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Rondo Injury Leads To Experiment At Point Guard

The Boston Celtics will be without Rajon Rondo to begin the season for the second time in as many years following last week’s much-discussed left hand injury. Rondo suffered a left metacarpal fracture last Thursday night when he slipped in the shower.

There had been reports that Rondo injured himself at a local trampoline park, a visit he made with his children at least twice last week, but he was adamant that his story was legitimate during the team’s annual media day on Monday. 

Rondo expects to miss 8-10 weeks, which means the Celtics will be without their starting point guard for at least the first few weeks of the regular season. Danny Ainge said the club would be “cautious” with Rondo even though the injury is to his off-hand.

Regardless of whether Rondo is out for two weeks or more than a month, Brad Stevens will be forced to improvise. That means more ball-handling duties for two newcomers -- rookie Marcus Smart and free-agent addition Evan Turner. 

“Marcus being a rookie, it’s very important for him not to feel like he has to fill Rondo’s shoes. We’ll do that as a team and we’ll do that collectively,” Ainge said at the team’s practice facility in Waltham. “Evan will probably play some point guard, those are questions you can ask Brad. Phil [Pressey] can play some point guard.”

Boston has never had a ton of depth behind Rondo in terms of a true point guard, but this year the cupboard is more empty than usual. Avery Bradley spent a decent amount of time running the point with Rondo recovering from a torn ACL in each of the last two seasons, but wasn’t listed by Stevens as a potential option this time around. 

“We have multiple primary ball-handers on this team. I’ve always been a guy that thinks you can play two point guards together and you can play two combo guards together,” Stevens said. “We’ve just got to figure out who can best get the most out of everyone else and at the same time get the most out of the position as they can. 

“It’s an opportunity for Marcus. It’s an opportunity for Phil Pressey; it’s an opportunity for Evan Turner. It’s an opportunity for all those guys. The answer to that is only time will tell, I think that’s the best way to go about it.”

No mention was made of Bradley, who the coach raved about as a fill-in for Rondo prior to last season. Stevens told the Boston Herald in September 2013: I don’t think there is any doubt that Avery has elite ability in a lot of ways as a point guard. He’s an elite defender at the position. He’s an elite athlete at the point guard position. I think he’s a guy that’s gotten better. I think he’s a guy with more confidence, and I think he’s excited about the challenge if Rajon is out [in reference to Rondo’s ACL injury].

“As I’ve watched it, I didn’t think the struggles [at the point last season, which referred to 2012-13] were as bad as they were made out to be. The other thing is he did that midstream. He had to make that adjustment within a system already created. Maybe we do things that fit him a bit better early that you can tweak when Rajon comes back. You know, Bradley is still going to play. He’s still going to play a lot. He’s going to play off the ball and with the ball.”

It could very well be that Bradley hasn’t been considered because Rondo’s absence should be short. While not proven, Stevens has options worth looking at for the 8-to-16 games Rondo is expected to miss.

Pressey carries experience from last season, his first as a professional, when he played 15.1 minutes per game and started 11 times. His usage rate was low, 14.3%, but he showed an ability to distribute the ball effectively -- accounting for 44.3% of Boston’s assists when on the court.

It’s odd to think of him as the best option, but that may only be because he went undrafted 16 months ago.

Turner has the most NBA experience of the three -- having logged 306 games, mostly with the Philadelphia 76ers -- but could be third on the point guard depth chart when the season begins.

The No. 2 overall pick in 2010, Turner hasn’t played much point guard in the NBA, but the Indiana Pacers did experiment with him at the position sparingly during his brief tenure with the club. Ironically enough, the Celtics were one of the teams against which Frank Vogel played Turner at the point. I wrote about Indiana’s experiment here -- Pacers Show New Wrinkle With Turner At Point Guard -- in March.

Vogel made the decision to have Turner run the point -- which was forced by a brief injury to George Hill -- because the former National Player of the Year did so for a season at Ohio State. Stevens also referenced that when I asked him about his lack of professional experience running an offense.

“I think the [lack of] experience way, way, way outdistances any [lack of] success. I don’t think he’s played a lot of point, but maybe I’m wrong,” Stevens said. “I do know that he played point one year in college and was the National Player of the Year.”

The results weren’t bad in the limited time Turner spent at the point for the Pacers, but the situation was vastly different than the one in Boston. Hill, Indiana’s starting “point guard” is really one in name only, while Rondo carries much more responsibility. The cast of characters around Turner with Indiana was also more talented. Turner’s stat line was impressive in the aforementioned March game against the Celtics, which may have Stevens more optimistic than he should be about his skills as the primary ball-hander.

To his credit, Turner expressed a desire to do whatever Stevens asks him to do for the Celtics. “I’ve played the perimeter lately, and I’ve guarded the one-through-three,” he said. “I just want to do whatever is best to help the team.”

Regardless of how comfortable he is handing Turner the keys to the offense, Stevens seems most inclined to give Smart a chance to win the job outright. He made a point of emphasizing that he won’t restrict the sixth overall pick from starting simply because he’s a rookie.

“Marcus is going to get a ton of opportunity on and off the ball. I think he is physical, mentally and emotionally ready for those,” the coach said. “He doesn’t have any experience yet, but that will come quick.”

Warriors Enter 14-15 With New Coach Yet Same Problem With David Lee

With a huge number of quality teams in the middle of the Western Conference, there doesn’t appear to be much separation between those fighting for homecourt advantage in the first round and the ones trying to sneak into the playoffs. And while most tried to upgrade their personnel in the offseason, the Golden State Warriors took a different tack. They are counting on improvement from their coaching staff, replacing Mark Jackson with Sterr Kerr.

Jackson was a polarizing figure in Golden State. On one hand, the Warriors improved their win total in each of his three seasons with the club, going from perennial lottery contender to playoff fixture. On the other, he was a very stubborn coach whose offensive philosophies seemed stuck in his playing days, a bit of anachronism in the modern NBA. And while he was beloved in the locker room, he didn’t have a great relationship with management.

If the transition from Jackson to Kerr causes an on the court improvement, it will likely come on the offensive end of the floor. Despite having a starting line-up brimming with firepower, the Warriors were 11th and 12th in offensive rating in the last two seasons. Many blamed that on Jackson’s fondness for isolations and post-ups, as Golden State was second lowest in the league in the number of passes per possession, according to SportsVU. 

Kerr is promising to install a more free-flowing offensive system, one that includes many principles of the Triangle he learned from playing under Phil Jackson. The primary beneficiaries may be the Warriors second unit, as they traditionally struggled to score under Jackson, perhaps because they lacked the playmaking ability of guys like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and David Lee to create good shots out of 1-out-1 situations.

The new coaching staff probably won’t make many adjustments on the defensive side of the floor, where Jackson’s teams were among the best in the NBA. Despite giving so many minutes to defensive liabilities like Curry and Lee, the Warriors had a Top 5 defense in each of the last two seasons. Like many players who learned the game in the 1990’s, Jackson firmly believed the old adage that defense wins championships and emphasized that side of the ball. 

And while he was widely viewed a “player’s coach” and not a tactician, Jackson more than held his own against some of the league’s best coaches in the last two postseasons. Both years, he had to deal with a significant injury to one of his primary frontcourt players and was forced to change the identity of his team on the fly. That’s easier said than done, as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s struggles without Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have shown.

In 2012, Lee went down with a hip injury in the first game of the playoffs. The obvious move would have been to insert Carl Landry into the starting line-up, but Jackson decided to slide Harrison Barnes to the power forward position, turning the Warriors into a four-out team overnight. With four perimeter players spotted up at the three-point line, Golden State turned the tables on the Denver Nuggets and beat them at their own game. 

Since Kenneth Faried didn’t have the post game to take advantage of Barnes lack of size, the Warriors were able to improve their floor spacing on offense without sacrificing much on defense. Under George Karl, the Nuggets had been a contrarian power, taking advantage of the altitude in Denver to run slower teams off the floor. That didn’t work against the new-look Warriors, who had more firepower and more size, thanks to the presence of Andrew Bogut. 

In 2013, Bogut went down before the start of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, a loss even more devastating than Lee’s. Bogut was the anchor of their defense and his ability to screen open shooters and facilitate out of the high post was a huge part of the Warriors offense. After falling behind 2-1 to the Clippers, Jackson made another great adjustment, sliding Lee to center and inserting Draymond Green into the starting line-up at PF. 

He went back to the same playbook he used in 2012, knowing he could hide a smaller player on a limited big man like DeAndre Jordan. Just as important, Green’s ability to stretch the floor from the PF spot opened up the paint for Golden State’s offense and forced Blake Griffin to play defense 25+ feet from the basket. Even though the Warriors were dramatically undermanned, they almost came back to win the series, narrowly losing a Game 7 thriller. 

In both instances, Jackson showed he understood the importance of spreading the floor as well as how to manipulate match-ups and force the opposing coach into a difficult situation. Karl didn’t want to take Faried off the floor and Doc Rivers felt the same away about Jordan - Jackson’s substitutions forced them to pay a price for sticking with their big men. That’s how the Warriors were able to punch above their weight in each of the last two playoffs. 

The interesting question is what would have happened if Bogut had stayed healthy and Jackson had tried the same tactic. Since neither Lee nor Green could protect the rim, the Clippers were able to shred the Warriors defense as the series went on. A frontcourt of Bogut and Green, in contrast, would have still been able to stretch the floor and compromise the Clippers defense while also having the ability to shut off the paint and protect the defensive glass. 

Throughout Jackson’s tenure in Golden State, the only guy who came under more fire than the coach was Lee, who has never really been able to justify the huge contract he received in 2010. While he’s a skilled player who puts up big stats, he’s not capable of scoring over the top of bigger players in the post, he doesn’t have the shooting range to stretch the floor and he’s not good defensively. In a lot of ways, Lee is the worst of both worlds at the power forward position.

As long as Lee is on the floor, the Warriors have to use a two-post offense that doesn’t maximize the talents of their perimeter players. Most teams who make that decision do so with the idea that playing two big men together will fortify their defense, but Lee doesn’t bring much to that end of the floor either. He has never been on an elite team in his 9-year NBA career and Golden State certainly seemed to play better without him in the 2012 playoffs. 

And while Green gives up a lot of size on defense, he makes up for it by having long arms, very quick feet and a strong base. He made Griffin work for his points when matched up against him in the playoffs, something Lee has never been accused of doing. There’s even more benefit to playing Green on offense, since he gives the Warriors another shooter and another guy who can break the defense down off the dribble and create plays for others off the bounce. 

If Kerr is given the freedom to make a move like that, he may be able to take the Warriors to the next level.

While Jackson had a lot of success in Golden State, he was far from a perfect coach, so there’s nothing wrong with replacing him. However, if Lee ends up having more job security than Jackson, Golden State has been wasting their time. For as much press as coaches get in the modern NBA, basketball is still more about Jimmies and Joes than X’s and O’s.

Thunder Facing Another Extension Dilemma In Reggie Jackson

Over the next month and a half, as players from the 2011 NBA Draft negotiate extensions on their rookie deals, none will have a more interesting decision to make than Reggie Jackson. After spending two seasons as Russell Westbrook’s understudy, Jackson was thrust into the spotlight by Westbrook’s knee injury in last year’s playoffs. While he couldn’t fill replace Westbrook, he more than held his own, emerging as a starting caliber player in his own right.

Last season, with Westbrook in and out of the line-up, Jackson started 40 games for the Oklahoma City Thunder and averaged 13 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists on 44% shooting. He moved back to the bench in the playoffs, where he was extremely effective in a more limited role. Much like James Harden two years ago, Jackson has to decide whether he wants to be one of the best sixth men in the NBA or whether he wants to run his own team.

Jackson was a late bloomer at Boston College, not emerging as a star until his junior season, when he averaged 18 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists a game on 50% shooting. Since there weren’t many other scoring options on his team, he primarily looked for his own shot, which raised questions about his ability to be a full-time PG at the NBA level. Seen as a guy stuck between positions at the next level, Jackson slipped to the No. 23 pick in 2011.

At 6’3 210 with a 7’0 wingspan, Jackson had elite size and athleticism for the PG position, but he was just another guy as a SG. In that respect, he wasn’t all that different from Westbrook, who was also seen as more of a combo guard coming out of college. Like with Westbrook, there were also questions about Jackson’s perimeter jumper - he shot 42% from 3 as a junior, but he was below 30% from beyond the arc as a freshman and a sophomore.

Jackson’s size, athleticism and scoring ability meant he would have a good shot of earning a spot in an NBA rotation, but he would likely need to improve as a shooter and a passer to earn a starting nod, especially given the competition at the PG position at the next level. As a late first-round pick, nothing would be handed to him, which he found out as a rookie, when he went back and forth to the D-League and barely got off the end of the bench.

Not only was Jackson playing behind one of the best PG’s in the NBA, his coach (Scott Brooks) had an unhealthy fixation with Derek Fisher. Fisher was brought in to Oklahoma City to provide veteran leadership and shooting in an extremely limited role off the bench, but Brooks gave him as many minutes as he could handle and then some. He was still stealing playing time from Jackson in last year’s playoffs, despite shooting 29% (!!) from the field.

Were it not for Westbrook’s knee injury, there’s a good chance Jackson would have been a complete unknown at the NBA level headed into his fourth season in the league. As is, he has still played in only 3,700 total minutes with the Thunder, around 600 more than Damian Lillard received as a rookie. In that respect, Jackson’s current situation is fairly comparable to Eric Bledsoe, who spent most of his first three seasons playing behind Chris Paul.

Like Bledsoe, Jackson has taken advantage of the opportunity to learn from the best in practice, gradually improving as a player in each of his first three seasons. His perimeter shot has improved by leaps and bounds, as he has turned himself into a respectable three-point shooter, shooting 34% from 3 on 4 attempts a game last season. Most importantly, he has become a much better decision-maker, averaging 4.1 assists on 1.8 turnovers a game.

As a result, Jackson is a complete PG without any glaring holes in his game. He’s an elite athlete with great size who can create his own shot, run point, stretch the floor, rebound at a high level and match up with both backcourt positions. In many ways, he’s a mini-Westbrook, a score-first guard who can impact the game on both ends of the floor. The problem is that since he’s still not a great three-point shooter, he needs the ball in his hands to be successful.

That’s an issue in Oklahoma City, where everything in the offense goes through Westbrook and Kevin Durant. There’s an opening in the starting line-up at SG with Thabo Sefolosha gone, but the Thunder will probably want a better spot-up shooter in that role than Jackson, whose a better fit as a sixth man, where he can dominate possessions on the second unit. Even if he closes games, there is a limit on how many shots and minutes he will receive.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with being a sixth man on a title contender, but those guys don’t get paid like starters on average teams, much less good ones. That was the dilemma Harden faced two summers ago, when he was asking for a max contract with the Thunder. Instead of taking a little less to be a third wheel in Oklahoma City, Harden opted to be the man in Houston, where he makes $16 million a year and is a first-team All-NBA SG.

Jackson will probably never reach those heights, but why should a 24-year-old put a ceiling on his game? He’s more than ready to run his own team and there’s no way to know what type of numbers he would put up if he had a usage rating north of 25. He has said in interviews that he wants to be one of the best players in the world and that will never happen with the Thunder, where he will always be playing third banana to Durant and Westbrook.

If Oklahoma City doesn’t agree to an extension with Jackson, it will be seen as another indication of the franchise’s unwillingness to spend money, but it’s more complicated than that. Salary dictates playing time and position in the pecking order in the NBA and it’s going to be hard to for the Thunder to pay Jackson first or second option money when they have already maxed out Durant and Westbrook. There are only so many shots to go around in an offense.

In Harden’s last season in Oklahoma City, he was averaging 10 field goal attempts a game, 1 less than Jackson averaged last season. To be worth a max contract, he would have needed to be nearer to the 16-17 FGA’s he takes in Houston. He hasn’t won a playoff series with the Rockets, but he wouldn’t be seen as the top SG in the NBA if he was still the Thunder’s 6th man. To reach his potential, Jackson will have to spread his wings and leave the nest. 

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