Are the Celtics close to contending for NBA title? A deep dive into the numbers says no
As the Celtics roster begins to finalize heading into the upcoming season, Danny Ainge has officially taken a step forward towards establishing Boston as legitimate title contenders.
However, in today’s NBA contending requires more than just two All-Stars and solid depth.
While undoubtedly heading in the right direction, have the Celtics earned the right to put themselves in the ranks of teams such as the Cavaliers, Warriors, and Spurs, or even the Rockets and Thunder?
The short answer to that question is, no, not yet. The long answer requires some insight into if there may be a Moneyball-esque formula to be a championship team in today’s NBA.
To see what it takes, let’s look at the makeup of each championship team since the 2010-11 season. This was a year that arguably set the modern NBA in motion with LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach, setting a new standard for teams with title aspirations.
Since that iconic move, five different teams have earned the right to call themselves the best in basketball: the Mavericks, Heat, Spurs, Cavaliers and Warriors.
While some of these teams may seem drastically different, each share certain similarities within their structure, revealing that a hidden formula may in fact exist.
The small-forward/swingman has become one of the most coveted assets in the modern NBA, and it is a cornerstone for today’s top teams.
When looking at the title winners since the 2010-11 season this seems to remain true.
A testament to the swingman’s importance, through these seven seasons, a small-forward has won the Bill Russell Finals MVP Award in six of the last seven years, with power forward Dirk Nowitzki being the single outlier.
When looking at these players in their championship seasons, certain stats tend to vary, but commonalities are present.
Shawn Marion – Mavericks (2010-11):
Regular Season: 12.5 points / 6.9 rebounds / 1.4 assists / .520 field goal percentage / 107 offensive rating / 103 defensive rating / -0.7 offensive box plus/minus / 1.8 defensive box plus/minus / 5.6 win shares
LeBron James – Heat (2011-12):
Regular Season: 27.1 points / 7.9 rebounds / 6.2 assists / .531 FG percentage / 118 ORtg / 97 DRtg / 8.3 OBPM / 2.7 DBPM / 14.5 WS
LeBron James – Heat (2012-13):
Regular Season: 26.8 points / 8.0 rebounds / 7.3 assists / .565 FG percentage / 125 ORtg / DRtg 101 / 9.2 OBPM / 2.4 DBPM / 19.3 WS
Kawhi Leonard – Spurs (2013-14):
Regular Season: 12.8 points / 6.2 rebounds / 2.0 assists / .522 FG percentage / 116 ORtg / 98 DRtg / 2.3 OBPM / 3.4 DBPM / 7.7 WS
Finals: 17.8 points / 6.4 rebounds / 2.0 assists / .612 FG percentage / 136 ORtg / 101 DRtg
Andre Iguodala – Warriors (2014-15):
Regular Season: 7.8 points / 3.3 rebounds / 3.0 assists / .466 FG percentage / 110 ORtg / 103 DRtg / 0.1 OBPM / 1.5 DBPM / 5.1 WS
LeBron James – Heat (2015-16):
Regular Season: 25.3 points / 7.4 rebounds / 6.8 assists / .520 FG percentage / 116 ORtg / 103 DRtg / 6.9 OBPM / 2.3 DBPM / 13.6 WS
Kevin Durant – Warriors (2016-17):
Regular Season: 25.1 points / 8.3 rebounds / 4.8 assists / .537 FG percentage / 125 ORtg / 101 DRtg / 5.4 OBPM / 2.6 DBPM / 12.0 WS
To say each player’s level of contribution was equal would be inaccurate.
Marion was a complementary piece, LeBron was winning back to back MVP awards, Kawhi was a young defensive specialist, Iguodala didn’t start until the finals, and Durant was a scoring machine that fit perfectly into the Warrior’s system.
While they weren’t equal, what they did share was their offensive efficiency and their defensive prowess.
- A field goal percentage of at least 52 percent, barring Iguodala until he received starting minutes in the finals.
- A minimum ORtg of 116, barring Marion and again Iguodala until the finals.
- A maximum DRtg of 103.
- A minimum DBPM of 1.5.
Another thing to note, the last six NBA Finals MVPs were either LeBron, or the man tasked with guarding him. Showing the importance of having a formidable player to put in front him.
Do the Celtics have that player?
While Jae Crowder was the starting small-forward for the Celtics throughout the 2016-17 season, Gordon Hayward will be taking on that role as the Celtics move forward.
Gordon Hayward (2016-17):
Regular Season: .471 FG percentage / 118 ORtg / 106 DRtg / 4.2 OBPM / 0.0 DBPM
When comparing him to the past championship swingmen, his stats on the Jazz don’t quite line up.
Offensively, he shot significantly worse from the field at 47.1 percent, but had a comparable offensive rating of 118.
Fortunately, on a team where Hayward won’t be the offensive focal point, with Isaiah Thomas helping to shoulder the load, his efficiency will likely improve.
The Jazz also ranked last in pace with only 91.6 possessions per game. The Celtics, on the other hand, ranked No. 13 with 96.8 possessions per game. On a faster paced offense Hayward, may show more in his offensive game.
Defensively, he was lackluster. Posting a 106 DRtg and a disappointing 0.0 DBPM.
It is possible in a new system his defensive numbers will improve, but it will also be reliant on Hayward putting in the time to improve.
The Knockdown Shooting Guard
The shooting guard is a position that has seen a significant change in role over recent years. Gone are the likes of shooting guards such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Reggie Miller or Tracy McGrady.
As point guards have taken over the league, the shooting guard has become an almost complementary position. Even James Harden, considered by most to have been the best shooting guard in the league, made the switch to point guard for the 2017 season.
While overall contribution differs amongst certain shooting guards on the past champions, what these teams have had in common is a shooting guard that can spread the floor, and consistently hit for deep.
Jason Terry – Mavericks (2010-2011):
Regular Season: 15.8 points / .451 FG percentage / 6.0 field goals made / 13.3 field goals attempted / .362 three-point percentage / 1.5 three-pointers made / 4.3 three-pointers attempted / .545 true shooting percentage / .322 three-point attempted rate / 106 ORtg
Mike Miller – Heat (2011-12):
Regular Season: 11.3 points / .453 FG percentage / 2.3 FGM / 5.4 FGA / .453 3P percentage / 1.4 3PM / 3.0 3PA / .561 TS percentage / .560 3PAr / 108 ORtg
Ray Allen – Heat (2012-13):
Regular Season: 10.9 points / .449 FG percentage / 3.7 FGM / 8.2 FGA / .419 3P percentage / 1.8 3PM / 4.2 3PA / .599 TS percentage / .510 3PAr / 112 ORtg
Danny Green – Spurs (2013-14):
Regular Season: 9.1 points / .432 FG percentage / 3.2 FGM / 7.4 FGA / .415 3P percentage / 1.9 3PM / 4.7 3PA / .580 TS percentage / .630 3PAr / 107 ORtg
Klay Thompson – Warriors (2014-15):
Regular Season: 21.7 points / .463 FG percentage / 7.8 FGM / 16.9 FGA / .439 3P percentage / 3.1 3PM / 7.1 3PA / .591 TS percentage / .420 3PAr / 112 ORtg
JR Smith – Cavaliers (2015-16):
Regular Season: 12.4 points / .415 FG percentage / .400 3P percentage / 2.6 3PM / 6.6 3PA / .542 TS percentage / .600 3PAr / 1.8 OBPM / 110 ORtg
Klay Thompson – Warriors (2016-17):
Regular Season: 22.3 points / .468 FG percentage / .414 3P percentage / 3.4 3PM / 8.3 3PA / .592 TS percentage / .470 3PAr / 2.4 OBPM / 111 ORtg
What these players immediately have in common is that none of them were the number one option for their respective teams. Most were third options at best, save for Jason Terry and 2015-16 Klay Thompson. Miller and Allen weren’t even starters.
- Each player shot at least 41.5 percent from the field
- Each player shot at least 36.2 percent from three-point range, 40 percent if you discount Jason Terry (who still shot 44.2 percent from deep through the playoffs).
- Each player had at least a 54.2 TS percentage.
- Each player had at least a 32.2 3PAr, 42 3PAr excluding Terry.
What also stands out, while not exactly statistically supported, is that these players have had their special moments or seasons.
Terry’s game sealing three over LeBron in Game 5, Miller’s seven three-pointer barrage to clinch the 2012 final, Allen’s finals saving corner three in Game 6, Green setting the finals record for threes made in 2013 despite losing the series, and Klay Thompson scoring the fourth most three pointers in a single season in 2015-16, behind only his teammate Steph Curry.
Then there’s JR Smith who just has a certain affinity for hitting the contested three.
So, where do the Celtics stack up?
With the trade moving Avery Bradley to the Pistons, the Celtics lost one of their best shooters. With his departure, Marcus Smart will likely be the starting two-guard in the upcoming season.
Unfortunately, consistent three-point shooting is not exactly a trait of his.
Marcus Smart (2016-17):
Regular Season: 10.6 points / .359 FG percentage / .283 3P percentage / 1.2 3PM / 4.2 3PA / .486 TS percentage / .443 3PAr / -1.1 OBPM / 102 ORtg
When compared to past championship shooting guards, Smart’s numbers leave a lot to be desired.
Smart shot an underwhelming 35.9 percent from the field, paired with a subpar 28.3 percent from deep, and a true shooting percentage of 48.6. All numbers significantly lower than the past champs.
The only comparable stat was his three-point attempted rate of 44.3 percent, so while he doesn’t shoot the three ball well, at least nearly half his shots are three-point attempts.
Short of maybe the best performance of his career, knocking down seven three pointers against the Cavaliers in the 2017 Eastern Conference finals, Smart clearly struggles with his jumper.
Fortunately, he is still young and could potentially improve these numbers across the board.
Bigs that stretch the floor
As basketball has grown outside the paint, it’s big men have had to follow suit.
Having a power forward or a center that can stretch the floor, thus keep defenses honest and opening driving lanes, has become not just a nice asset, but a necessity in today’s NBA.
Each championship team since the Mavericks have had this piece.
Dirk Nowitzki – Mavericks (2010-11):
Regular Season: .517 FG percentage / .393 3P percentage / .612 TS percentage / .142 3PAr
Shane Battier – Heat (2011-12):
Regular Season: .387 FG percentage / .339 3P percentage / .504 TS percentage / .627 3PAr
Shane Battier – Heat (2012-13):
Regular Season: .420 FG percentage / .430 3P percentage / .623 TS percentage / .873 3PAr
Boris Diaw – Spurs (2013-14):
Regular Season: .521 FG percentage / .402 3P percentage / .578 TS percentage / .193 3PAr
Draymond Green – Warriors (2014-15):
Regular Season: .443 FG percentage / .337 3P percentage / .540 TS percentage / .430 3PAr
Kevin Love – Cavaliers (2015-16)
Regular Season: .419 FG percentage / .360 3P percentage / .553 TS percentage / .449 3PAr
Draymond Green – Warriors (2016-17):
Regular Season: .418 FG percentage / .308 3P percentage / .522 TS percentage / .405 3PAr
Again the level of overall contribution of these players varies. Dirk was a finals MVP, Battier came off the bench in small-ball lineups, Diaw was more of a facilitator in the 2014 finals, Green was the glue for a great Warriors team and DPOY in 2016-17, and Kevin Love was a vital third piece to the Cavaliers big three.
What they had in common, was that were all respectable shooters.
- Minimum 38.7 percent from the field, 41.8 percent disregarding Battier’s 2011-12 season.
- Minimum 30.8 3P percentage, 33.7 percent not including Green’s 2016-17 season (He shot 41 percent from three in the finals that year).
- Minimum 50.4 true shooting percentage
- Five of the seven had at least a 40.5 3PAr, Dirk and Diaw were the only exceptions with a 14.2 and 19.3 percent rate respectively.
So, do the Celtics have this player?
When it comes to bigs that stretch the floor, the Celtics are in good hands. Al Horford, consistently, showed he is more than capable of stretching the floor, keeping defenders honest, and hitting threes at a solid rate.
Al Horford (2016-17):
Regular Season: .473 FG percentage / .355 3P percentage / .553 TS percentage / .302 3PAr
When looking at exclusively shooting stats, Horford’s 2016-17 season looks similar to Love’s 2015-16 season.
- Horford shot significantly better from the field: 47.3 percent compared to 41.9 percent.
- Slightly worse from three: 35.5 percent compared to 36.0 percent
- Had an identical true shooting percentage: 55.3 percent
- Had a lower three-point attempt rate: 30.2 percent compared to 44.9 percent.
When it came to the playoffs, however, Horford excelled. Shooting 58.4 percent from the field, 51.9 percent from three, with a 66.8 true shooting percentage.
This is the type of efficiency that will be vital for the Celtics if they hope to make a serious run for the finals.
The Bruising Center
While the classic center may be a dying breed in the modern NBA, certain skill-sets will forever be important to championship success.
Back to the basket prowess may fade, but solid defense and great rebounding is going nowhere.
Tyson Chandler – Mavericks (2010-11):
Regular Season: 9.4 rebounds / 1.1 blocks / 12.2 offensive rebound percentage / 26.6 defensive rebound percentage / 19.7 total rebound percentage / 1.7 DBPM / 102 DRtg
Udonis Haslem – Heat (2011-12):
Regular Season: 7.3 rebounds / 0.4 blocks / 9.1 ORB percentage / 25.6 DRB percentage / 17.7 TRB percentage / 0.7 DBPM / 99 DRtg
Udonis Haslem – Heat (2012-13):
Regular Season: 5.4 rebounds / 0.2 blocks / 9.0 ORB percentage / 25.3 DRB percentage / 17.6 TRB percentage / 0.0 DBPM / 103 DRtg
Tim Duncan – Spurs (2013-14):
Regular Season: 9.7 rebounds / 1.9 blocks / 8.6 ORB percentage / 28.3 DRB percentage / 18.8 TRB percentage / 4.0 DBPM / 98 DRtg
Andrew Bogut – Warriors (2014-15):
Regular Season: 8.1 rebounds / 1.7 blocks / 9.9 ORB percentage / 26.5 DRB percentage / 18.5 TRB percentage / 5.5 DBPM / 97 DRtg
Tristan Thompson – Cavaliers (2015-16):
Regular Season: 9.0 rebounds / 0.6 blocks / 13.5 ORB percentage / 23.3 DRB percentage / 18.4 TRB percentage / 1.3 DBPM / 104 DRtg
Zaza Pachulia – Warriors (2016-17):
Regular Season: 5.9 rebounds / 0.5 blocks / 12.9 ORB percentage / 22.0 DRB percentage / 17.7 TRB percentage / 3.0 DBPM / 101 DRtg
While looking at these players, it is clear some names are not like the others. Names like Pachulia and Haslem next to names like Duncan and, at the time, DPOY Chandler, draw a bit of a contrast.
However, each of these players did two things well, rebounding and defense.
- Each player averaged at least 5.4 rebounds, 7.3 rebounds if you disregard Pachulia and Haslem’s 2013 season where both players averaged only ~18 minutes per game.
- A minimum 8.6 ORB percentage
- A minimum 22.0 DRB percentage
- A minimum 17.6 TRB percentage
- A maximum 104 DRtg
Seeing this, are the Celtics bigs comparable?
The answer is a resounding, no. It is a position the Celtics simply do not possess.
Looking at the Celtics’ 2016-17 season, saying a rebounding presence was severely lacking would be an understatement.
Celtics Rebounding Ranks:
- 26th in Total Rebounds (42 per game)
- 7th in Total Rebounds Allowed (44.5 per game)
- 6th in Offensive Rebounds Allowed (10.8 per game)
- 28th in Defensive Rebound Percentage (75.3 percent)
- 24th in Offensive Rebound Percentage (21.2 percent)
These stats make sense when you consider that the Celtics leading rebounder Horford, only averaged 6.8 rebounds a game. Followed by the recently traded, Bradley.
When a shooting guard is your second-best rebounder, you know you have a problem, and the issues don’t stop there.
The Celtics leader in offensive rebound percentage? Amir Johnson. Gone.
The Celtics leader in defensive rebound percentage? Kelly Olynyk. Gone.
The Celtics leader in total rebound percentage? Again, Kelly Olynyk. Again, gone.
Of remaining players, Horford is the leader in each category. Last season he had a 4.9 offensive rebound percentage, 18.6 defensive rebound percentage, and an 11.8 total rebound percentage. All below the minimums of the past champs.
When it comes to defense, the outlook does not improve much.
The Celtics defensive rating leaders in the 2016-17 season were Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson, and Al Horford, all with ratings of 107. Again, two of those three players are no longer with the Celtics.
While the Celtics do have three new incoming big men, Marcus Morris, Aron Baynes, and Ante Zizic, none are ready to take on the rebounding load this Celtics team so desperately needs.
The Point Guard
The point guard position has become one of the most exciting positions in basketball, with players like Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook breaking record books and reeling in MVPs.
Few positions have as many exciting talents throughout the NBA like the point guard.
The point guard position also carries the least similarity across the past champions.
Looking back, there were high scoring guards in Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving, a facilitator in Jason Kidd, a minor spot-up role in Chalmers, and an orchestrating role in Parker.
Jason Kidd – Mavericks (2010-11):
Regular Season: 7.9 points / 4.4 rebounds / 8.2 assists / .361 FG percentage / .340 3P percentage / .656 3PAr / .500 TS percentage / 35.4 assist percentage / 14.3 usage percentage
Mario Chalmers – Heat (2011-12):
Regular Season: 9.8 points / 2.7 rebounds / 3.5 assists / .448 FG percentage / .388 3P percentage /.522 3PAr / .578 TS percentage / 19.0 AST percentage / 17.4 USG percentage
Mario Chalmers – Heat (2012-13):
Regular Season: 8.6 points / 2.2 rebounds / 3.5 assists / .429 FG percentage / .409 3P percentage / .569 3PAr / .576 TS percentage / 19.4 AST percentage / 16.1 USG percentage
Tony Parker – Spurs (2013-14):
Regular Season: 16.7 points / 2.3 rebounds / 5.7 assists / .499 FG percentage / .373 3P percentage / .073 3PAr / .555 TS percentage / 31.7 AST percentage / 26.5 USG percentage
Steph Curry – Warriors (2014-15):
Regular Season: 23.8 points / 4.3 rebounds / 7.7 assists / .487 FG percentage / .443 3P percentage / .482 3PAr / .638 TS percentage / 38.6 AST percentage / 28.9 USG percentage
Finals: 29.5 USG percentage
Kyrie Irving – Cavaliers (2015-16):
Regular Season: 19.6 points / 3.0 rebounds / 4.7 assists / .448 FG percentage / .321 3P percentage / .298 3PAr / .540 TS percentage / 26.6 AST percentage / 29.5 USG percentage
Steph Curry – Warriors (2016-17):
Regular Season: 25.3 points / 4.5 rebounds / 6.6 assists / .468 FG percentage / .411 3P percentage / .547 3PAr / .624 TS percentage / 31.2 AST percentage / 30.1 USG percentage
Looking at the stats of these point guards, there isn’t a lot of consistency in the numbers across the various players.
As previously mentioned, some score, some shoot, some assist, and some do a bit of everything.
Fortunately for the Celtics, they have a guard who has found himself more than capable.
Isaiah Thomas (2016-17):
Regular Season: 28.9 points / 2.7 rebounds / 5.9 assists / .463 FG percentage / .379 3P percentage / .439 3PAr / .625 TS percentage / 32.5 AST percentage / 34.0 USG percentage
Thomas recently capped off his best season to date. He finished the season ranked No. 3 in scoring, as well as No. 2 in fourth quarter scoring. His performance, earning him All-NBA Second Team honors.
Despite the great performance, and the stats showing that there is no specific mold for a championship point guard, there was one statistic that did stand out, dating all the way back to the 1989-90 Pistons.
Only three times since that Isiah Thomas led team, has a point guard led a championship team in usage percentage through an entire season. Those times were Tony Parker in 2013-14 and Steph Curry in the 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons. In those seasons the point guard only led by 1.3 percent, 1.3 percent, and 2.3 percent respectively. Also in those seasons the point guard only led in USG percentage in the finals twice, 2014 and 2015.
This is where a sharp contrast is seen for the Celtics. While Thomas had a great season for the team, he led in usage percentage by 11.3 percent, and 9.2 percent in the Playoffs.
This says a few things about the Celtics. It says Isaiah needs the ball, when he’s on the court the offense revolves around him, and when he gets double teamed or locked down the team will struggle.
In Thomas’ defense, a reason for his high usage percentage was partially a result of not having a solid second option on offense that could handle the ball. Thus, the team relied on Isaiah to get the offense moving.
With the addition of Gordon Hayward, hopefully the Celtics see the high usage percentage begin to fall and the ball being moving more freely as championship aspirations rise.
So, what does this all mean?
Looking at these numbers, the Celtics, at least for now, do not look like legitimate title contenders.
This doesn’t mean that they won’t have a great season or be an entertaining team to watch, just that when it comes down to it, they are missing certain pieces that past champions have had.
The lack of three-point shooting, rebounding, and perimeter defense, is clear, and will hurt them down the stretch.
Taking that into account, there are also several x-factors.
What type of impact will Jaylen Brown have in his sophomore year? How NBA ready is Jayson Tatum? What type of impact will Gordon Hayward have on the team’s offense? Will the Celtics make a major move before the trade deadline?
These are important questions to take into consideration, as the Celtics enter the 2017-18 season, as they could have a major impact on the team’s trajectory.
Regardless of where the team stands now, Ainge has taken steps in the right direction, and the team’s aspirations going forward, should, and will, be high.
Full article @ Are the Celtics close to contending for NBA title? A deep dive into the numbers says no
Source: GreenStreet Blog