Does Playoff Rondo Exist?

By Julian Ryan

In the first blockbuster trade of the season, former Celtics star Rajon Rondo was swapped for a first-round pick and some useful role players– Brandan Wright, with his high field goal percentage, has been a low-key fantasy beast this season. It is perhaps less of a haul that Boston fans might have expected from their four-time all-star, but since the point guard tore his ACL, he just hasn’t been the same, with RPM pegging him as an average NBA player to this point in the season. Any arguments in favor of Dallas winning the trade center on the expected re-emergence of “Playoff Rondo”. Kirk Goldsberry has argued that Rondo is a weird NBA talent in that “he amplifies the greatness around him, and in the absence of greatness, he’s just kind of weird,” looking like an “average Joe” without talent around him. However, looking back at those teams when Rondo was surrounded with talent, did “Playoff Rondo” actually exist?

Rondo and the Celtics made the playoffs for five straight seasons from 2008-2012. It is meaningless to compare his regular season numbers to the postseason equivalents, as the quality of playoff opposition is superior. Instead, taking data from Basketball Reference, I compared his Offensive Rating, Defensive Rating and Game Score per 36 minutes in the postseason and in the regular season against those same playoff opponents. If Rondo really did turn it on in the playoffs, we would expect to see his numbers jump in the postseason, with the same opponents and same teammates for Rondo (which are arguably vital to his value).

Year Playoffs Regular Season against Playoff Opponents
Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Game Score/36 Offensive Rating Defensive Rating Game Score/36
2008 106.4 104.2 10.8 97.8 100.6 8.8
2009 104.7 102.0 14.7 121.3 106.2 13.7
2010 105.7 103.5 13.0 113.5 104.5 14.6
2011 103.0 107.4 11.6 102.0 106.9 11.4
2012 105.9 100.1 15.0 105.0 100.0 13.8

That jump just does not seem to be present.  Even without adjusting for multiple comparisons, no difference in postseason and regular season performance against the same opponents within a given year is remotely significant for any of the three metrics, nor is a paired t-test on the five seasons as a whole. “Playoff Rondo” has never existed, not even in one season.

For every insane 44 points on the road against Miami, single-handedly dragging Boston to overtime (in a game which I remember watching and thinking is a Rondo that can shoot the best PG in the league? ), there’s an equivalent brick thrown up against the Sixers. Before, we found evidence that “national TV Rondo” does exist, with improved performance when the game is televised nationwide. A similar phenomenon just does not seem to hold true for the playoffs.

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