After Sunday night’s 100-85 win in Oklahoma City, the Boston Celtics are now 5-4 and own the 7th best record in the Eastern Conference. From the outside, the Celtics seem to be headed in a similar direction as last season’s 40-42 record that led to a first-round exit at the hands of the Cavaliers. But the Celtics have more going for them than what immediately catches the attention of the general public.
A few weeks ago I looked at expected wins versus actual wins, and while it’s early in the season, the Celtics are outperforming their expected win total. Through nine games, the Celtics haven’t been blown out of a game with losses at the hands of the Raptors (10 points), Spurs (8) and Pacers twice (a total of 13 points). Their wins have all been impressive fashion with blowout wins against the 76ers (17), Bucks (16), Wizards (20), Hawks (13) and Thunder. The Celtics seem to be winning by following a unique model.
Last year’s Warriors led the league in both pace and defensive rating, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished before last season. While unable to do it at the same level, this year’s Celtics’ team is pushing the pace and averaging 98.9 possessions per game (tied with Oklahoma City for 5th in the league) while maintaining a defensive efficiency of 97.1 points per 100 possessions (4th lowest in the league).
The rapid pace is due to their incredibly deep rotation. Eleven players on the Celtics’ roster have appeared in at least five games and averaged more than 12 minutes while no player is averaging more than 31 minutes (Isaiah Thomas is the leader at 30.9 minutes). The number of players who appear in Celtics’ games is the reason the team has the fifth-highest percentage of offensive transition possessions at 17.3 percent (Washington leads the league at 19.8 percent).
The sheer number of players who play in Celtics’ games isn’t the only reason the Celtics push the pace, as they are an incredibly young team as well. The average age of the Celtics is 25.5 years old, the eighth youngest in the league. The only player over 30 that gets regular minutes for the Celtics is 32-year old David Lee at 17 minutes per game. Younger teams tend to push the pace more than more experienced teams, which should give the Celtics’ fans hope for the future.
Another reason the Celtics don’t play any player more than 31 minutes per game might be that they don’t have a player that deserves to play extended minutes. But despite not having a player who is capable of carrying the load offensively for extended periods, most projections had the Celtics finishing with more wins than losses, and a few had the team winning 50 games. In order for the team to hit that projected win total, they will have to rely on an offensive system that is conducive to role players, something that Brad Stevens has implemented in his system that relies on ball and player movement. According to NBA.com, the Celtics have the lowest percentage of offensive possessions that end in an isolation with 3.8 percent (the Spurs are 2nd with 3.3 percent).
The lack of isolation attempts along with the high number of spot-up attempts (20.6 percent, fifth in the league) means the team has to be in constant motion to receive these shots, which is something that the best offenses do (Spurs, Warriors and Hawks among others).
But the Celtics aren’t winning because of their offense. In fact, the Celtics’ offense scores 102.7 points per 100 possessions, a number almost a full point below the league average. Boston is winning almost despite its offense and is doing so with unconventional methods.
The Celtics maintain the fourth-best defensive rating despite having the third-highest defensive free-throw rate (.250, far higher than the league-leading Bulls at .159). The Celtics counteract the high defensive free-throw rate by forcing the highest percentage of turnovers at 17.4 percent. In fact, the difference between the Celtics and the second-highest team (Jazz at 16.3 percent) is larger than the difference between the second-highest team and the 7th-highest team (Kings at 15.3 percent).
The three-point shot has become increasingly important over the past few years, which means defenses have become more and more focused on how to limit points from behind the line. A strong indicator of a good defense is the number of three-point attempts it allows compared to the percentage of attempts the defense allows to go in. The defense can affect opponents shooting from that area, but can’t always affect how often the shot goes in. The Celtics allow the 21st-highest percentage of shots from the three-point line at 25.8 percent (tied with the Heat).
Another issue for the Celtics defensively is the number of shots they allow at the rim. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the Celtics allow the fourth-highest percentage of shots within three feet at 27.3 percent, as well as the 11th-highest converted percentage at 62.6 percent. To improve the defense around the basket, the Celtics may want to consider trading part of that deep bench for a rim protector.
The Celtics’ frontcourt is crowded with Jared Sullinger, Amir Johnson, Kelly Olynyk and David Lee all receiving significant minutes which leaves Tyler Zeller as the odd man out. The backcourt faces the same problem with Thomas, Jae Crowder, Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, Evan Turner, R. J. Hunter and Terry Rozier all needing minutes to improve.
The Celtics are following a similar plan to the Rockets’ plan to acquire as many assets until the time is right to flip those assets for an available star (James Harden, in Houston’s case). With the players mentioned above, the Nets’ draft picks (an unprotected pick in ’16 and ’18 and the right to swap picks in ’17) as well as anything they acquire with their own draft picks, the Celtics should have more ammunition than any competitor for a star that hits the market.
But for now, the Celtics should enjoy the success they are having with their current roster.