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:
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%
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%
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.
posted by David Friedman @ 6:53 PM