It's tempting to think of Rajon Rondo's torn ACL as a blessing in disguise for the Boston Celtics. After all, they're 4-0 since Rondo's knee went bunk and 6-3 overall during the 2012-13 NBA season without their All-Star point guard.
Frankly, much of the statistical evidence suggests that Rondo's absence is a net neutral (if not a net gain) for the C's. With Rondo, Boston ranked 24th in offensive efficiency and were actually outscored by 1.3 points per 100 possessions (per NBA.com). Without him, the C's shoot eight percentage points better on attempts in the paint and top the opposition by 2.5 points per 100 possessions.
Since Rondo's injury, the C's offense has improved to around the league average (102.4 points per 100 possessions), while their defense (92.8 points allowed per 100 possessions) has far outpaced that of the Indiana Pacers, who've surrendered an NBA-best 96.3 points per 100 possessions overall this season.
Clearly, then, the C's are better off without Rondo...right? I mean, what team needs a head case of a point guard who can't/doesn't/is afraid to shoot, who dribbles out the shot clock and whose mere presence may have contributed to the departure of Ray Allen.
(Which, by the way, has cramped Boston's floor spacing and thrust Jason Terry into an unfamiliar and uncomfortable role as a spot-up shooter.)
Except, Rondo's impact can't so easily be quantified or qualified in these ways. He's a brilliant passer (arguably the NBA's best) and knows better than anyone how to set up Boston's brigade of mid-range shooters and off-ball cutters. In other words, easy shots are harder to come by when Rondo isn't around.
This is particularly true on an individual level. Paul Pierce shoots markedly better from three-point range and far better in the restricted area when Rondo's around. Kevin Garnett is also much more efficient at the rim with Rondo, even though his accuracy in the rest of the paint declines considerably. Even Jason Terry, who's had some difficulty finding his niche in New England, has shot more accurately (particularly from the perimeter) with Rajon's help.
The ongoing juggling act between Local Cable Rondo and National TV Rondo has frustrated many in Beantown, and understandably so. Rondo has the talent to dominate games at a superstar level on any given night, but for whatever reason (Lack of desire? Fear of responsibility? Deference to his teammates?), he often seems to leave his A-game at home.
That is, unless we're talking about the playoffs, when every game matters...and is broadcast nationwide. It's in the postseason, under the brightest of lights and most intense of pressures, that Rondo truly shines. Who could forget the 2012 playoffs, when Rondo registered four triple-doubles and nearly carried the C's to victory in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals with 44 points, eight rebounds, 10 assists and three steals while playing all 53 minutes (including overtime) against the Miami Heat?
Who could forget Rondo's demolition job of the Los Angeles Lakers (21 points, seven rebounds, eight assists, six steals) in the Game 6 clincher of the 2008 NBA Finals? Who could forget the countless moments when a Rondo steal, a Rondo pass or a Rondo basket either saved the C's from defeat or sparked a big Boston run in the playoffs?
That's what we have to consider here when we talk about losing Rondo. He's a different player when the games mean something, as they surely do in the playoffs. When discussing Rondo's absence, we must take into account his phenomenal ceiling, rather than focusing too much on the personal floor and the average with which he rambles through the regular season.
Because the Celtics' goal with this team, prior to Rondo's injury, was to embark on another long postseason run come April, May and (hopefully) June. In doing so, they could anticipate the arrival of National TV Rondo on a nightly basis, which would, in theory, make the C's a dangerous team.
That won't be the case without him. Sure, Boston can and likely will slip into the Eastern Conference playoffs as the seventh or eighth seed. They currently own a three-and-a-half game cushion over the Philadelphia 76ers in the race for eighth place and are but a game-and-a-half back of the Milwaukee Bucks for seventh.
But if/when the C's wind up in the postseason, they'll be without a player who can carry them not only from minute to minute, but also from game to game and even series to series.
Not that the guys still standing in Boston aren't capable of rallying, which they have without Rondo. Pierce and Garnett were the alphas on that 2008 team that won the title, Brandon Bass started at power forward for the 2012 edition that nearly snuck into the NBA Finals, and Jason Terry was a pivotal player on two Western Conference champions with the Dallas Mavericks, one of which claimed the championship in 2011.
The requisite experience is there, even if Rondo isn't. But can the Celtics realistically count on a 35-year-old Pierce, a 35-year-old "JET" and a 36-year-old Garnett to bear such a hefty burden without Rondo? If so, for how long? Long enough to survive a grueling seven-game playoff series against the Heat, the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls or the Indiana Pacers?
To be sure, the Celtics' success sans Rondo so far has been surprising, if not pleasantly so. They're playing hard and for each other, and they seem to be moving the ball better and more freely without the usual impediment of Rajon pounding the air out of it beforehand.
Are the Celtics better off without Rondo?
But as positive as the sample has been, it is small and just as importantly drawn from a period of time (i.e. smack-dab in the middle of the regular season) that has little, if any, lasting impact on Boston's big-picture pursuits.
In all likelihood, the C's will ride their remaining talent and their new font of motivation through the next two-and-a-half months on the way to a playoff berth. Just don't expect anything close to a repeat of last year's near-miracle so long as Rondo's not around to engineer it.