The Celtics Without Rondo

By Ryan Fortin

Rajon Rondo Credit: David Richard - USA Today Sports
Rajon Rondo
Credit: David Richard – USA Today Sports

On January 27th this year, Celtics fans across the country watched their favorite team beat the rival Miami Heat in an overtime thriller. Not many people celebrated, however, as the team’s star point guard, the future of the franchise, discovered that he had a torn ACL and would be out for the season. Analysts and fans alike wrote the Celtics off for the season. How could this 21-23 team make a playoff run? Would Danny Ainge blow up his team and give up on this season? The team has gone 10-4 since Rondo tore his ACL, putting them at 13-6 without him on the season. To put this into perspective, with Rondo as a starter, the team has gone 18-21. If the win-loss ratio of the team without Rondo is much higher than it is with him, are the Celtics a better team without him?

We are not the first to ask this question. The idea of a team being better without its “best” player is not a novel idea—Bill Simmons termed it the “Ewing Theory.” Before he went down, Rondo was the league-leader in assists and triple-doubles (he still leads the league in both categories). However, does this really mean he is one of the most valuable players in the league? The team with the league-leader in assists per game hasn’t won an NBA championship since 1987, when the Lakers accomplished the feat.

But, how can we determine if the team needs Rondo?

First, let’s take a look at the team overall and what exactly they have done better without him. The following stats have been pulled from With Rondo on the court, this season the team has averaged 1.011 points per possession. Without him on the court, the team has averaged 1.048. The team averages .5 fewer turnovers per 100 possessions without Rondo than they did with him. When it comes to rebounding, this Celtics team is much better without Rondo, averaging 9.6 offensive rebounds per 100 possessions, 34.6 defensive rebounds per 100 possessions, and 44.2 total rebounds per 100 possessions. With Rondo, the team averaged 8.6, 32.9, and 41.5 in the same categories.

Obviously some key numbers have fallen with Rondo on the sidelines. The team averages 1.6 fewer assists per 100 possessions and 0.9 fewer steals per 100 possessions.

How much do these differences impact the team overall? It’s hard to determine whether or not there is a statistically significant difference in the core statistics. The best way to determine whether the team has any significantly different performance is to run a t-test on several players’ plus-minus with and without Rondo as well as the team’s plus-minus. The results were very interesting.

At the .05 significance level, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, Kevin Garnett and the team as a whole are playing statistically better (individually and as a team) when Rondo is not playing

But does this really mean that the team is better without Rondo? The sample size is really too small right now to suggest that the team is actually better, and there are many other factors that could be causing this surge (strength of schedule, for example). However, is the team playing better right now? Statistically, yes. It seems that the old veterans on the team want to make sure that they do not go down without a fight.

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  • Some of this is misleading based on the fact that Rondo generally plays with certain players and generally plays against the other team’s best lineups. Rondo to my knowledge is the best rebounding point guard in the NBA averaging 5.6 rebounds a game which is unheard of for a point guard. So the fact that the team rebounds worse when he is out either means that A he isn’t paired with good bigs at rebounding, B just some fluky unluck, or C that he plays against the other teams best rebounders. D that the Celtics change their style when he is in is also a possibility, but the Celtics as a whole don’t crash the O boards that often. My guess would be that the Celtics offense improves slightly and their defense is worse slightly without Rondo (which means that he is kind of overrated).

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