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Life Without Rondo

The Celtics’ superstar point guard is gone for the season — now what should they do?

Rajon Rondo

Doc Rivers was defiant after Boston’s stirring double-overtime win over the Heat on Sunday, but it’s hard to see the Celtics doing anything significant in the playoffs — if they get there — without their only reliable shot creator in Rajon Rondo. The Celtics, in that case, should begin gauging trade interest in Paul Pierce. But it’ll be tough for them to find either a blue-chip prospect or a building-block first-round pick for a 35-year-old wing player who is approaching a career-worst 41.9 percent from the field while depending more than ever on passes off screens for his shot attempts. And Danny Ainge wants to give the current roster at least a bit of time before he shifts into Big Trade Mode.

Still, in a way, you can understand Rivers’s defiance. Boston has been a terrible offensive team all season, and now ranks 26th in points per possession; how much worse could it really get without Rondo, the Celtics point guard lost for the season with a torn ACL? Though the offense has floundered, the Celtics have found themselves defensively over the last two dozen games. In January, only the Pacers have been stingier in points allowed per possession, according to Boston has ridden that same formula — barely watchable offense, terrifying defense — to longer-than-expected playoff runs before. Perhaps they could do it again, especially since two of their best heavy-usage five-man lineups — nos. 3 and 6 on the minutes list — don’t include Rondo.

Parsing blame for Boston’s chronically bad offense is tricky. Here are Boston’s rankings in points per possession for the last four seasons, including this one: 14th, 18th, 24th, and 26th. There are really only three places to look for fault, and it’s impossible to separate any one from the other two.

Elite point guards rarely helm bottom-10 offenses for consecutive seasons, let alone average or worse offenses for nearly a half-decade. But it has happened. Jason Kidd’s teams, even in his prime, were usually 15th or worse in points per possession. Chris Paul went through some dry years in New Orleans. Numbers at the team level for Tim Hardaway, Deron Williams, Mark Jackson, and Andre Miller — the latter an interesting comparison to Rondo, given his pass-first genius and lack of a jump shot — have been all over the place depending on health, coaching, and roster context.

Kidd is especially relevant. In his prime, particularly in New Jersey, his teams typically scored at a high level when he played and a miserable level when he sat, per The same had been true of Rondo until this season. Even as Boston’s offense has sunk since Kevin Garnett’s leg issues in 2009, it scored at top-10 or even top-five levels when Rondo, Garnett, and Paul Pierce were on the court together, per

That changed this season. Boston’s offense — 26th to begin with, remember — has been a hair less efficient with Rondo on the court, and it has damn near cratered when Boston’s alleged All-Star trio has played together. The Celtics have scored 99.6 points per 100 possessions overall, but just 97.5 with those three on the court. That group starts games and thus faces stiffer competition than some of the non-Rondo backup units, but they’ve blitzed stiff competition for five years.

Everyone knows Rondo’s issues. His jumper is improved but still shaky, and teams ignore him in order to clog Boston’s already so-so spacing. Yes, Rondo has hit a career-best 48 percent on long 2-point jumpers this season, a number roughly comparable to those of elite mid-range shooters like Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Paul. But the numbers mask an obvious difference between those guys and Rondo: The jump shots of Nowitzki and Paul are weapons defenses attempt to take away by throwing extra attention at them, and weapons those shooters are comfortable using in high volume. Rondo’s jump shot is a wide-open, last-resort look defenses are happy to provide if it means containing other action. Nowitzki might shoot 75 percent on equivalent looks at the hoop.

The shaky jumper means Rondo is of little use off the ball. This is one reason Boston has been unable to properly incorporate Jason Terry, shooting less often than ever and putting up the sort of usage rate we’d expect from a limited offensive player like LARRY SANDERS! Terry’s shot selection has changed dramatically this season. Last season, about 26 percent of possessions Terry finished came via pick-and-rolls, with just 7.7 percent coming on Terry attempting a catch-and-shoot after taking an off-ball screen, according to Synergy Sports. Those numbers have flip-flopped this season — 11.7 percent for pick-and-rolls, and 19.9 percent off screens. Going into the Miami game, Terry had attempted 39 shots out of the pick-and-roll, and only nine of them had come with Rondo on the court — even though the two started just about half the season together.

This isn’t all on Rondo, as we’ll get to later. But Rondo’s game is a factor in what has happened to Terry in Boston. Ray Allen, ironically, was probably a better fit for Rondo’s skill set. He’s three inches taller than Terry with a quicker release, and those things make him more comfortable on the hyper-speed catch-and-shoot attempts that Rondo and Boston’s system can create. Terry has been an elite spot-up shooter, but a lot of those looks in Dallas were of the stand-still type Terry could get as defenses bent toward Nowitzki down low.

Back to Rondo: He barely gets to the line and shoots poorly when he gets there. He occasionally looks for passes at the expense of easier shots, most recently when he opted against an uncontested fast-break layup in favor of a ridiculous failed lob pass in a game against New York that the Celtics ultimately lost by three.

Still: Executives around the league view Rondo as a max player or something close to it. He is perhaps the NBA’s best passer, with a savant’s understanding of how to create space and shooting opportunities for others via an extra dribble or a tiny change of direction. The rumors about his sour personality are true — there are hundreds of whispered “Rondo’s a brat” stories floating around the league — but his talent and smarts are overwhelming. Which brings us to the other two reasons league observers pinpoint for Boston’s offensive decline: roster construction and coaching.

The puzzling thing about Boston’s scoring issues is that the Celtics have always been among the league’s best shooting teams, from both 2-point and 3-point range. They just do everything else poorly. They have gotten to the line at average or worse rates. They are legendarily bad at offensive rebounding, mostly because Rivers — coaching alert! — prefers everyone get back on defense. They have been the league’s worst turnover team over the last half-decade. And their shot-selection profile has been miserable. Only two teams attempt fewer 3s, and only four attempt more mid-range jump shots. That is a recipe for failure, unless a team supplements those shots with something else — foul shots, fast-break points, etc. Boston does not.

This is where coaching and roster makeup intertwine. Talk to players and coaches about game-planning for Boston, and after the usual polite praise, they’ll often mention how Boston lacks a big man who really enjoys setting screens and diving hard to the basket on the pick-and-roll, in the style of Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard, and any number of lesser big men — Andre Drummond, Omer Asik, Robin Lopez, David West (a great screen-slipper), the old Amar’e Stoudemire, Amir Johnson, Glen Davis, and others.

Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett are mid-range shooters. Garnett will occasionally take a hard dive to the basket, but he prefers to hold his picks for an extra beat or two, making sure he smushes the point guard chasing Rondo. And he obviously prefers to pop for mid-range jumpers rather than roll to the hoop.

The mere presence of a big man cutting hard to the rim opens up looks all over the floor. Think about all those open 3s Houston, New York, or Indiana get simply because weakside defenders, following common NBA defensive principles, have to crash into the lane to at least bump that rolling big man. Those wing players also get driving opportunities out of that action, as their defenders rush back to close out on them. This stuff is just not a frequent feature of Boston’s offense, and that hurts.

Is that on Rivers or the front office? Or both? It’s hard to say, since Rivers has sway in personnel decisions — including the trade of Davis for Bass. But there is growing chatter around the league that Rivers, while a very good coach, might need a top offensive coordinator to spice up Boston’s stale offense. Rivers is a genius in bonding with players, getting them to buy in on defense, and drawing up plays out of timeouts, but Boston’s general offensive look hasn’t changed much as the league around the Celtics has evolved. (A team spokesman understandably declined to make Rivers available for an interview over the weekend.)

That offense was good enough to get them a win from the Finals last season, but it’s hard to see this team doing anything without Rondo. The numbers might not say so this season, but the sample size is small, and the bigger picture suggests this team badly needs Rondo’s shot creation. Boston’s offensive floor and average level are both low, but Rondo raises the ceiling to potential playoff wins simply behind his creativity and pumped-up scoring. Starting with that classic 2009 first-round series against Chicago, Rondo has proven he can step up his aggression and keep Boston in games they would otherwise lose — against New York, Philadelphia, Miami, and other playoff opponents. Without that scoring variance Rondo can provide, this aging roster is done as a serious threat.

Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett
All that said, the Celtics are still a decent bet to make the playoffs, if only because no one has a clue when Andrew Bynum will return. The Sixers can improve their odds by making up ground in their next seven games, all at home against some solid competition. Detroit and Toronto loom as possible threats, but both have played easy schedules, and though Detroit has recovered after a rough start and found a useful bench unit, neither projects as a team that is going to play well over .500 the rest of the way.

But sneaking into the postseason for a whitewashing at the hands of the Heat is not a worthy goal — not if Boston can get something useful in exchange for Garnett and Pierce. Dealing Garnett will be tough, since he has a no-trade clause and $18 million in guaranteed salary spread over the 2013-14 and 2014-15 seasons. Trading Pierce would be easier, since only $4 million of his $15.3 million salary next season is guaranteed. Seeing Pierce in a different uniform would be tough for Boston fans, but the team peddled him at the deadline last season. Danny Ainge is sentimental, but not enough to prevent a beneficial deal.

Which brings us to the last point: What deals for Pierce might be realistic, given that Boston under new cap rules can add only about $2.4 million in salary? Ainge’s first target will be either a blue-chip guy on a rookie contract or a good first-round pick. He’s not getting both, and getting just one will likely require Boston taking something unpalatable back — and/or sending out one of the Avery Bradley–Jared Sullinger pair. Some places to look for that kind of deal:

Utah Jazz

The goal here would be either Derrick Favors or Enes Kanter, and the price would be taking on Marvin Williams as salary-matching fodder. Utah is only about $3 million under the luxury tax, so they would likely push to include Raja Bell — and would not be able to accept a midsize Boston long-term deal (Bass, Terry, Courtney Lee) without constructing a larger trade. No one can really figure out Utah’s plans right now, but with both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap set to hit free agency, Utah may prefer to keep its core young pieces. They could use Pierce’s scoring punch on the wing, and Pierce’s contract wouldn’t affect their potential cap-space bonanza this summer if they bought him out.

Golden State

This would be more interesting if Andrew Bogut were healthy and the Warriors had a better idea of just how good they were. Boston would seek one of the Harrison Barnes–Klay Thompson blue-chip duo, with Barnes probably more expendable at this point — especially since he and Pierce play the same position. Boston would have to take on Richard Jefferson’s deal (which expires after next season) plus another minimum-salaried player, since both teams face the $74.3 million hard cap. (It applies to Golden State because they used the non-taxpayer mid-level exception on Carl Landry.) But you can bet Boston will kick the tires.

Los Angeles Clippers

The prize would be Eric Bledsoe, talented enough that Boston might be interested even given the presence of Rondo, Avery Bradley, and a bundle of other guards. A package of Caron Butler, Bledsoe, and Chauncey Billups works in theory, but it takes the Clippers over the luxury tax. Los Angeles is less than $500,000 below the tax threshold, so the salaries here would have to match almost exactly — a tricky problem that might require a third team, and that’s a place at which deals fall apart. Getting out of Caron Butler’s $8 million salary for next season would be nice, especially with a massive Chris Paul contract coming, and the Clips realize that re-signing Paul would make a Bledsoe trade almost inevitable before Bledsoe is due his own big raise. But this is a difficult match.

Milwaukee Bucks

A package of Beno Udrih, Samuel Dalembert, and John Henson or SANDERS! is an almost exact salary match and makes some sense for both teams. Udrih and Dalembert are on expiring contracts, and Milwaukee’s pile of big men and ball handlers makes it hard for either to get big minutes. They also have the same agent. That same roster could use a two-way small forward, and the Bucks are all-in for a playoff berth this season. Pierce’s $4 million buyout price over the summer could eat into their cap space, but it only represents a $1 million or $2 million add-on above the salaries for Henson/SANDERS! Those aren’t sexy names, but both are lottery-level talents that project well. Dealing two bigs would leave Milwaukee thin up front, but Boston could toss in Jason Collins or Chris Wilcox for some depth. The risk of losing a long-armed young big might be too much for Milwaukee, especially with Ekpe Udoh’s offense stagnating.

Washington Wizards

The Wiz aren’t parting with Bradley Beal, even if the Celtics kindly assume Trevor Ariza and all of his missed 2-point jump shots, and they aren’t likely to part with their own lottery pick, either. This might have been interesting had Washington started healthy and had a real shot at the playoffs, but that’s an alternate reality.

There might be a few other deals that fall under this category, but they are tough to find, especially with DeMarcus Cousins not available. The second deal type would require taking on a flawed and/or unhappy veteran with promise, especially if Boston can unload an unfavorable contract in the process.

Toronto Raptors

I’m burying the lead a bit, but this might be the most realistic and intriguing trade partner for Boston. Two deals jump out:

1. Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon for Pierce and Bass

Boston can barely squeeze this deal under the hard cap. The lure for Toronto is dumping Bargnani’s salary, getting someone who would immediately step in as their best wing player, and finding a cheaper jump-shooting big in whom they’ve expressed some past interest.

Boston gets a point guard who can hold the fort for the rest of the season, and a big man who might fit with Rondo. Remember that bit about how Boston lacks a Tyson Chandler–style hard roller among its bigs? It also lacks a power forward who can stretch the floor out to the 3-point line — a type of player who could blend nicely with Rondo’s inside-out skills. One reason Terry has attempted so few shots via the pick-and-roll this season is that he doesn’t have Nowitzki as a partner; opponents fear Nowitzki’s jumper so deeply, they have their big men stay attached to him on pick-and-rolls, opening a lane for Dallas guards.

Boston fans who cringe at Bargnani’s no-defense, no-rebounding game — and his $11.1 million average annual salary through 2014-15 — have to understand this: There isn’t much of a market for the Bass-Terry-Lee collection of long-term midsize contracts, and a team in Toronto’s situation has no urgent need for an aging veteran wing to block DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. Bargnani’s contract cramps the books, but the impact could be neutral if Bass goes out the door and Garnett retires before the 2014-15 season.

Another potential deal:

2. Kyle Lowry, Bargnani, and cap filler (likely Aaron Gray, who is tall) for Pierce and Bass

The same general reasons apply here, though the Raptors might be reluctant to deal Lowry with Calderon’s contract expiring. There is a divide between the front office and the coaching staff on the Lowry/Calderon issue, but the front office prefers Lowry, and the front office signs off on trades.

Again: Boston is free to pitch a straight deal of Bass (or Lee, or Terry) along with a first-round pick for Lowry, but Toronto has little reason to do this, unless Boston’s pick looks like a certain lottery pick by February 21. And even then, it would likely be toward the end of the lottery. Toronto has two bigs playing well in Ed Davis and Amir Johnson, and young wings who need time.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Rudy Gay–Pierce swap is everyone’s favorite deal of the week, and it makes a ton of sense for Memphis. They get the better player, a skill they need (long-range shooting), and a contract that brings massive long-term tax relief.

The appeal for Boston is harder to find. Gay will earn $17.9 million next season and has an option for a ghastly $19.3 million in 2014-15. He’s shooting 40 percent overall and 30 percent from 3-point range. He has not evolved much as a passer or defender. His Player Efficiency Rating is below the league’s average. He’s tight with Rondo and could work as a fast-break partner for his buddy, but I’m not sure why Boston would be anxious to make this deal — especially since Memphis isn’t including a first-round pick after flipping one to Cleveland last week.

The Atlanta Hawks–Phoenix Suns–Houston Rockets Vortex of Doom

Phoenix has about $6 million in cap room, a cranky center on a good contract (Marcin Gortat), a virus of a player experiencing his once-a-month hot streak (Michael Beasley), and a ton of first-round picks. The Hawks have a lot of potential cap room, but not enough to sign Dwight Howard to a max deal unless they move some salary (and cap holds) linked to Josh Smith, Al Horford, or Jeff Teague. Smith’s agent is meeting again this week with Hawks GM Danny Ferry, per ESPN’s Chris Broussard, after expressing his unease with the situation in Atlanta 10 days ago. Houston has about as much cap room as Phoenix, plus a hole at power forward.

You can build a bunch of three- and four-team deals that have all of these players flying around to various destinations to accomplish some or all of the following: get Boston an All-Star–level big man; allow Phoenix to dump Beasley; improve Atlanta’s short-term cap situation while netting a useful player such as Gortat; ship Smith to Houston.

Alas, obstacles abound. Phoenix is reluctant to do any deal in which they ship out more draft picks than they get. Houston has the cap room to sign Smith outright this summer. Atlanta can stand pat and move in July. Smith’s impending free agency means Boston would likely start any Atlanta-centric discussion with Al Horford, but Horford is one of the 20 best players in the league on a Rondo-style deal that underpays him — at $12 million per year — through 2015-16. Atlanta may want some extra cap room this summer, but they don’t want it that badly.

Boston as of now is not guaranteed major cap space until after the 2014-15 season, so they should be open to anything that can draw in a useful future asset, cut some long-term money, and net a draft pick. They could in theory keep the core together for one more year and try to find the perfect bit of veteran help, but they’re not on course to have the full mid-level exception this summer. And it’s just too difficult to see this group, even intact and healthy, topping out as anything more than a nice mid-rung playoff team. Boston delayed its rebuilding by a year or two with its moves last summer, but they had tried before then to start that course with workable deals. They should try again now.