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Monday, January 12, 2009

What is Wrong with the Celtics?

The Boston Celtics won the 2008 NBA Championship on the strength of having three future Hall of Famers leading a team that was committed to playing together--as signified by their "Ubuntu" motto--and to playing hard nosed defense. The Celtics raced out to a record-setting 27-2 start this season but heading in to tonight's home game versus Toronto they are just 3-7 in their last 10 games. The downward slide began with a 92-83 Christmas Day loss in the Finals rematch versus the L.A. Lakers. It would be natural to assume that when a defensive-minded team struggles this is caused primarily by slippage at the defensive end of the court but neither statistics nor observation support that supposition in this case. The Celtics rank first in rebounding differential (5.2 rpg) , second in defensive field goal percentage (.422), second in field goal percentage differential (.055) and third in point differential (8.4 ppg); last season, they ranked fourth, first, first and first respectively in those categories and though some of their rankings have dipped slightly the only significant decline numerically is in point differential (10.2 in 2008, 8.4 this season). Boston's defense may not be quite as dominant as it was last season but it has not declined enough to explain the team's current malaise.

Boston's problems are clearly at the offensive end of the court. Although the Celtics are averaging 99.9 ppg--nearly matching last year's 100.5 ppg average--they have scored just 82.4 ppg in the past 10 games. The Celtics have given up 91.7 ppg during that same stretch, virtually identical with the 91.5 ppg that they have allowed overall this season; they rank second in the NBA in points allowed, just like they did in 2008.

Boston's reserves have become the scapegoats for the sputtering offense. There is a lot of talk that the Celtics lack depth and that they need to acquire one or more bench players in order to be ready for this year's playoffs. Certainly, every team in the NBA would like to add more depth but the big story in Boston is not so much the bench but rather that two members of the team's "Big Three"--Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett--have been markedly less effective offensively this year while playing virtually the same number of minutes; if the bench were the big problem then one would assume that the starters would be forced to play more minutes and that perhaps fatigue would be wearing them down but this has not been the case so far.

Here are the numbers that Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen posted last season compared with their numbers in the same categories this season:

Ray Allen:

2008: 73 games, 35.9 mpg, 17.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.1 apg, .445 FG%, .398 3PT FG%, .907 FT%
2009: 39 games, 36.9 mpg, 18.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 2.7 apg, .484 FG%, .391 3PT FG%, .930 FT%

Paul Pierce:

2008: 80 games, 35.9 mpg, 19.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.5 apg, .464 FG%, .392 3PT FG%, .843 FT%
2009: 39 games, 36.7 mpg, 19.0 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.7 apg, .438 FG%, .401 3PT FG%, .850 FT%

Kevin Garnett:

2008: 71 games, 32.8 mpg, 18.8 ppg, 9.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, .539 FG%, .000 3PT FG%, .801 FT%
2009: 38 games, 32.9 mpg, 16.0 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.6 apg, .514 FG%, .143 3PT FG%, .828 FT%

Allen's surgically repaired ankles hobbled him at times last season but he now appears to be fully healthy and he has increased his production from last year--but Pierce and Garnett are both scoring fewer points and shooting less accurately from the field than they did last season. Collectively, the "Big Three" are averaging 2.8 fewer points per game than last season, so considering that the Celtics' team scoring average has only declined by .6 ppg the other Celtics are actually scoring more points than last year; the team's field goal percentage is slightly better this year (.477 compared to .475 in 2008), so the other players have actually offset Pierce and Garnett's declines in that regard. The problem is that a team needs its superstars to create shots for themselves and for their teammates--particularly down the stretch--and the "Big Three" have not been doing either of those things as effectively this season as they did last season.

It is comical to hear Pierce's name even mentioned in MVP discussions this season; not only is he playing worse than he did last year--when he was not an MVP candidate--but on a night in, night out basis he does not have nearly the impact or production that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James do for teams that have better records (and fewer future Hall of Famers--as in none, other than Bryant and James themselves) than the Celtics. Garnett continues to make a very strong contribution defensively but the player who finished third in last year's MVP voting is now the third offensive option on his own team.

Another problem for the Celtics is that after getting off to a quick start that spurred talk of making the All-Star team, Rajon Rondo has not adjusted well to being left wide open as his defender provides help against Allen, Pierce and others. The Lakers provided a blueprint for guarding Boston--give Rondo open jumpers while protecting the paint--and other teams are using that blueprint.

Last season, in addition to the "Big Three" plus Rondo the Celtics had four players who averaged between 6.9 ppg and 7.9 ppg; this does not include late season acquisition Sam Cassell (7.6 ppg), who only played in 17 regular season games but made key contributions during some playoff games and will presumably be available again for playoff duty in 2009 even though he has yet to suit up this season. This season, the Celtics have four players other than the "Big Three" plus Rondo who are averaging between 6.7 ppg and 8.8 ppg. The reality is that in the playoffs coaches shrink their rotations; only six Celtics averaged at least 6.6 ppg in the 2008 playoffs. Although the Celtics do miss James Posey and P.J. Brown to some degree, they have enough depth to win another championship--but Pierce and Garnett have to get back to playing the way that they did last year. The slight increase in Ray Allen's offensive production is not enough to offset the declines by Pierce and Garnett.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:53 PM

14 comments

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14 Comments:

At Tuesday, January 13, 2009 2:27:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,
Good breakdown of the Celtics' problems. I had been wondering what was going on with them, but being a Lakers fan, I didn't so much care why they lost; just watching them lose was enough. Your post makes a lot of sense, though. I have wondered how much they'll miss Posey when the playoffs approach. I guess we'll see.

Also, on the heels of the Wages of Win article, I wondered if you might make note of the fact that the Pistons beat the Nuggets on the road recently. It was very interesting to read your give-and-take with the WoW proponents.

Luis

 
At Tuesday, January 13, 2009 3:08:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

We did a "what's wrong with the Celtics" thing at a website last week, much like every other basketball website on the planet. It certainly amazed me that so many people pointed at the Celtics' bench as the source of their struggle (even going so far as to claim Boston did not have the luxury of bringing a Radmanovic off the bench; the same Ramanovic who would get zero playing time after he was demoted from the starting lineup and before Walton and Odom went down with injuries).

I've always claimed that as long as star players get fat contracts, big minutes and as many shots as they can take, they should be held accountable ahead of lesser players. They get the wins, but they also get the losses. Even moreso regarding a team like the Celtics, where there is such a marked division between stars and non-stars.

Rondo played huge and Perkins did his duty and all that, but they did not rely on Pruitt, Powe or Scalabrine to get the ring. They relied on them to get five minutes of hard play, same thing as they do now. Those who suggest that the problem is Eddie House (designated scorer off the bench), are actually suggesting House was a major piece of the ring.

Long rant over. Anyway, my feeling is that it's Allen the one who has been playing below-level lately. It's not a matter of consistently playing poorly, but somehow it seems that the big three cannot get their act together at the same time. One of them will always have a great game, but the other two will range from lukewarm to stone cold. What they are missing is consistency.

 
At Tuesday, January 13, 2009 4:34:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

TP:

You are right that the "Big Three" have not been able to get going at the same time. Actually, that was also the case for the most part last season but whenever they had two of the three players performing at a high level that was usually sufficient because the whole team played such great defense. Allen was usually the worst of the three last year but for most of this season he has been the most consistent performer, at least on offense. Allen scored 36 versus Toronto on Sunday and then Pierce had 39 in overtime against the same opponent on Monday; Pierce had 11 on Sunday, while Allen had 12 on Monday. With three future HoFers sharing FGAs it is only natural that the most FGAs in a given game will go to the hot hand but, as I showed in the post, overall it is Pierce and KG's production that has dropped off this year, while Allen's numbers are up.

It is interesting how the proverbial grass is always greener on the other side regarding fans' perceptions of their team's depth. The Celtics fans envy the Lakers' bench, while the Lakers fans wish that their big men were tougher and more physical. At least until recently, Cavs' fans had an inferiority complex about the non-LeBron portion of their team but perhaps they are starting to understand that even though the Cavs lack "name" players the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

I've thought for some time that Cleveland is deeper than most people say--which has been demonstrated this season considering all the fourth quarters that LeBron has been able to sit out--and that the Lakers are not as talented as most people assume; those bench players do all right in short spurts but if they have to function too long without big brother (Kobe) to watch over them leads tend to vanish. The fact that the three Celtic stars have so willingly divided the offensive load has somewhat obscured the reality that Boston has three future HoFers, which is more collective firepower than the Lakers or Celtics have; the Lakers and Celtics respond by having the best single player on the court at a given time but Kobe and LeBron have to shoulder burdens that the "Big Three" divide amongst themselves. Also, guys like Rondo, Perkins and Powe are better than anyone outside of the Boston organization realized.

 
At Tuesday, January 13, 2009 4:40:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Luis:

They miss Posey to some extent but that is not the reason that they have been losing recently.

I will address the Denver/Detroit/Iverson/Billups situation again but between the post here and my comments at WoW I've made my position and my predictions very clear; after some time has passed I will revisit the situation again and look at each team's progress.

The win in Denver was impressive for Detroit because the Nuggets are almost always tough to beat at home. As I predicted, the Pistons have moved past Atlanta in the standings; we'll see if they can catch the Magic. The Pistons are playing well but they are banged up; once Rip and Sheed get back they will prove to be a very formidable team in the East.

 
At Tuesday, January 13, 2009 9:25:00 AM, Blogger madnice said...

it just shows how hard its to win 70 games. it shows how great those Bulls team were. they were 41-3. and to go the next year and win 69 is even more incredible.

boston will be fine. we all knew it would be a struggle in the regular season, even though 27-2 is great. once they get in the playoffs they will turn it on.

 
At Tuesday, January 13, 2009 10:13:00 AM, Blogger Joel said...

The thing they are missing most from Posey is his versatility. He could play and guard 3 positions, rebound, and knock down the open 3. You can't make up all of that with one player.

I'm not sure how much that has to do with the current malaise (especially since they started out 27-2 without Posey) but it bears watching in the playoffs when the rotations shrink. I don't see them winning another title with Tony Allen as their 3rd wing player, or Glen Davis as their backup center for that matter.

 
At Tuesday, January 13, 2009 2:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Madnice:

The Bulls don't get enough credit for not only going 72-10 but then following that up with a 69-13 season--and winning championships both years, followed by a third title in 1998. Kukoc and Longley missed a ton of games in the 69-13 season or the Bulls would certainly have won 70 and might have broken their own record of 72.

Barring injuries, the East will still come down to Boston and Cleveland. It is undeniable that Cleveland is better than ever this year while at best the Celtics are the same as last year (which is not bad of course) and at worst they have slipped a bit.

 
At Tuesday, January 13, 2009 2:07:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Joel:

I agree that the Celtics miss Posey's versatility but that his absence will be felt more in the postseason.

In the 2008 playoffs, Powe averaged 14.6 mpg, nearly matching Davis and Brown's combined minutes (8.4 and 8.2 mpg respectively). Brown made some key shots and Davis had some good moments, but Powe was really the main backup big.

This year, Davis is averaging 16.7 mpg and Powe is averaging 15.3 mpg. As I said in the post, every team--including Boston--would like to add more depth, so if Boston could get a backup big like Joe Smith that would be great for them but in the playoffs when the rotations shrink the Celtics could increase KG, Perk and Powe's minutes if Davis is not effective.

The bottom line is that Pierce and Garnett have to play like they did on Monday (not necessarily the point totals but with great efficiency) for the Celtics to be the best that they can be.

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 1:37:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

70 Wins is hard to get to, but I think a few teams who didn't get there would have gotten there if they knew it would be such a big deal.

People do overlook the fact that the Bulls almost won 70 again in 1997. That fact has sort of slipped through the cracks.

What I find interesting is that so many commentators like to use the regular season record of the 1996 Bulls to "prove" they were the best team ever. On the other hand, before the Bulls set the record, the previous record-holders (the 1972 Lakers with their 69 wins) were not afforded similar treatment. In fact, even before 1996, at least 3 or 4 other teams were usually mentioned before the 72 Lakers in "greatest of all time" discussions.

I think playoff record is more indicative of a team's dominance. For instance, last year's Celtics would rank below several champions with lesser regular season records, in my opinion. Many teams in recent years have posted very impressive regular season records only to fizzle in the playoffs (the Pistons and Mavs come to mind). They didn't win 72, but I think what happened with them illustrates the larger point that a few extra wins here or there during the regular season is more a measure of focus and commitment to winning during the season, and less a measure of overall greatness and talent.

I made a similar point a year ago when people were ready to crown the Patriots as the best team ever if they had gone undefeated (even though their playoff performance leading up to the Super Bowl had been underwhelming compared to, say, the 85 Bears).

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 2:53:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

Not long ago, Kelly Dwyer wrote a column where he mentioned that not only did the Bulls win 69 games after going 72-10, but that Phil Jackson deliberately refused to go for the first back-to-back 70 win seasons ever. They had a 13-1 streak going into the last week of regular season, and then they went 1-3 the rest of the way (the only win coming over the mighty Raptors).

It's not just that Rodman and Kukoc sat out, it's also that Harper and Longley played limited minutes while giving Kerr, Buechler, Brown, Caffey and Dele extended playing time. Maybe they could not have gone 70-12 without Rodman and Kukoc, but they did not even try.

Jackson decided to use those games to get the benchwarmers in shape, and play late addition Bison Dele into the rotation. That only makes sense, but I wonder how many other coaches would have been tempted to compromise and wait until they hit 70 wins.

[Also, Jackson is famous for thinking that milestones and records cause dangerous distractions.]

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 7:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Vednam:

I agree that there are some teams that didn't win 70 but could have if they had set it as a goal, including the 1983 76ers; that team had yet to win a title, so resting Moses and Doc down the stretch for the playoff run was an understandable choice.

The 1967 76ers have often been called the greatest team ever. Wilt played for that team and for the 1972 Lakers and he said that the 76ers were the better team, while the older 1972 Lakers did the most with the talent that they had.

I agree that regular season wins alone are not sufficient to crown a team as the greatest ever but there is no way around the fact that it is remarkable to go 72-10--and that team certainly did not fade in the playoffs and then they followed up that season by going 69-13 and winning the championship again. You can talk about strength of opposition, different eras or anything else but those are two of the most amazing back to back seasons ever.

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 7:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

TP:

There are a lot of good reasons that I don't pay attention to anything that Dwyer says but since you mentioned certain specific points I must correct several inaccuracies.

Jackson did not decide deliberately to not win 70 games by benching Rodman and Kukoc. Rodman sprained his medial collateral ligament near the end of Chicago's win over Dallas on March 25, 1997. That pushed the Bulls' record to 60-9. Rodman missed a month because of that injury and even when he returned for the playoffs he was noticeably hobbled, averaging just 8.4 rpg in the postseason after averaging 16.1 rpg in the regular season.

As for Kukoc, he was on the injured list for a month, came back to play in four late regular season games and then missed the final nine games of the season. Again, this was not because Jackson did not want to win 70 games but because Kukoc was truly hurt; he averaged 7.9 ppg in the playoffs compared to 13.2 ppg in the regular season.

Harper averaged 22 mpg that season; in the final four games, he played 18, 24, 20 and 20 minutes.

Even more tellingly, MJ and Pip played 38-39 mpg in those final games. That hardly sounds like Jackson was indifferent to whether or not the Bulls won those games.

It is true that Jackson gave Dele some minutes but that was out of necessity not choice because both Rodman and Kukoc were legitimately injured, as indicated by their decreased productivity at playoff time.

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 11:16:00 AM, Anonymous tp said...

That's why I specified that I meant more than just injured Kukoc and Rodman sitting out. [Also, the streak before the last-week collapse is 8-1 with Rodman out, and 5-0 with both Rodman and Kukoc out.]

Steve Kerr was a rotation player and Bison Dele was a special case; but in the last two games you have Buechler playing 25 and 14 minutes, an ailing Randy Brown getting 20 and 14 minutes, and Robert Parish playing both games. In the last game, against the Knicks at home for a last minute 2-point defeat, both Parish and Dickey Simpkins get to play a combined 10 minutes. Maybe it's just a matter of injuries catching up with them, and any of those situations is not remarkable by itself. But the combination at just that time seems anything but coincidental.

That does not read like an attempt at reaching 70 wins - at least, not an "all-out" attempt. I'm not saying he tried not to make the record, but there is more than a hint that he was not going for it.

 
At Wednesday, January 14, 2009 4:02:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

TP:

I just don't buy the premise at all. If Jackson wanted to rest players for the playoffs, then he would have been playing MJ and Pip 20 mpg--or sitting them out altogether. Rodman and Kukoc were out of the lineup for legit injuries. Rodman actually came back earlier than doctors expected, because there was a real chance that he would miss part of the playoffs. As I noted, contrary to the article you cited, Harper's minutes were not reduced at all.

With Kukoc and Rodman out, someone had to fill those minutes. It was smart of Jackson to get some playing time for Dele but you can't play a new guy 40 mpg, so some combination of Parish, Simpkins and others had to pick up some of those minutes.

Kukoc played at pf and sf depending on matchups, so Buechler was picking up some of those minutes.

Of course, Jackson was not foolish enough to go for the record at the expense of playing MJ and Pip 48 mpg or anything like that but there is a difference between not making extra effort to go for the record and deliberately bagging it, as you say that the article that you cited alleges; that allegation is groundless.

 

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