Will Rajon Rondo’s injury hurt the Celtics?

Rajon Rondo in pain

Yesterday it was announced that Rajon Rondo tore his ACL and will be out for the remainder of the season. Currently, the Celtics have a 21-23 record and sit in 8th place in the Eastern conference. Will Boston be able to make the playoffs without Rondo?

Probably not. The Celtics are ranked 9th in the East in terms of point differential — just behind the Detroit Pistons — and most of that was with Rondo active. Rondo helped the Celtics to the tune of 3.3 points per 48 minutes and was the leading win producer both in terms of totals and on a per-minute basis:

Boston Celtics

The NBA Geek’s new pie charts make this data visual in an intuitive way. Rondo has been responsible for 30% of the Celtics’ wins — almost one third. Taking Rondo away leaves a very big hole in the Celtics’ production.

But that’s not the only thing we need to analyse. If Rondo is replaced by productive players, perhaps his loss won’t be as big as it seems at first glance. This means we also need to look at Rondo’s replacements. That seems to be Jason Terry, Avery Bradley, and Leandro Barbosa, who have all spent some time at point guard for the Celtics this year. Unfortunately for the Celtics, none of these players is going to be able to approach Rondo’s production:

Player POS Min WP48 PoP48 Wins
Barbosa SG  343 0.055 -1.4 0.4
Barbosa PG  343 0.022 -2.4 0.2
Bradley SG  293 0.014 -2.7 0.1
Bradley PG  293 -0.019 -3.7 -0.1
Terry SG  1201 0.103 0.1 2.6
Terry PG  1201 0.070 -0.9 1.7
Average SG SG 916 0.099 0 1.9
Average PG PG 974 0.099 0 2.0

This season, all three players cost the Celtics points when they step out on the court as point guards. The same is true when we look at their careers. Jason Terry was once a productive guard (from the 01-02 season to the 07-08 season), but since that time he has been hovering around average to below-average in terms of production, depending on whether or not you view him as a shooting guard or a point guard. Bradley had a decent second season last year, but he sustained a serious injury, has missed a lot of time, and is not producing at the same level so far this year (as one would expect). And with the exception of the 06-07 and the 08-09 seasons, Barbosa has produced at a below-average level.

In terms of productivity then, it seems like the replacements won’t do a good job. And there may even be another problem: in the five games the Celtics have played without Rondo, Terry (7.3 AST/48), Bradley (7.3 AST/48), and Barbosa (5.0 AST/48) have each averaged under 8.5 assists per 48 minutes, which is the number posted by an average point guard this season. Paul Pierce (7.3 AST/48) and Kevin Garnett (4.6 AST/48) have stepped up their passing when Rondo has been out, so maybe this is not something to worry about. But for a team that already struggles on the offensive end — Basketball Reference‘s Offensive Rating ranks the team 28th out of 30 NBA teams — perhaps losing the team’s starting point guard will be even worse than the Wins Produced numbers make it seem.

Of course, the same could be said about the Celtic’s defense. Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa aren’t exactly known for their stellar play on that end of the court, and Rondo is generally regarded as a top point guard when it comes to defense. In the end though, it’s safe to say that the Celtics will be a good deal worse without Rondo.

Who takes their place?

The real question is which Eastern conference team will advance to the playoffs instead of the Celtics.

Seed Team W L W% Diff. Diff. Rank
1 Miami 28 13 0.68 5.7 1
2 New York 27 15 0.64 4.1 2
3 Chicago 26 17 0.61 2.3 3
5 Indiana 26 18 0.59 1.5 4
4 Brooklyn 26 18 0.59 1.2 5
6 Atlanta 25 19 0.57 0.7 6
7 Milwaukee 23 19 0.55 -0.6 7
10 Detroit 17 27 0.39 -1.2 8
8 Boston 21 23 0.48 -1.3 9
11 Toronto 16 28 0.36 -1.9 10
12 Orlando 14 29 0.33 -3.6 11
9 Philadelphia 18 25 0.42 -3.7 12
14 Washington 11 31 0.26 -4.9 13
13 Cleveland 13 32 0.29 -5 14
15 Charlotte 11 32 0.26 -8 15

The aforementioned Pistons already have the 8th-best point differential, so they are certainly in the mix. The Toronto Raptors have the next-best point differential after the Celtics, so they’ll be in the running as well. Despite ranking 9th in winning percentage, the Philadelphia 76ers are only 12th in the East in terms of point differential. While this may change if Andrew Bynum returns from his long absence and is healthy, that remains a hypothetical at this point. The other Eastern teams aren’t close enough in terms of record or point differential to consider, so it’s probably between the Pistons and the Raptors.

While the Raptors have more productive players than the Pistons do — the Raptors have five players at a WP48 of 0.150 or higher, as compared to one for the Pistons — they also have more unproductive players than the Pistons. Furthermore, while the Raptors have several productive players, these players tend to play similar positions and don’t always end up on the court at the same time. Finally, the Raptors have played much better recently due to the absence of unproductive players Andrea Bargnani and Linas Kleiza. Whenever these players return — and they will have to eventually, unless GM Bryan Colangelo can finally overcome his sunk cost fallacy and trade them away — the Raptors will be a much worse team. Also in Detroit’s favour is the fact that the Pistons’ best player — Andre Drummond, for those who were wondering — has seen his minutes increase as the season has unfolded, which will lead to better results.

So while the Raptors may get close, it looks like the Pistons will be going back to the playoffs for the first time since they had an Answer.

– Devin

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