Rajon Rondo and Advanced Stats
Way back at the start of the NBA season, I wrote the Hoops Lab lead about James Harden, and I titled it James Harden and Advanced Stats. At the time, Harden was just coming off of his explosive season debut of 37 points and 12 assists, and I argued that he was a superstar that would be one of the best players in the NBA this year. Not because of that one big game, but because the advanced stats had indicated for years that he was already one of the best but that his role with the Thunder didn't allow him to show it. Here was the money paragraph:
You know, what makes this Harden trade the best test of NBA advanced stats that we've had in several years is that if the advanced stats are correct, then we should see Harden be an absolute stud this year in Houston. For the RotoWire Cheat Sheet, I adjusted Harden's per-minute projection from 33 to 38 minutes per game, and suddenly Harden moved into the top-5 of our projections, right next to his two former teammates in Oklahoma. Like general manager Daryl Morey, I'm putting my money where my mouth is when it comes to the advanced stats approach and suggesting that Harden will be one of the best players in the NBA this year.
What does that have to do with today? Well, with the news that Rajon Rondo will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL, we suddenly find ourselves with a second major test of the ability of advanced NBA stats to predict the future. When Rondo went down, every major NBA analyst or personality with a national podium declared absolute doom and gloom for the Celtics. Instantly, every article I read, sports commentary that I watched, or podcast that I listened to was about how the Celtics needed to just give up and blow it up. Trade Paul Pierce, trade Kevin Garnett, and plan to bottom out because Rondo's injury marked the final death knell of the Celtics as contenders. Did I agree with this point of view? I'll let my Twitter response (@ProfessorDrz) from January 30 answer:
"It's amazing to me how wrong ALL national media are about Rondo's importance to the Celtics. Am I the one that's wrong? We'll find out soon."
The universal response that Rondo's absence would equal calamity for the Celtics felt like the Twilight Zone for me because, as I've written about several times through the years, the +/- stats have long told the story that Rondo simply doesn't have much of an impact on the Celtics' fortunes overall. Rondo is a unique talent, capable of the outstanding individual accomplishments that we love in fantasy sports, and there are very few players in the world capable of making the kind of contribution that he can.
As Chris Liss annunciated for me on Thursday on the RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today show, Rondo's contributions did not really increase the size of the overall pie of what the Celtics' team could produce as a whole. In other words, Rondo was the one accumulating the box score stats, but when he's out, the team is generally able to play at a similar level. Regularized Adjusted Plus/Minus (RAPM) supports my claim. See Rondo's RAPM scores for the 2010, 2011, and 2012 seasons below.
2010: Rondo +0.2 (116th in NBA)
2011: Rondo +0.9 (90th in NBA)
2012: Rondo +1.0 (92nd in NBA)
Over that three year stretch, the Celtics were 17–10 (63% win percentage) with a scoring margin of +5.5 in games that Rondo missed vs. an overall 145–85 record (63% win percentage) with a scoring margin of +3.7 with Rondo healthy and playing.
So, recent history tells us that the Celtics tend to be able to survive without Rondo. But this season has been different from the last three because this offseason, after Ray Allen signed with the Heat, the Celtics went out and signed Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, and Leandro Barbosa to join Rondo and Avery Bradley in the backcourt. All three of the new additions work better with the ball in their hands and when playing more consistent minutes, and none of them are able to hit the quick-release 3-pointers off screens in the way that Allen could. The upshot is that, unlike in previous years, the Celtics still have a quality NBA-level guard rotation even without Rondo, and most of their guards' style of play is better without Rondo. (I cover them more in the New Additions section below.)
The major weakness of the Celtics' post-Rondo backcourt is the lack of a true playmaking point guard, as all four of the others are more combo guards. However, in Pierce and Garnett, the Celtics have excellent passing from the starting frontcourt with two players that are very experienced playing as a point forward. Much like the Miami Heat, the Celtics are built to survive playing without a traditional point guard.
Fantasy-wise, I'm looking for Jason Terry to be the big winner, with Garnett and Pierce also getting a solid bump in value. In last week's Lab I pointed out that the 30-something crowd tended to lull in the middle of the season and then finish strong, but Rondo's injury likely jump starts Garnett and Pierce on their late-season run a bit early. If Terry's struggles this year really were about being uncomfortable as a spot-up shooter, look for him to return to the numbers that he put up in Dallas that made him a roto mainstay. Lee and Bradley are also intriguing options, as both could be double-digit scorers with decent treys and steals, but they still appear to be roto role players with extremely similar potential production.
In real life, barring another major injury or a team-altering trade I predict that the Celtics moving forward will have a more effective offense than they've had all year. The real difference will be on defense, where a Garnett-led unit with ball-hawks Bradley and Lee on the perimeter should be the best defensive unit in the NBA over the second half of the year. Thus, I feel comfortable stepping out on a limb and declaring that the Celtics won't just be OK without Rondo; they'll be significantly better in the second half of the season than they were in the first.
And this prediction isn't just because the Celtics blew out the Kings on Wednesday or beat the Heat on Sunday sans Rondo. It's because the advanced stats that I put so much stock in tell me that this team is poised to make a second half run. Just like with Harden, I'm putting my money where my mouth is as far as public predictions go. So far, so good on the Harden prediction. Check back in with me in April on whether the Boston prediction goes as well.
Around the League
Gay finally traded: The first major domino in the NBA trade market fell this week when the long-rumored Rudy Gay deal was completed. The final deal was a three-way trade including Memphis, Toronto, and Detroit. When all of the dust settled, Gay and Hamed Haddadi were sent Toronto; Ed Davis, Tayshaun Prince, and Austin Daye were sent to Memphis; and Jose Calderon was shipped to Detroit.
Gay's value doesn't change much in this transition. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, the number of shots he was receiving in Memphis was actually up slightly this season. He may have a bit more of a green light to shoot on the Raptors since they don't have the strong frontcourt scoring that the Grizzlies have, but indications are that Gay was right near his sweet spot of shots anyway. Plus, with scorers like DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani on the squad, and needing shots as well, Gay will only be able to shoot so many times. If there is any change in Gay's outlook, it might be an increase in rebounding and a drop in shooting efficiency since defenses will be able to focus on him.
To me, the big winner in the deal is Kyle Lowry, who has been an elite roto option when maintaining the starting job over the last few years in Houston and Toronto. With Calderon out of town, the Raptors are now Lowry's show to run, and he should be one of the best roto producers in the league.
In Memphis, Jerryd Bayless (see New Additions, below) and Tony Allen seem to be the winners since Prince will leave a lot of perimeter scoring opportunities open in comparison to Gay. Randolph and Marc Gasol also get a boost, since without Gay there, they should be the focus of the Grizzlies' offense the same way that they were in the postseason a couple of years ago. I could have taken an advanced stats approach to analyzing this trade as well, since it was reportedly orchestrated by new Grizzlies advisor John Hollinger (the inventor of the PER stat). Suffice it to say that while the TNT crew full of former players hates this deal for Memphis but loves it for the Raptors, stats guy Hollinger is said to be extremely pleased and feels that the Grizzlies got the best of the deal in a basketball sense, in addition to cap relief. Thus, I'll be keeping an eye on how this trade comes out in Memphis for that reason as well.
In Detroit, there are mixed reviews as to what to expect. Calderon may just be the best current point guard on the team, but the Pistons see Brandon Knight as their point guard of the future while Calderon was brought in primarily for his expiring contract. Expect Calderon to initially lose out in value, but if Knight ever goes down Calderon would have roto starter potential.
Now that this deal is done, we can move on to the next Raptors trade rumor. Any takers on Bargnani?
Rose in full contact practice: Derrick Rose recently returned to full contact in practice, which is another sign that, barring a setback, he should soon be ready for a return to real game action. The consensus from the outside is that Rose should be back after the All-Star break, but that word isn't from the Bulls, who insist that his actual return date is still undetermined. Before the season began, I advocated against drafting Rose because of the four months that he would be chained to the bench, but now that those four months are almost over, it's a pretty exciting time for those that stashed Rose. After Adrian Peterson's miraculous year, you can't put two months of MVP-level Rose off the table, and even if he's only a 20-point/7-assist Rose, that's still a big impact player that will soon be added to one team in every league.
Paul's knee (again): We are entering the recurring injury section of the Hoops Lab, starting with Cliff … er, I mean, Chris Paul. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Paul's knee makes me nervous. The team has been saying he is day-to-day for about three weeks now, and even though he has managed to play in a couple of games, he obviously wasn't right and then immediately had to sit again. The Clippers as a team have played outstanding in his absence, which has surprised me (and is due in large part to the good play of Eric Bledsoe), but the Clippers know that Paul is the key to any type of postseason success they might hope for. As such, expect the team to be very conservative with their star point guard's health. As long as they keep winning and Bledsoe keeps playing well, I wouldn't be surprised if Paul's injury absences continue to linger. As a Paul owner, I certainly hope that there isn't something larger wrong with his knee than what the Clippers have released … and that possibility is certainly in play as well.
Curry's ankle (again): Stephen Curry has re-sprained his troubled ankle for the second time in three weeks, which has already caused him to miss two games. The injury isn't expected to be serious, and he should be back soon. But for my own piece of mind, I'd be likely to trade him as soon as he gets back and re-establishes his value, as I really don't like having a recurring injury hanging over the head of one of the best players on my team.
Howard injures shoulder (again) as the Lakers Turn: Continuing the theme, Dwight Howard was once again forced to leave the court due to pain in his shoulder. I've said it before, so I'll keep the Howard part of this update brief. He's an injury risk on top of being a category killer that no longer has the box score dominance upside that he had in Orlando. He's flirting with not being rosterable in some leagues.
But while we're here, let's take another snapshot of the Lakers season. It seemed that they had turned a corner with three straight wins, perhaps finding the secret to success in having Kobe Bryant channel his inner Magic Johnson. Kobe had three straight double-digit assist games entering Wednesday night, and turned in nine assists on Wednesday against the Suns … though in a losing cause. In that game, former Suns legend Steve Nash barely touched the ball in the fourth quarter, which shined a light on the fact that if Kobe is playing point guard that doesn't leave anything for Nash to do. Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni's offense is still conducive to his point guard throwing up video game assists. The question now is whether it will be Kobe in that role long term, and if so, then what does it mean for Nash's roto value? Spoiler alert: Nash as an off-ball spot-up shooter in limited minutes would be virtually useless to your roto squad.
Bogut is back (kinda): Andrew Bogut returned to action this week after missing most of the season recovering from microfracture ankle surgery. He had a solid debut, but is sitting out at least one game of back-to-backs and is clearly not yet himself while playing limited minutes. In the last month since I found out that Bogut's ankle surgery was microfracture I dropped him in the only league that I had him in and advised my Twitter followers not to pick him up. His strong debut gave me pause, but his health still continues to turn me away. If he's still on your FA wire or you can get him for cheap, there's always the chance that Bogut will return to his upside as a nightly double-double with multiple blocked shots, but I'm not in a hurry to go out and get him and deal with the recurring injury headache.
Bynum on deck: Andrew Bynum has increased his activity level in recent weeks, and also reportedly has been undergoing fluid injections in his knee to try to get back into game action soon. There is some thought that he might be ready to go after the All-Star break. At the very least, if Bynum is for some reason still available in your league, you almost have to go out and pick him up. Bynum's upside is higher than someone like Bogut's, but he also has a history of injuries working against him, so I still wouldn't mind trading him if/when he gets back on the court and re-establishes his market.
Dirk's adductor muscle: Dirk Nowitzki sat out Thursday and Friday night due to an issue with the adductor muscle in his thigh. The injury isn't considered serious, but with Nowitzki already struggling to get up to speed after his early season knee surgery, this setback is at least annoying if not mildly worrying. This type of injury still falls under the purview of the "old men struggle around January/Febuary" theme of last week's lab, so I still think Dirk is a good bet moving forward, but I'm keeping an eye on it.
Baby's done: Glen Davis is having foot surgery and is expected to miss eight-to-twelve weeks. For all practical purposes, his season is over, and you should move on if you haven't already.
Sullinger's back: I've been one of the bigger touters of rookie Jared Sullinger, but he was forced to leave Wednesday's game with back spasms after only four minutes of action. Considering that it was fears of chronic back issues that caused Sullinger to plummet down NBA draft boards last summer, it give some credence to the teams who passed on Sullinger now that he's being forced to undergo back surgery and will miss the remainder of the season.
Jason Terry (62% owned in Y! leagues), Avery Bradley (46% owned), Courtney Lee (28% owned): As mentioned above, Rondo's injury opens the door for the rest of the Celtics' backcourt to become interesting. I suppose you could even add Leandro Barbosa to the watch list as well, as he has an instant offense role off the bench. Again, Terry is the one to watch because he has impact potential. I might actually rank Lee second, because his three-pointers are a bit better than Bradley's, and he's still playing his natural position of shooting guard. Bradley is still an enigma for being so young. Last year, he didn't do as well at point guard as he did when getting set up by Rondo at shooting guard, but he may have improved in the last year, so he's at least worth watching.
Amir Johnson (48% owned): With Ed Davis shipped out of town and both Andrea Bargnani and Jonas Valenciunas still hurting, Johnson has little completion at the moment for big men minutes in Toronto. Even when Bargs and Jonas are healthy, Johnson is still the best traditional big on the team and should maintain an expanded role.
Eric Bledsoe (31% owned): As mentioned above, Paul scares me, and Bledsoe has done well in his absence. If Paul's knee goes from day-to-day to week-to-week or even out indefinitely (all of which are in play even when he's healthy enough to go), Bledsoe has now proven that he's got roto starter upside.
Jerryd Bayless (15% owned): Bayless has always been an instant-offense type off the bench. With Gay out of town, the Grizzlies may need Bayless's scoring. He scored 23 points Thursday in the first game post Gay, giving him a Ben Gordon/Jamal Crawford type upside moving forward.
Keeping up with the Professor
If you're interested in my takes throughout the week, you can follow me on Twitter @ProfessorDrz. Also, don't forget that you can catch me on the radio on RotoWire Fantasy Sports Today with Chris Liss and Jeff Erickson on XM 87, Sirius 210.