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Rondo's play doesn't add up

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  March 7, 2012 01:18 PM

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The Celtics are doing what they do best -- play their best basketball when their backs are against the proverbial basket support.

Part of me believes raising Rajon Rondo's name in trade talks was a Machiavellian motivational ploy by Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge and coach Doc Rivers to bring out the best in the tenacious young point guard and a fiercely loyal team by raising the specter of being split up.

It has clearly worked, as the Celtics enter tonight's game in Philadelphia as winners of five straight post-All-Star break, and with a win over the 76ers can reclaim their rightful perch atop the Atlantic Division.

If the Celtics win tonight it will be their first six-game win streak since they ripped off 14 straight during November and December of 2010. Yet Tuesday night's agita-inducing, overtime win over the Houston Rockets only highlighted the biggest long-term and short-term question revolving around the Celtics ahead of the March 15 trade deadline -- where does Rajon Rondo fit into the blueprint for Banner No. 18?

The Rondo debate has become like American politics -- polarizing and with little room for middle ground. Either Rondo is the greatest thing to happen to basketball since Dr. James Naismith pinned up a peachbasket or he's a slimmed-down version of Sherm Douglas with hops and a headband. Both sides are proselytizing their point of view on the point guard.

Rondo did little to clarify the debate Tuesday night, following up his historic triple-double on Sunday with a vexing performance (9 points, 12 assists, 3 rebounds). After he had 9 points in the first half and thoroughly outplayed Houston Rockets counterpart Kyle Lowry, Rondo went scoreless in the second, including botching a potential game-sealing layup that forced the Celtics to go to overtime.

He finished 4 of 12 from the field and 1 of 4 from the free throw line, and was a non-factor late in the fourth quarter and overtime.

Traditional basketball statistics and the new numbers used to quantify the game seem to be similarly at odds on how to value the Celtics' one-of-kind point guard.

Two sets of basketball numbers tell you Rondo is two different players. Traditional stats tell you that Rondo is a miniaturized distant relative of Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson. New age analysis tells you Rondo is closer in class to Lowry or Denver's Ty Lawson.

Perhaps, you're not aware but basketball has gotten the same mathematical makeover that baseball enjoyed. It's just less accepted by the hoops hoi polloi. There's a reason that 27 of the 30 NBA teams had someone at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference here in Boston last week, which included a panel featuring Celtics assistant general manager/number cruncher-in-chief Mike Zarren.

The Celtics are at the forefront of the advanced metrics movement in the NBA. They used to employ Rockets GM Daryl Morey, a noted advanced metric devotee.

When numbers talk the Celtics listen, and advanced metrics are saying something about Rondo that is very different from what traditional stats say about his impact, performance and importance. That would explain in part why they would be open to exploring moving such a dynamic player.

Rondo is averaging a career-high 14.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game this season, and he is second in the league in assists per game at 10.2. But his most impressive traditional stat is this: of the 10 triple-doubles in the NBA this year he has four.

Rondo's 18-point, 17-rebound, 20-assist effort against the New York Knicks on Sunday was immediately followed by a chorus of contempt for the mere notion that the Celtics would entertain swapping him for anything less than LeBron James. Trading Rondo for Stephen Curry was hoops heresy.

Current trusted advanced metrics in the game portray a different point guard. ESPN's John Hollinger is one of the pioneers of basketball metrics. His player efficiency rating (PER) is a respected way to compare players when accounting for minutes played per game and style of play.

Here are Hollinger's current top five players in PER -- LeBron James (33.13), Dwyane Wade (28.34), Kevin Durant (27.24), Chris Paul (25.99), Derrick Rose (25.09). Dwight Howard is seventh and Kobe Bryant is eight.

Hollinger's top five points guards are Paul, Rose, Russell Westbrook (23.39), Curry (22.25) and Steve Nash (21.99), who just edges out Tony Parker (21.93). Deron Williams, Jeremy Lin and Kyrie Irving are all in the top 10. Guess who is not?

Rondo is No. 17 at 18.28, trailing Lowry (No. 11) and Lawson (No. 12) and tucked between Rodney Stuckey and Mike Conley. That's a stark contrast to the Green gospel that Rondo is unequivocally a top five point guard.

Statistics are the sports version of one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books. You can get them to tell any story you want. No way is Rondo the 17th best point guard in basketball. At worst he's sixth or seventh. But based on advanced metrics, a Rondo-for-Curry deal has merit.

I recall the last sharpshooter with bad ankles the Celtics traded for worked out pretty well (see: Allen, Ray).

Another evolved stat is estimated wins added (EWA). It's the basketball equivalent of baseball's WAR (wins above replacement). The top five point guards are Paul, Westbrook, Williams, Rose and Parker.

Rondo is ranked 17th in this stat (3.6 wins added) as well, and if you think he's being penalized because he's not a big scorer just know that Nash, who is averaging 13.8 points per game, ranks sixth. Lowry is seventh. For comparison, Paul Pierce has a EWA of 5.2. Kevin Garnett's is 4.7.

Statistics, new and old, are no better at providing a definitive view of what Rondo is than subjective opinion.

They're just as confounded and divided by his game as the rest of us. Let the Rajon debate rage on.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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