There’s something mystifying about the way an NBA team can become better without its star player.
There’s no clear explanation for what sports columnist Bill Simmons coined the "Ewing Theory" more than a decade ago.
The theory, presented by Simmons and created by his friend Dave Cirilli, cites the perplexing improvement of a team without its superstar. Patrick Ewing was the prime example, as the Knicks would often play better without their star.
To credit the authors and explain the theory, from Simmons' original piece:
1. A star athlete receives an inordinate amount of media attention and fan interest, and yet his teams never win anything substantial with him (other than maybe some early-round playoff series).
2. That same athlete leaves his team (either by injury, trade, graduation, free agency or retirement)—and both the media and fans immediately write off the team for the following season.
Well, the principle is at play again, and this time with Simmons' favorite squad.
The Boston Celtics’ recent surge without Rajon Rondo is the latest example. Since Rando tore his ACL on Jan. 25, Boston is 7-1, including wins against the Denver Nuggets, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers. The Celtics' first loss came on Monday at the Charlotte Bobcats.
Rondo is the team’s best player, yet without him the Celtics are thriving.
He’s the franchise, both the present and the future of the Celtics, complemented by two fading superstars, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
Rondo was averaging 13.7 points, 11.1 assists and 5.6 rebounds and balanced by strong perimeter defense when he was declared out for the season on Jan. 27.
At the time of the injury, the Celtics were barely grasping the Eastern Conference's final playoff spot. Celtics coach Doc Rivers said then: "Obviously that's a blow. It's a huge blow for us."
The cringe of Paul Pierce says it all:
So why have the Celtics done so well without their all-around MVP?
When the most valuable part of any group goes down, others are asked to step up in an unfamiliar way.
If the microwave breaks, and you're forced to use the stove, you may realize that you're actually a pretty good cook and, hey, the food tastes better.
Guys who have played in the shadows are now forced to perform.
The Chicago Bulls this season, without Derrick Rose, have received increased production from Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng.
In Boston, the enhanced guard play of Jeff Green, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry offers proof that guys can achieve more with a new sense of responsibility.
With Jared Sullinger now out for the season as well, both Pierce and Garnett are forced to take on an even greater sense of urgency. Even Rivers must become more creative without his star point guard.
A new style that fits the talent
When stars suddenly vanish, a team's identity can change.
Rondo is an elite point guard in the half court, no doubt. But he also controls the majority of possessions, limiting pace and ball movement.
Here's a revealing tidbit provided by ESPN's Grantland:
The Celtics are one of 15 teams that have invested in fancy data-tracking cameras from STATS LLC, and the information from those cameras, provided exclusively to Grantland, backs up that notion. Rondo has dribbled the ball about 486 times per tracked game this season, the fourth-highest figure in the league for players on those 15 camera teams, and about 90 more dribbles per game than he averaged last season, according to the data.
Without Rondo, the Celtics offense is geared around transition.
Both Lee and Green are benefiting from the new rhythm, as both are better in transition than in the half court. Terry, a great shooter when open, is benefiting from a changed offense that provides more perimeter spacing and open looks. Terry prospers with the ball in his hands, and he'll have more opportunities to initiate the offense and score off the pick-and-pop or off the roll. He should never have been made to be a Ray Allen type.
Celtics lead man Danny Ainge was quoted by ESPNBoston.com's Jackie MacMullan:
We are different without him. We're running better now because five guys are running. Honestly, I think we rely on Rondo too much.
For example: With Rondo out, you see Jeff Green grab a rebound and push it up the court himself. If he gets a rebound when Rondo is playing, he just gives it to him.
That's not Rondo's fault. It's only because he's a great player and guys see him in that role.
The Celtics' defense has changed too.
As good of a defender as Rondo is, the Celtics tandem of Green and Avery Bradley now attacks with more aggressive, on-ball defense against opposing backcourts. The Celtics ranked ninth in the league in defensive efficiency when Rondo went down and have already popped up to seventh at 99.5.
That style of defense ultimately plays into the refreshed, high-tempo style of the Celtics.
The realities of losing the star
Of course, the theory of being better without a superstar is far from firm.
For every example of a team improving after its star goes down, there are plenty more that go the other way.
Certainly, few have quoted “The Office” since Steve Carell, who played Michael Scott in the TV series, took another job.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have yet to regain their luster since the loss of LeBron James.
The Indianapolis Colts plummeted to the NFL’s cellar without Peyton Manning.
The absence of Buster Posey in 2011 led to the only down year for a San Francisco Giants team that won titles with its catcher in 2010 and 2012.
There's the other obvious point.
As for most cases, and certainly this recent example of the Celtics without Rondo, winning in February is not the goal.
A team playing well during the regular season without its superstar is different than it making a deep playoff run without him.
Superstars earn their paychecks in the postseason, and Boston won't have Rondo to rely on when the game slows down into pivotal half-court moments.
So while the theory may have plenty of evidence, from Ewing to Rondo, the loss of a superstar is tough to endure in the long run.
The Celtics will be an interesting experiment.
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