Saturday, December 18, 2010

How Rondo has Improved and How Likely is He to Break 14 Assists Per Game

(This article was originally posted on a different URL. All statistical analysis is prior to Delonte's injury and the night before Rondo's first return from injury. I do think Rondo will end up with about the same amount of assists I predicted here.)

Rajon Rondo is now in position to pursue the single season assists per game record.

Rondo is Improving his Team with Better Decisionmaking and more Precise Passing

He marches toward the record book while improving his team's chances at winning. In his pursuit of the assists record (14.54 a game by John Stockton in 1989-90, Rondo is now at 14.3 a game). While in the past he was able to find open teammates on the floor with ease, he has gained a much better understanding of where to place the ball and which players can handle certain kinds of passes.

Rondo has Improved his Chemistry with his Teammates

Chemistry with Kevin Garnett

His chemistry with Kevin Garnett seems to be the highest, as he has been able to find Garnett with alley oops with little or no warning and also has been instrumental at seemingly "trapping" himself in a corner of the floor (usually 14 to 17 feet from the basket, along the baseline) while drawing Garnett's defender into a double team and hitting Garnett with what is usually a behind the back bounce pass. The ball finds Garnett mere inches from his eyes, a place where Garnett likes to go up away from the basket by 16 to 19 feet.

Chemistry with Ray Allen

With Ray Allen, Rondo has recognized that Ray likes to get the ball a little earlier off a screen than other shooters. (If anyone can find me a video of Ray coming off a screen and getting the ball, I would be very thankful.) He throws the ball around the letters, and early enough so Ray can step into the jump shot before going up, unlike other players who may like to set their feet before receiving the pass. Rondo has also been more instrumental in calling plays in which he takes advantage of Ray's superior conditioning, taking him through a myriad of screens from one side of the floor to the other.

Chemistry with Paul Pierce

In the past, Rondo was known for throwing lethal fastballs which some of his teammates could not handle, including Tony Allen and Leon Powe, who quickly turned the passes into turnovers. Rondo has limited using this weapon to players who can handle this pass, including Glen Davis and Kevin Garnett. He has used softer passes for players unable to handle such speed, such as Semih Erden.

Rondo has Increased his Turnovers

While for the most part his passing and decisionmaking have improved, he actually has increased the percentage of his possessions ending in a turnover rate (11.1, 12.0 and 11.9 over the last three seasons) to 13.3 this season. The reason for this is that Rondo is thinking pass first
 in too many situations, often up in the air in a good position to shoot, but instead preferring to pass, and also sometimes going for the spectacular play instead of pulling the ball back out.


The Celtics will happily accept more turnovers if it means he maintains his increase of assists.

 Several factors come into play when considering his chances at keeping this pace up, including the team's pace, the likely decrease in minutes he will see now that Delonte is back and Nate is out of his shooting slump, the change in personnel that will come once Perkins is back from injury in mid-January and Rondo's recent injuries, a strained left hamstring and a sore foot.

Boston is now at a 92.7 possession per game pace, slightly down from last year's 93.8 and the same as two years ago. For those reasons, I do not expect a change of pace to occur, and if it were it would probably be slightly slower as the Celtics have aged. Assuming at worst they end up with 92 possessions per game, this would decrease Rondo's total of 14.3 assists per game slightly to 14.2.

 Another reason Rondo may see a decrease in assists because of the return of Delonte West and the improving play of Nate Robinson. Doc says he will try to limit Rondo to 36-38 minutes a game, although Doc has been known to be overly optimistic about reducing his starting players minutes. Assuming he averages 38 minutes by the end of the year, this would bring down his assists per game significantly from the 14.2 adjusted for pace to 13.6 adjusted for pace and minutes reduced.

When Perkins returns, his replacement of Shaq would be an offensive downgrade, particularly significant because Shaq has been more apt to run the floor this season. However, this would also mean a downgrade in minutes for Semih Erden, while Shaq would probably retain about the same minutes. Let's call this a slight upgrade, and add .1 assists to Rondo's total, bringing him to 13.7.

The last thing to consider is how Rondo's injuries will effect him.

Early in the season, Rondo was relied on pretty exclusively to handle the ball. When he hurt his foot, the offense reverted back to the Celtics' traditional offense of the past three years, with Garnett and Pierce handling the ball at the top of the key.

While Rondo's numbers may take a hit initially while coming back from a sore hamstring, I expect this effect to even out when Rondo starts handling the ball like he did earlier in the season. We can therefore assume the effect of his injuries to be neglegible, and he most likely will end the season around 13.7 assists per game. Expect Rondo to have a great season, but do not expect him to break the assists record.

Where does this put Rondo in terms of an all-time context?

This would put Rondo 6th all-time in assists per game in a single season, behind only John Stockton and Isiah Thomas. Thomas is 3rd all-time with 13.86 apg, while Stockton holds 5 of the remaining top 6 spots (14.54, 14.20, 13.76, 13.73, amazing, isn't it?)

Rondo's number, however, becomes even more impressive when considering that the league pace has slowed down considerably from Stockton's and Isiah's time in the 1980's and early 1990's. This would make Rondo's season as a distributor every bit as impressive as Stockton's 2nd greatest season of all-time at 14.20, and almost as impressive as 14.54. (If anyone can find exact stats on the pace during those seasons, e-mail me and I will do adjusted calculations to compare Rondo and Stockton's season. I am not having luck finding paces from that time right now.) Certainly, Rondo will have one of the best seasons as a distributor ever.

What are Rondo's chances of breaking this record in the future?

 Any improvement and/or increase of dominating the ball next season should be offset by further aging of The Big Three and the Celtics in general.

As John Hollinger has gone over in detail in the past, speedy point guards tend to improve sharply until their 25th birthdays, then top-out until they are around 28-29, and decline sharply into their 30's as their speed decreases.

 A notable exception to this theory is Steve Nash, who somehow improved considerably in his early 30's despite relying on speed, and being a similar, even if not quite as effective, 36 year-old player as during his MVP seasons. Another notable exception to this is Jason Kidd. Kidd, however, has done this much more than Nash by re-inventing his game, becoming a far better 3 point shooter while maintaining similar rebounding numbers due to his continuing strength and basketball intelligence. His decline in speed has been quite noticeable when he drives to the basket, and instead of being an active part of the half-court offense, he has been more of a spot-up specialist in Dallas. His decline in speed is especially noticeable at the defensive end, where he routinely gets burned by the league's quick point guards.

Rondo then should expect to see similar the numbers next season, probably 12.5 to 14.5 assists per game

His best chance at breaking Stockton's record will be during the 2012-2013 season, when Rondo will be in the unique position of being at his absolute prime while having a team that is built specifically around his skills (the only two contracts on the book for that season are Rondo, for 9 million, and Pierce, for 13 million, and as they have Rondo locked up until 2015, expect building around him to be their focal point.)

If they build a team that can run with Rondo on the break, they probably will maintain a pace in the top third of the league, about 97 possessions per game. This would make his 13.7 assists per game at a 92 pace become 14.44 (or a tick below Stockton's record.)

The Celtics, however, may decide to re-up for one more run with Ray and Garnett should they go deep in the playoffs this year or next year, but Rondo will have his chances to go for the record in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, as he should still be in his prime.

Anyway you look at it, Rondo should have 3-6 seasons in the NBA's top 25 assists per game single season records.

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