensive option on a playoff team, and thrived when he was promoted to the starting lineup in Paul Pierce's absence. Since that time, his tenure as the #1 option in Beantown had been somewhat of a disappointment. That's not to say that he was a bad player, he just never was able to consistently harness his talents to become the player he sometimes hinted that he could become. He has shown the ability to take over games on rare occasions, and thrives in transition, where he can showcase his elite athleticism.
Unfortunately, he rarely contributed in more ways than scoring. Despite logging heavy minutes, Green hadn't averaged more than 4.6 rebounds per game or 1.8 assists per game in any of his seasons in Boston. Additionally, he often settled for poor shots, and the only time he posted a positive net rating in Boston was during the 2010-2011 season, in which he only played 26 games. He seemed to get caught up somewhat in the idea of becoming the next Paul Pierce, instead of allowing himself to be integrated into a selfless offense.
Both Green and Rondo are clearly talented players, but they no longer fit with the identity of the Celtics moving forward. Now that they are gone, the Celtics have something that they have not had for a long time; an identity. The Celtics can clearly say who they are now, for perhaps the first time in over a year. They are a headache on the defensive end; a tasmanian devil of aggression and forced turnovers. In transition, they quickly push the ball up the court, trying to get the easiest shot possible before the defense is set. In the half-court offense, they move the ball selflessly, with a heavy emphasis on three-point jump shots and isolated post-ups, even if they do still shoot too many long twos.
Rondo is no longer not playing hard defense and slowing down the offense. Jeff Green is no longer there taking too many poor shots and trying to emulate Paul Pierce. Now, the boys in green finally have a clear identity and purpose under a young head coach that they're willing to fight for. That's what they do every night; they fight in ways that surely make the chest of Tommy Heinsohn swell with pride. Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder have stepped in as monsters on the defensive end, and selfless and aggressive contributors on the offensive end. The team is taking 3s and close shots more often, with a habit of pushing the pace quickly enough and moving the ball effectively enough to hide some of their deficiencies in terms of accuracy and passive (long 2) shot selection. The team is fun to watch, and seems to have finally bought into a system that is tailored to the skills and tendencies of their personnel. Before the trades, we gave up 105 points per game, since the trades, we're giving up 99.4. The numbers speak volumes about the change that has come over this team.
Green and Rondo gave so much to the city of Boston, and to the Celtics. They should be commended and praised for their work while wearing the green and white. The memories that they gave us should be treasured, and the sweat and blood that they gave us should be cherished. However, now that they're gone, the Boston Celtics can move forward into the future with a clear identity. For the first time in a long time, the Celtics know exactly who they are.
All statistics taken from ESPN.com and Basketball-reference.com