The Boston Celtics offense features two surefire Hall of Famers and one of the game's best floor generals in Rajon Rondo. But last season, the Cs were just 26th in the league in points per game, putting them behind garbage teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Washington Wizards.
Why can't they score?
Everyone thought that Boston would boast elite offensive firepower after the 2007 formation of the new Big Three (PF Kevin Garnett, SF Paul Pierce and SG Ray Allen) brought the Cs back into contention. But even in their 2008 championship season, that wasn't the case.
In fact, since they acquired KG and Allen, the Cs haven't once been in the top 10 in scoring.
They've gotten worse each season, bottoming out last year with a paltry 91.8 points per game. While it hasn't prevented Boston from contending (they came one-quarter shy of a Finals appearance last season), it's certainly a strange phenomenon.
Let's evaluate a few possible reasons why that isn't the case.
Theory 1: The Celtics Score Efficiently, But Limit Total Possessions
The conventional wisdom regarding the Cs game plan is that they play at a slow pace, leading to fewer scoring opportunities both for themselves and their opponent.
They look to slow other teams in the halfcourt by disrupting their set plays and swarming their playmakers. Then Boston runs sets for their scorers, utilizing picks to get their best players open and drain the clock in the process.
Thus, some believe, the Celtics truly are an elite offense on a per-possession basis. They simply just don't play up-tempo enough to generate tons of aggregate possessions.
It's a solid hypothesis, but the stats don't bear it out.
In fact, according to Hoopdata.com, Boston ranked just 24th in the league last season in offensive efficiency, which measures points scored per-100 possessions.
So it's not a mirage: the Celtics truly don't have an elite offense on either an aggregate or per-possession basis.
Theory 2: The Celtics Are a Terrible Rebounding Team
This theory has a little more merit, particularly with regards to the offensive boards.
Coach Doc Rivers' philosophy centers on his players getting back to play transition defense after a missed shot. This strategy, coupled with the below-average rebounders on Boston's roster, led to a historically bad offensive rebounding performance for the Celtics last season.
They were dead last in the NBA in offensive rebounding, totaling 509. To put that in perspective, the second worst team in the NBA had 640 offensive rebounds, and the league average was 740.
Without offensive rebounds, an incredible percentage of Celtics possessions were limited to one shot. That reduced their scoring tremendously.
But even their ineptitude on the glass can't tell the whole story about why a team with so many great scorers struggles to score. What else is contributing to the problem?
Theory 3: The Celtics Don't Have So Many Great Scorers Anymore
In the first year of the Big Three, the Celtics ranked 11th in the league in scoring, despite a raw PG in Rondo and a center in Kendrick Perkins that couldn't score.
With Pierce, Allen and KG, the Celtics were able to score consistently enough to win a title in 2008. That year, they likely buoyed Rondo's numbers by giving the young guard three elite playmakers to distribute the ball to.
By contrast, Rondo (who has matured as a player in the last half decade) likely boosted their numbers last season by getting them the ball in their favorite spots.
Only Pierce was really capable of creating his own shot. Allen depended on multiple screens to get open looks, and KG, while still a great shooter on the perimeter, has lost the lateral quickness to be an elite post threat.
Even Pierce is no longer the player he was five years ago; he can't longer carry a team offensively every night anymore.
A weak bench and lack of scorers left the Celtics overly reliant on Rondo to make plays on offense, both for himself and in setting up teammates.
The numbers show Rondo's importance: the Celtics offense was 7.2 points better when Rondo was on the court (via 82games.com). That's the greatest positive impact of anyone on the team.
Final Question: Can the Celtics improve their offense next season?
Short answer: yes.
During the time SG Avery Bradley was in the starting lineup, the Celtics had an elite offense. The Rondo, Bradley, Pierce, Brandon Bass and KG lineup scored 109.4 points per 100 possessions in a handful of games together (per 82games.com). That would have been good for best in the league over a full season.
Obviously, that data screams small-sample size, but it demonstrates the importance of Rondo having athletic, shot-creating running mates if Boston hopes to improve their offense.
Next season, not only will Rondo have Bradley, he'll also enjoy playing alongside a much more athletic bench. This offseason, Boston acquired 26-year-old slasher Courtney Lee and resigned Jeff Green, a freakishly athletic swingman who returns from a heart ailment. They also signed former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry to back up Rondo and provide scoring off the bench.
All of these players will take pressure off of Rondo to carry the scoring load. If they can all create their own shot consistently, they'll contribute to what should be a markedly more efficient Boston offense.
Though their defense is their calling card, Boston would be well served to make sure their offense doesn't drag down their championship aspirations next year.
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