In the post-game press conference on Sunday afternoon, with all the focus on Rajon Rondo’s season ending ACL tear (and almost none of it on the Celtics’ stirring overtime win against Miami) Doc Rivers stated defiantly, “You can write the obituary, but I’m not”. Ever the consummate professional, ever the admirable defender of his players and team, Rivers would not concede that the devastating news regarding his All-Star point-guard effectively meant the end of the Celtics’ season—he put on a very brave face. But if we’re not suppose to write the Celtics’ obituary just yet—if their hopes of contending for a championship aren’t in-fact dead, as many people believe—then they are currently on life-support.
But the Celtics were also on a 6-game losing streak, after seemingly turning their season around just a couple weeks previous. On Friday night they had blown a 27-point lead against the Hawks, the game in which Rondo blew out his knee (he was on the court when the game should’ve been dead and buried). The fact is, that even with Rondo in the line-up, the Celtics haven’t been playing well. In-fact, they’ve be plain awful to watch.
Problems at Both Ends
Over the past few seasons the Celtics have slowly and painfully morphed into one of the worst offensive teams in the NBA. They currently rank 20th overall in points scored per game, at 95.1, and they generally struggle to score the basketball. With Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett continuing to slow down, the Celtics have no one who can consistently score in isolation, and beat their defender off the dribble. Pierce, Garnett, and power-forward Brandon Bass rely, for the most part, on open jump shots; coming off screens and reaping the benefits of Rondo’s transcendent passing abilities and penetration. Unlike a team like the Knicks, who when the jump-shots aren’t falling, have the luxury of running iso-plays for Carmelo Anthony, the Celtics are stuck if their point-guard isn’t controlling the game.
Contributing to the Celtics’ woes on offense this season, and to be honest, over the last few seasons, has been their ineptitude on the glass. The team is currently 29th overall in rebounds per game and are out-rebounded by more than 4 rebounds per game by the opposition. More damaging still is the fact that they are near the bottom of the league in offensive rebounding—they simply don’t get many second-chance points. Garnett is an under-sized centre, and although he’s still very good at knocking down the open jump shot, and is an above-average defender, he can no longer battle the behemoths of the game down in the paint.
In past seasons when the Celtics were struggling on offense they could grind out games and hang their hat on defense. That hasn’t been the case this season. Last season the Celtics were the second best defensive team in the NBA, but this year they’ve fallen down to the middle of the pack. The absence of defensive stud Avery Bradley for much of the year explains a lot of the fall-off, but it can’t explain it all. The fact is, Pierce and Garnett have slowed down defensively, new arrival Jason Terry can’t defend too many opposing shooting-guards, and Rondo has always been a tad overrated as a defender—preferring to gamble by jumping passing lanes, instead of playing tight man-to-man defense.
Moving on Without Rondo
Last season the Celtics were a sub-500 team at the All-Star break. There was talk of blowing things up and starting from scratch. A few months later the team was one game away from reaching the NBA Finals. After February the Celtics were one of the best teams in the NBA. They improved on offense and played stifling Celtics-style defense game-in and game-out. But they still had Rajon Rondo. The mercurial point-guard still doesn’t haven’t a reliable jump-shot (He’d be a top-5 NBA player if he did) but he’s responsible for so much of the Celtics’ offense, that without him it’s hard to see the team going on a similar post-All-Star run this year.
Rondo leads the league in assists per game and he’s solely responsible for getting the likes of Pierce and Garnett open jumpers, and for running the Celtics’ one-man fast break. What’s more, he’s the only Celtics player that consistently gets to the free-throw line for easy points. Magic Johnson, discussing Rondo’s impact on ESPN’s post-game show, asserted that Rondo is probably responsible for 35% of the Celtics’ offensive production. And he’s probably right. So where does Doc Rivers’ team go from here?
Well, they’re not going to be a game away from the NBA Finals this time around. That’s a fairly safe bet to make. And to be fair, it seemed unlikely that the Celtics would contend this season even with Rondo healthy. The Eastern Conference has gotten stronger—the Knicks and Nets have drastically improved—and the road to a Conference Finals meeting with the Heat, a meeting many predicted at the start of the year, has become a lot tougher. But at the time of writing the Celtics are still 8th in the standings—3 games clear of a woeful Sixers team (the bottom half of the East has NOT improved). If Andrew Bynum returns for Philly, and settles in quickly, the Celtics could have a fight on their hands to make the playoffs. However, with their current roster they should still get in. But is that a worthwhile goal?
Time to blow it up?
Finishing 8th would most likely mean a playoff series against the Miami Heat. Without Rondo that series wouldn’t last long. And where would that leave this Celtics team? With an ageing roster, a middling pick in the draft, and an injured Rajon Rondo (despite what he says, he may not be back until half way through next season). Is it time then, as many analysts have asserted, to finally start over: to finally move on from the Pierce-Garnett era?
If the Celtics can make a trade that would improve their playmaking abilities—there’s talk of a trade for Kyle Lowry—then perhaps the life support machine can stay on, and Celtics could still be competitive in the playoffs. But if no trade that would drastically improve their offense is in the offing, it might be time to trade Pierce and Garnett, as painful as that would be. Whether Garnett would be willing to go is another thing, however. He has a no-trade clause that would complicate things. And every Celtics fan, and the organization, would ideally love Pierce to retire a Celtic.
However, if Ainge could get young players and/or draft picks for his two ageing stars, it might be too tempting to turn down the chance to rebuild. Ainge has already insinuated in past interviews that he felt as though Red Auerbach held on to Larry Bird and Kevin McHale too long, when it would’ve been better to trade them for picks as they moved out of their prime in the late 80s. Ainge seems determined not to let sentimentality get in the way of astute, and ruthless decision making. Rondo’s injury, as unfortunate as it is, gives Ainge the perfect reason to start a rebuild that was going to have to take place sooner rather than later.
Rivers may be defiant about his team’s chances without Rondo, as I’m sure Pierce and Garnett are—there’s no shortage of pride on this Celtics team—but the reality is that the Celtics are not the same team without Rondo. They weren’t a championship team with him in the line-up, but they had a chance to be competitive in the post-season. Without him, they may not reach the post-season. It may be a painful reality to confront for Celtics’ fans and everyone involved in the organization, but it may finally be time to move on.