The Boston Celtics are playing some of their best basketball of the season of late despite losing All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo (torn ACL) and rookie Jared Sullinger (back surgery) in recent weeks.
Coach Doc Rivers' team has strung together four straight wins, already their second-longest winning streak this season. They've also increased the gap between them and the Philadelphia 76ers for the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.
Considering that Rondo's departure coincided with the beginning of this surge, speculation has been swirling about whether or not this team is actually better off without him.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, there are some tangible numbers lending some credence to the theory.
Rondo has missed nine of the team's 43 games this season. The Celtics have won six of them, leaving them with a .667 winning percentage during that stretch. That means in Rondo's 38 games, the team is just 18-20 (.473 winning percentage).
To put those numbers in better perspective, a .667 winning percentage would give Boston the sixth-best mark in the NBA. A .473 rate, meanwhile, ranks just 17th in the league.
But how much of this resurgence actually has to do with the fact that Rondo is no longer part of Rivers' rotation?
Some, says Paul Pierce, but not in the way these theories suggest (via Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe).
"I really don’t buy into (the team being better without Rondo," Pierce said. "We’re using the injuries as motivation — and we’re actually playing for Rondo."
The term "motivation" carries a heavy meaning throughout the realm of professional sports, and the value of a rally cry for a confident, veteran-laden team cannot be understated.
But there's more to this team's ability to find success without the NBA's assists leader (Rondo will finish the season with 11.1 per game) than some abstract feelings circling the Celtics' locker room.
Rondo's subtraction has forced each player to accept more responsibility in creating offense. Without a savvy floor general to lead them, Boston's bunch have broken down opposing defenses with better team ball movement and increased involvement from the supporting staff.
Just look at the numbers. In the Celtics' four-game win streak, they've had three different assist leaders and three different scoring leaders.
Jeff Green has moved from an afterthought (9.6 points per game in his first 43 games) to one of the most valuable pieces of the franchise moving forward (13.5 in his past four). Courtney Lee (7.3 to 8.5), Jason Terry (9.8 to 12.5) and Leandro Barbosa (4.6 to 10.4) have enjoyed similar resurgences over their past four outings (via Peter May of ESPNBoston.com).
So, what exactly should we take from these last four games?
In other words, the Celtics may well have found similar success with a healthy Rondo in the lineup.
At the same time, it's impossible to ignore what this team has overcome in the past two weeks. Give credit to Rivers, his coaching staff and his players for rising up in the face of adversity.
Just don't let that credit discount how important Rondo is to the franchise's future success.