Would a ship continue to stay afloat without its captain? Could a small child live without his/her mother? Does an entire nation feel safe without a leader?
Could the Boston Celtics survive without Rajon Rondo?
It’s a question that has been on the minds of nearly every analyst and fan alike since it was announced that Rondo would miss the remainder of the season. The All-Star point guard tore his ACL during the closing minute of the Celtics’ Jan. 25 contest with the Atlanta Hawks.
Common sense would have you believe that Boston has been just fine, maybe even better, without Rondo.
In 43 games before his absence, the Celtics were 20-23. They had just lost six-straight games and were under .500 after 40 or more games for the first time since 2007. The offense looked stagnant and the defense appeared vulnerable.
Needless to say, the future looked bleak.
In 21 games since, Boston is 15-6. The team opened up the post-Rondo era with a season-high, seven-game win streak and has maintained its high level of play throughout. Key players have elevated their games, while some reserves have begun to get involved.
Suddenly, the Celtics look the part of a postseason threat. Not to mention, the Atlantic Division title is within reach—they trail the New York Knicks by 3.5 games.
But is Boston’s turnaround a mere coincidence or is it the damning evidence in the case against Rondo?
Let’s take a closer look.
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As far as the offense goes, nothing really changes with or without Rondo.
The Celtics have played 1,729 minutes with Rondo off the court and 1,423 minutes with him on the court. However, the only real difference since his absences is a drop in assists—23.5 per game to 21.5—and steals—8.9 per game to 7.7.
Other than that, it’s rather eerie just how similar the team is in both circumstances.
With Rondo, Boston shot 45.9 percent from the floor and 34.7 percent from three-point range, while averaging 93.8 points per game.
Without him, the Celtics connected on 45.9 percent of their attempts from the field and 35.3 percent from distance, while averaging 93.2 points per game.
But where we really start to see a difference is on the defensive side of the ball.
With Rondo, Boston allowed opponents to shoot 45.1 percent from the floor and 35.2 percent from three-point range. Opponents averaged 21.7 assists on their way to 95.7 points per game.
In Rondo’s absence, the Celtics have held opponents to 42.6-percent shooting from the field and 32 percent from beyond the arc. Opponents are only averaging 19.9 assists on their way to just 91.3 points per game.
The defensive ratings seem to back up that improvement.
Boston has a defensive rating of 100.5 with Rondo on the court. When you consider its offensive rating of 99.2 in the same situation, the team has a net rating of negative 1.3.
On the other hand, the Celtics have a defensive rating of 98.3 without Rondo on the court. Throw in their offensive rating of 101.1 without him and they have a net rating of 2.7.
All in all, that’s a total net margin of 4.0.
Sure, it doesn’t seem like a significant difference, but consider this: Boston has played in a total of 20 games decided by five points or less.
In the 11 played with Rondo, the Celtics are 4-7. In the nine played without him, they’re 8-1.
You tell me whether those four points made a difference or not.
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Just like it did on the team as a whole, Rondo’s absence has had an effect on some of the players.
More specifically, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.
Throughout the season, Pierce has played 1,173 minutes with Rondo on the court and 959 minutes with him off of it.
But while his field-goal percentage—42.6 percent to 42.7 percent—and three-point percentage—36.3 percent to 37.9—have remained practically the same, his effectiveness on the court has not. Pierce has a plus-minus of 117 without Rondo compared to a plus-minus of -35 with him.
That’s a whopping net difference of 152.
Furthermore, Pierce posted an offensive rating of 99.7 and a defensive rating of 100.4 with Rondo on the court. Without him, those numbers improve to an offensive rating of 104.6 and a defensive rating of 97.3.
Essentially, Pierce has taken his game to another level following Rondo’s injury.
During Boston’s 43 games with Rondo, Pierce averaged 18.8 points, 5.7 rebounds and 3.4 assists over 33.5 minutes per game. He also shot 42 percent from the field and 35.2 percent from three-point range.
In 20 games since, Pierce has averaged 18.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists over 34.6 minutes per game. He’s also shooting 44.2 percent from the floor and 41.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Pierce has evolved from the Celtics’ leading scorer into literally the team’s everything.
And this is the guy critics are calling over the hill?
Garnett too has been proving much of the same criticism wrong.
On the season, the 36-year-old has logged 851 minutes with Rondo on the court and 1,043 minutes with him off of it.
Just like Pierce, Garnett’s effectiveness on the court seems to improve without Rondo—a plus-minus of 55 compared to 21.
Likewise, he recorded an offensive rating of 97.8 and a defensive rating of 96.4 with Rondo on the court. Without him, Garnett improved his offensive rating to 100.4, while posting a defensive rating of 96.5.
When the going gets tough, Boston has been able to count on its most experienced player to come to the rescue.
Through the team’s first 43 games, Garnett averaged 14.7 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 0.9 blocks over 30 minutes per game. He also shot 50.1 percent from the field.
In the 20 games since, Garnett is averaging 14.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.3 blocks over 30.1 minutes per game. He’s also shooting 46.9 percent from the floor.
But while his shooting percent may be down, Garnett has increased his effort on both the glass and on the defensive side of the ball. Whether it’s a key rebound or a pivotal block, the Big Ticket has shown why he’s deserving of the moniker.
If you think otherwise, you can “get that sh!t outta here!”
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So what does this all mean? Are the Celtics better off without Rondo? Could they really be more successful without the same player who was putting up nightly averages of 13.7 points, 11.1 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game?
However, it’s been no secret that the team has played better since his injury.
But can the lack of Rondo’s presence on the team really be credited to the team’s recent strong suits?
Better ball movement during each offensive possession? Yes.
The resurgence of Jeff Green—14.6 points per game over the last 21 games—and the entire Boston bench? No.
A plus .500 record? N/A.
Essentially, there’s no real way of telling if the Celtics would be better off or not with Rondo at this same point in time. There have just been far too many variables that have come into play recently. It’s hard to pin that all on the absence of one man.
While having both Pierce and Garnett assume the leadership role is great, one has to wonder just how much they have left in the tank?
At 35 and 36 respectively, the duo has shown signs of fatigue and exhaustion in recent weeks. Throwing all of the burden onto the shoulders of Pierce and Garnett might only backfire on Boston come playoff time.
Then again, it could also prove to be the perfect scenario for the two future-Hall-of-Famers to achieve one last taste of glory before riding off into the sunset.
Now, wouldn’t that be something?
All stats used in this article were taken from NBA.com