NBA Playoffs, Round 1: Boston Celtics @ Chicago Bulls
Boston Celtics @ Chicago Bulls +2.0 (-102)
United Center, Chicago, Illinois April 21, 2017, 4PM PST
It was announced this morning that Rajon Rondo, the starting PG for the Bulls, will be sidelined for a while as a result of a thumb fracture sustained in the Bulls' game 2 win at the Celtics. In response to this news, the betting line repriced the home team from 1.5 point favorites to 2 point underdogs (so far). This shift is represented in the following graph, from SportsInsights.
We regard the in the 3.5 point swing as an overreaction. In support of our view, consider that, according to ESPN's Real Plus-Minus stat, Rondo's value is negative on both offense and defense (RPM measures the estimated on-court impact of a particular player on the team's performance, in terms of net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions). The table excerpt below indicates that Rondo ranked 56th among qualified players at the position during the 2016-2017 regular season, with an RPM of -2.35.
When the Bulls starter was inactive for three of the last four regular season games, Jerian Grant got the nod. Grant averaged 29 minutes per contest over this stretch, and went 6-10 from the floor and chipped in 3 boards, 7 assists, a bit under 2 steals with less than a turnover per contest.
Overall, Grant, a second year product of Notre Dame, started 28 games for Chicago during the 2016-2017 season, during which he averaged 8 points on 44% shooting, and (roughly) 3 dimes and 2 boards per game. As such, we regard the Chicago backup as a serviceable replacement for the veteran Rondo, especially considering that Jimmy Butler and Dwayne Wade are available for some heavy lifting Friday afternoon (i.e. to assume responsibility for handling the ball and manufacturing scoring opportunities). We will go further. There is a case to be made that Grant is a better shooter than Rondo, as, in 2017, the seasoned guard's 40.3% showing represents the third worst field goal percentage of his 13-year professional career).
We also note that, consistent with our rationale, Grant's Real Plus-Minus ranks him 15th among qualified Point Guards. Interestingly, this seeding pits the young man a mere few hundredths of a point behind Boston's eighth-year wonder-guard, Isaiah Thomas. In fairness though, Grant has logged only about half the minutes Thomas has played, and has been used only about 60% as often as has Rondo. This is to say that one should exercise caution in comparing these players stats outright. Since opposing teams' defense tends to fixate on integral players more than role players, one might reasonably expect efficiency to wane as utility increases. Nonetheless, given the ample support at Grant's disposal Friday, we are confident in the home cover.
Personnel aside, the Bulls boast a glaring advantage over the Celtics: prowess on the glass. Boston is the shortest team in the NBA, which perhaps explains why the Celtics rank 25th by total rebounds per game. On the other hand, Chicago is the third best rebounding team in the League this season. Accordingly, it is not surprising that the Bulls have collected 20 more wayward balls than their top-seeded competition through the first two games of the series.
While Rondo is superlative on the boards versus other Point Guards, Wade and Butler are likewise top-ten glass-pounders at their respective positions. So we think the rebounding battle will be closer than was the case in game one especially (where Chicago's advantage was 53-38), but do not think Boston is physically equipped to meaningfully out-rebound the Bulls.
Bottom line: We think the public is reacting emotionally to the news of Rondo's absence. In our estimation, the numbers do not warrant the 3.5 point shift currently evident. In fact, Chicago's advantage tonight may have increased following Rondo's injury. Thus, we are quite comfortable backing the Bulls +2.