Are the Boston Celtics better without Rajon Rondo? Can teams succeed without a true point guard on the roster? Do dual point guard systems work? All these questions and more will be answered in this two-part article. Let’s analyze:
Ever since Rajon Rondo tore his ACL back in January, the Celtics have only continued their inconsistent play. The only difference is, when they’re winning and they look good, they look really good, and that has led to people insinuating that the team is better off with Rondo. Is that the case? The Miami Heat have Mario Chalmers (chuckles) running the point guard spot, but they still won the championship last June. Chalmers is far from a true point guard, so how did they do it? When Chauncey Billups is healthy, both he and Chris Paul are expected to start together. They are both point guards, so how do teams like the Clippers, the Knicks, and the Hawks function with two point guards running the show?
The concept of the point guard position has changed over decades, and so has the idea of a typical offense. What is a point guard’s job in today’s NBA? Let’s take a look at how certain teams have adapted to their situations regarding the lead guard position.
Point Guard-Less: At first glance, one would think that the ball moves and flows better without Rajon Rondo pounding the ball at the top of the key waiting for screens or for Kevin Garnett to establish post position, and that’s 100% true. Ball movement has been the focus for Boston in wake of Rondo’s absence, and it’s worked often, getting good shots for players who struggled early on (Courtney Lee, Brandon Bass, Jason Terry). Unfortunately, a Rondo-less offense works better for Terry, in particular, which calls into question his future with the team considering the fact that it doesn’t look like Rondo is going anywhere, but I digress. Before coming to Boston, Lee and Terry were not players known for coming off of screens like Ray Allen did during his tenure in green. Therefore, it was a difficult transition for them to mold themselves to fit into Boston’s offense which thrives on “Floppy” plays (or, plays that have shooters coming off of screens and pin-downs). Lee really struggled early on, but based on his shooting mechanics, his form, and his growing confidence in Doc Rivers’ system, it appears as if he’ll be okay moving forward with the offense, even as Rondo returns. For Terry, that might not be true. Looking at Jet’s shooting form, it’s evident that coming off of screens is not his preferred play-type, even if he practices that situational shot often.
Even without Rondo, Terry has struggled with his shot, and it’s been like that all season. That said, he (and Lee to an extent) is more suited to an offense that swings the ball more and where the ball touches multiple hands on a possession. Terry likes to work off of the dribble, so it’s imperative that he gets the ball more off of pin-downs, but in a way that he’s not pressured to shoot immediately. In Jeff Green’s case, he’s been one of the main reasons why the Rondo-less offense is even successful. Doc Rivers can use him in multiple situations: post-ups, pin-downs, and pick-and-rolls as the primary ball-handler. Jeff Green’s versatility is one of the two factors behind Boston’s success without Rondo. The other? Paul “The Truth” Pierce. Since Rondo went down with the injury, Pierce has had 3 triple-doubles. That’s 1/4th of his career number of triple-doubles in the span of almost three months. Pierce gives the game what it needs, and that’s why he’s taken on a point-forward role in Rondo’s absence. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have adopted the Rondo-KG pick-and-pop routine, and it has been just as effective. Without Paul Pierce and Jeff Green (who’s averaging 23.4 points per game as a starter this year) stepping up like they have, Boston’s offense wouldn’t be half of what it is.
That said, things aren’t as nice as they seem in Beantown for the team without its motor. As much as Rondo pounded the air out of the ball at the top of the key preventing ball movement, he also made the same amount of plays that made up for it. He and Avery Bradley developed a beautiful two-man game that involved Rondo viciously driving towards the hoop to find a cutting Bradley for an easy layup as the defenders focused on Rondo’s drive. It was so effective that there were entire mixtapes created for just that type of play between those two guys. Bass will likely miss Rondo the most, since, as a jump-shooting Big, he needs to be fed the ball often (normally off of pick-and-pops). With these Rondo-less Celtics, the ball tends to stall on offense, and the perimeter passing doesn’t lead to a good shot. From there, that leads to either a bad shot, or reliance on Paul Pierce and Jeff Green to bail the team out by creating their own shot. These offensive stalls also happened while Rondo was playing, but the difference is that Rondo’s improvisation and his ability to create a shot for himself or his teammates under pressure (by either the game clock or the shot clock) was much more effective. While offensive lulls are bound to happen to any team, Rondo could get the team going again sooner. Therefore, the Boston Celtics will, without a doubt, miss Rajon Rondo. Without a floor general like Rondo who can do manufacture points easily, the Celtics will have to perfect their ball movement and trust in Green and Pierce as the Playoffs roll up.
No Pure Point Guard: Mario Chalmers is far from a pure point guard. While he’s been progressing nicely this season, Norris Cole is also not a pure point guard. How is it, then, that Miami was able to win a championship without a pure point guard? Well the short answer is, they had one, just not at the point guard position. LeBron James can handle the ball, he can pass the ball well, and he can shoot the ball well, all attributes that you want in your point guard. Chalmers’ role in the offense last year was really (in an extremely dumbed down sense) to bring the ball up, pass it to start the offensive set, and then sit in the corner to wait for a LeBron James kick-out pass. This isn’t a knock on Chalmers as a player in the slightest (in fact, that’s how most people would play when on a team with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James). It just demonstrates that he’s a shooter more than anything. On that side, though, he’s really good at what he does. Chalmers is an effective, knock-down shooter, and he’ll burn you for leaving him open. He’s also solid in transition, so there’s that. That’s not enough, however, to warrant a spot as a Top-10 Point Guard (he’ll never live that ludicrous statement down . . .). Norris Cole has some work to do on his jumper, but his athleticism makes up for it. His decision-making has improved astronomically over the past year, and that’s especially true in transition. The best Heat highlights are LeBron James and Dwyane Wade slams off of passes from Norris Cole. However, he (and Chalmers) need to work on their halfcourt set initiation. For now, though, that isn’t necessary. LeBron James really takes care of the entire offense, because opposing defenses gravitate towards him and revolve around him. Therefore, a pure point guard at the lead guard position isn’t needed. Theoretically, one could surround LeBron James with only shooters, and they would still be a dominant team. Why?
I’ve detailed this before, so this might sound a tad bit redundant. LeBron and his team thrives off of one of the most basic plays in basketball, the drive-and-kick. Since he’s most athletic basketball player in the world, if he drives to the hoop, one defender (or even two) likely won’t be enough to stop him from getting a bucket. Therefore, defenses cater to that by sending multiple help defenders to the paint to stop him. So what happens to the players that the help defenders were defending? Wide-open for three. That’s how Miami operates, and that’s why they don’t need a traditional point guard. In fact, having a player like Chris Paul or Rondo in Miami would only hurt the team and mess up the system that isn’t broken. Now the Heat’s point guard-less situation is unique to this team only. The other 29 teams in the League need a point guard to function at maximum efficiency. Why? They don’t have LeBron James, and it’s that simple.
Early Conclusion: Here we have the Celtics and the Heat, two cases of teams who don’t need a point guard at the moment. In the Celtics’ case, there’s a strong chance that they’ll start missing their point guard really soon as basketball games really start to matter in May. Rondo’s contributions to the team are just as understated by some as they are overstated (read that sentence a couple of times. It makes sense, I promise). In Miami’s case, they don’t need a traditional point guard, but that’s how you beat them. The reason why Boston was so close to beating Miami last year was because the Heat couldn’t contain Rajon Rondo who could break down the Heat’s defense. Now that the Celtics don’t have that anymore, they’ll have to rely on other X-Factors to get the job done.
Join us for Part Two (coming soon) as we continue tackling this subject. The next up: Dual point guard systems. Until then, feel free to keep checking back for more content.