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Why Celtics aren’t better without Rajon Rondo

Rajon Rondo will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff/File

Rajon Rondo will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.

Let’s put to rest the notion that the Celtics are a better team without Rajon Rondo. That theory, encapsulated here and here and strengthened by the lunatic fringe on sports talk radio, might never have formed in any market other than Boston. It shouldn’t have merit here, either.

The Big Proof offered by Rondo’s detractors that the team performs better without him seems to hinge on Boston’s recent four-game winning streak and the perception that the Celtics point guard is a big meanie. I’m paraphrasing, of course, but the bulk of the anti-Rondo argument points to Boston’s last four games and deep-seated beliefs about Rondo that have more to do with public perception than performance. (The local vitriol toward Rondo is particularly vexing considering the adoring swoons he receives from young fans before each game at TD Garden and the consistent top-10 ranking of Rondo’s jersey in sales.)

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Your personal opinions of Rondo aside, here are the reasons why the Celtics are not better without their All-Star point guard.

-- There’s a lesson in sample size here. So soon after Nate Silver’s statistical brilliance during the election, it’s amazing how careless some of us can still be with numbers. If someone successfully tested a new cancer drug on four rats, you wouldn’t deem the medicine fit for the market. And yet Rondo misses four games and all of a sudden everyone is the attorney general.

In the four games without Rondo, the Celtics have scored 101 points per game while giving up 92. They’ve averaged 25 assists, compared with 23 in games with Rondo. Must be a trend, right?

The truth is, the numbers aren’t much different with or without Rondo this season. With Rondo on the floor, the Celtics have an effective field goal percentage of .494. Without Rondo, it’s .495. With Rondo, the team’s assist percentage is 64.5 percent; it’s 60.5 percent without him. With Rondo, they commit 1.4 percent fewer turnovers. They have an offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 100.9 with Rondo, compared with 104.2 without him. Those numbers are too close and vary too much to draw broad conclusions.

Extended back over the last four seasons, however, Rondo’s value becomes obvious. Here are Boston’s offensive ratings, with and without Rondo:

YearWith RondoWithout Rondo
2011-12104.496.7
2010-11110.1100.8
2009-10108.7107.3
2008-09112.9107.0

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Four full seasons of scoring numbers fly in the face of any theory that the Celtics are better on offense without Rondo because they’re swinging the ball around loosey-goosey without it sticking in Rondo’s hands.

-- Rondo’s playoff value is underrated. Detractors talk about Rondo stepping up in big games as if it’s a bad thing. The truth is, Rondo has shined on the biggest stage like no other Celtic.

“He single-handedly carries us every night, and I don’t know how people don’t see that,” said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge last week. “It’s silly. He’s a great, great player, and he’s proven that time and time again. The guy’s been MVP of probably four or five series over the last five years. He’s been the best player in a series against LeBron James. He’s been the best player in a series against Derrick Rose. He’s been the best player in three games in a Finals series.

“The guy has done too many good things. The question is, ‘Are the pieces right around him?’ “

The numbers back Ainge. Everyone remembers Kevin Garnett’s resurgence during last year’s playoffs, but it was Rondo who led the team with 2.6 win-shares (Garnett was second with 2.3, Pierce third with 1.7).

-- It hasn’t really helped other players. I love the energy a backcourt of Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee provides, but you have a harder time selling me on the Leandro Barbosa-Jason Terry backcourt that inevitably plays big minutes in Rondo’s absence. All four of those shooting guards are good complements to Rondo, but they’re all shooting guards, and the Celtics aren’t at their best with every combination.

There’s a myth out there that Terry has somehow been freed up in the absence of Rondo. John Karalis at RedsArmy.com dispels that by examining every shot Terry has taken in the last three games. Karalis put the work in and found that Terry isn’t getting better or more shots, he’s just making more shots. All that has increased are Terry’s minutes (more on that in a moment).

-- The Celtics were already playing better before Rondo went down. Before a game vs. Memphis Jan. 2, the Celtics were coming off performances in which they allowed 106, 101, and 118 points. Bradley returned that night, and since then the Celtics have gone from 13th in the NBA in defensive rating to seventh. The difference has been drastic: Boston gave up 97.8 points per game in December and 92.2 points per game in January.

Rondo’s detractors also point to the emergence of Lee and Jeff Green, but both players were coming on well before Rondo went down. Green has averaged 11.1 points on 51 percent shooting since Jan. 7. Lee is shooting 46 percent from the field, 38 percent on 3-points, since December. He made just 22 percent of his 3-pointers in his first 16 games.

-- It won’t last. On increased minutes for Terry, Lee, and others, there’s some truth to the notion that Rondo’s absence could be inspiring for some players. Increased minutes should make guys happy (Barbosa’s Twitter feed has been positively bubbly since Rondo went down). Rondo can be intense. Before a game against the Grizzlies in early January, he took Lee aside and pushed him to run through a shooting drill with more intensity. Perhaps Rondo’s absence has given guys like Lee and Terry confidence and the ability to be themselves. If that’s the case, it’s not something that’s likely to carry over into prolonged success.

-- The vagaries of a four-game winning streak. Did I mention four games is a small sample size? The Celtics could easily be 2-2 in Rondo’s absence if Paul Pierce doesn’t make a step-back 3-pointer vs. the Clippers. The Celtics blew a 19-point lead in that game (a game in which Chris Paul didn’t play), which should be Exhibit A as to what can go wrong when Rondo isn’t on the floor to lead the offense late. The Miami game went to double overtime. The Kings and Magic are bad teams. Let’s see how this thing plays out before we send Rondo packing.

The Celtics aren’t better without Rondo. What some people might mean to say but don’t is that the Celtics would be made better with another All-Star in Rondo’s place. That if you traded Rondo for, say, Stephen Curry or Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving or Paul George, you’d be a better team. That’s fine. That’s a debate, and it would be difficult to prove that one side or another is right in that kind of argument. But this notion that the Celtics are better, right now, is absurd.

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