Trending player: Rajon Rondo's declining shooting
As the Celtics prepare for the playoffs, their biggest concern has to be the performance of their point guard. Rajon Rondo, so crucial to Boston's offense, has struggled in March, contributing to a 5-5 stretch over the last 10 games. It is difficult to overstate just how much Rondo's shooting has been off lately. In terms of five-game averages, every combination of Rondo's past eight games has been worse--often substantially so--than any stretch over the season's first four and a half months.
The notion that Rondo has been a different player since the Celtics traded his close friend Kendrick Perkins is an appealing storyline, but not one that is supported by the numbers. Rondo played well going into March, including a 16-point, 15-assist effort against the Phoenix Suns on March 2. The reality is, Rondo's shooting woes truly surfaced on March 13, when he missed five of his six attempts. Since then, Rondo's field goal percentage is a dismal 29.2 percent.
Consider Rondo's shot-location numbers from Hoopdata.com. They show how much his game has changed in that span. In the past eight games, a third of Rondo's shot attempts have come at the rim. That's down from 43 percent over the course of the full season. What once were finishes in the paint have instead turned into low-percentage, long two-pointers. Beyond that, when Rondo has been able to drive, he has been less successful. His shooting percentage at the rim has dropped from 65.0 percent to 38.1 percent.
In the context of those numbers, Rondo's lack of confidence in his ability to finish makes more sense. That was exemplified by his decision not to try a transition layup with Tony Allen trailing him in the fourth quarter of a loss last week to the Memphis Grizzlies. Whether due to health (he's playing with a sore pinky finger on his shooting hand that caused him to sit out Sunday) or some other explanation, Rondo has been unable to generate quality attempts at the basket, causing his entire game to suffer.
Trending team: Atlanta's maddening inconsistency
Tuesday's 33-point loss to the Chicago Bulls at Philips Arena was the latest example of the Hawks' failing to even be competitive in a game. According to STATS, LLC, Atlanta already has more 20-point home losses than any team with a winning record in NBA history. Because of those kinds of inexplicable performances, the Hawks are the league's most inconsistent team in terms of the standard deviation of their point differential.
Golden State 13.2
Since the top four teams on this list would make the playoffs if the season ended today, it is clear that there are worse traits a team can have than inconsistency. Lately, however, Atlanta has been more down than up. Since the high point of their season, a win in Miami on Jan. 18, the Hawks have been outscored by an amazing 3.9 points per game--a differential better than just six teams in the league over the course of the season.
Up until All-Star Weekend, an easy schedule helped conceal Atlanta's slide. The Hawks played just three likely playoff teams in their last 11 games before the break, going 6-5 in that stretch. When adjusted for opposition, Atlanta was 2.4 points worse than an average team in those games, which suggested trouble ahead when the schedule evened out after the break. Fourteen of the Hawks' last 19 opponents have been likely playoff foes, so while Atlanta's adjusted performance has been only slightly worse (2.6 points per game worse than average), the team has won just eight times since the break.
After a bit of relief with last weekend's back-to-back against New Jersey and Cleveland, the schedule will get difficult again for the Hawks. Of their last eight games, just two (at Washington and at Charlotte) are easier than average based on opponent and location. Fortunately for Atlanta, a 4.5-game cushion over the sixth-place Philadelphia 76ers should be enough to hold on to fifth in the East. But the Hawks will have to find a way to get going to be competitive in the playoffs.
League trend: 50-win teams
On Friday night, both the Celtics and the Miami Heat earned their 50th wins of the 2010-11 campaign, bringing the league's total to six teams with 50 wins, always one of the NBA's most important milestones. Writing on TrueHoop last week, ESPN's Dean Oliver referenced advice given him by Hawks general manager Rick Sund when both worked for the Seattle SuperSonics: "Sund told me that winning 50 games is a huge accomplishment in the NBA, and that it is a threshold that would normally ensure we could keep our jobs."
Though the threshold has stayed the same, the number of teams enjoying it has fluctuated over the years. Since the league expanded to 29 teams in 1995-96, an average of 8.6 teams per season have won 50 games. (Not counting 1998-99, when the entire lockout-shortened schedule was 50 games.) That has fluctuated, however, from a high of 12 50-win teams last season (including eight in the Western Conference alone) to just six in 2005-06.
Six more teams still have a shot at joining Boston, Miami, San Antonio, Chicago, Dallas and the L.A. Lakers in the 50-win club. However, that would require a perfect finish from Atlanta (42-32) and 8-1 runs for the New Orleans Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers (42-31). Most likely, the Oklahoma City Thunder (48-24) and the Orlando Magic (47-26) will reach 50, which would leave the Denver Nuggets (44-29) as the difference between whether the league is slightly above or below average in terms of 50-win teams this season. The average run of John Hollinger's playoff odds has Denver finishing at precisely 50-32.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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