Last week, my colleague Gary Dzen argued that, given the integral role he plays within the team as a leader and what he means to the history of the franchise, the Celtics should forego shopping Paul Pierce to potential contenders. While I don’t dispute the truth of these points, I think they come as secondary to the future of the team and can still be compatible with Pierce’s desire to “retire as a Celtic.”
The worst place for an NBA franchise to exist is the dreaded middle ground between title contention and the lottery—somewhere around the seven or eight seed, where the Celtics are currently drifting. The NBA is not the place for Cinderella stories. The lowest seeded team ever to win a championship was the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets in 1995—and they still finished the regular season 12 games over .500. The reality of the seven-game series is that it reduces variance; an underdog can get lucky once or twice, but generally not four out of seven times, as the Celtics discovered last year.
The formula for success in the NBA is plain: get a superstar or two and build around them. It’s possible to do this via trade or the free agent market, as Boston successfully did in acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but more common is getting lucky in the lottery and subsequent draft, landing a Russell Westbrook or a Kyrie Irving. In this case, the Celtics need to start making their own luck. If they choose to keep Pierce, they’re headed for, at best, a second-round exit and forsaking an opportunity to obtain a young piece or a draft pick in the process, delaying the hard day that must inevitably come. It’s certainly not the sentimental choice, but general managers aren’t paid for the depth of their feelings.
And who’s to say Pierce can’t still retire a Celtic? He can play out the remainder of his contract on a contender and conceivably return for one last go-around with Boston, finishing his career the way it should be finished. If Rasheed Wallace can play into 2013, you can’t tell me Paul Pierce doesn’t have three years left in him.
Last May, Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus examined the history of player performance following an ACL tear in the aftermath of Derrick Rose’s injury. The first thing that jumped out at me is how seldom players of Rose and Rondo’s caliber sustained this injury; as Pelton writes, Rose’s was “the first ACL tear suffered by a current All-Star…since Danny Manning in 1995.” I don’t think there’s any causal explanation here, but it highlights the unique challenge Rondo will face in his recovery process.
Pelton’s sample size was small—he found only 22 players dating back to 1999-00 that had “usable pre- and post-injury numbers to compare”—but the general trend in performance was negative. Players’ true shooting percentage dropped 2.6 percent, and their usage rates dropped by .012; in other words, they were both less efficient and less assertive on offense. He also found a negative relationship between a player’s age at the time of ACL tear and the change in his performance upon returning from his injury. At 26, Rondo is by no means old, but players in his age bracket in Pelton’s sample did sustain a hit to their production on average, in some cases as large as 25 percent. Dealing with such a small group, there’s a lot of variance on a case-by-case basis, but overall, this analysis provides some indication that Rondo may not be quite the same when he eventually returns to the court.
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He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrateds 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.
Now living in Marblehead, hes focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.