Examining Boston Celtics' Ideal Starting Lineup by the Numbers

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2013

Life without Rajon Rondo has been pretty good to the Boston Celtics, but it has the potential to get even better.

Rondo's absence was supposed to cripple an already disappointing team. When he went down, Boston was 20-23 and seemingly playing its way toward the lottery.

Then Rondo got injured. And Jared Sullinger. And Leandro Barbosa. The Celtics just couldn't catch a break.

Instead of admitting defeat, though, the boys in green have valiantly played on. They won 11 of their first 15 games without Rondo and now find themselves in a footrace for one of the top four spots in the Eastern Conference.

Can we say we're surprised?

Not exactly. Much of Boston's success over the past six years or so has been predicated on spitting in the face of adversity. Age, injuries and trade rumors haven't been enough to derail the lofty aspirations of this gritty organization.

And nothing's changed.

The Celtics are committed to attaining greatness, even without Rondo. Winning, coupled with the decision not to blow this convocation sideways, is an irrefutable indicator of just that.

But while the Celtics are generating some serious results as constructed, there's room for change. With the postseason looming, it's time for any and all contenders to embrace and exploit the advantages that come with running their most productive five-man lineups.

Rotations are shortened in the playoffs, and for most teams not named the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat, the starting five becomes something of an end-all. Starting fives set the tone for the entire game and (usually) determine the outcome. Ensuring said coterie is as potent as possible, then, is priority No. 1.

Like plenty of other teams (the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, for example), Boston is not currently running with its most fecund of five-man units. Not according to the numbers.

Doc Rivers currently uses a starting lineup consisting of Brandon Bass, Avery Bradley, Kevin Garnett, Courtney Lee and Paul Pierce. When beginning the game with these five, Boston is 8-4, the second-best record of any arrangement started.

Of the 20 most-used alignments by the Celtics this season, this particular one also ranks second in time spent on the court together. Judging by the frequency at which they're used, clearly they're yielding results.

Or so you'd think.

When this quintuplet is on the floor, the Celtics are being outscored by 0.3 points per 100 possessions. A minimal deficit? Yes, but a deficit all the same. And it's actually even more troubling a differential when you look at Boston's other lineups. 

In comparison to the rest of the Celtics' 20 most-used lineups, this one ranks 14th in point differential and 12th in effective field-goal percentage. Unnerving doesn't even begin to describe it.

This is no isolated trend either. Boston's present starting five is also allowing 1.06 points per possession on the defensive end. For a team that ranks sixth in defensive efficiency, such results are mind-blowing.

How exactly?

To put it in perspective (you know how I love to do that), the Sacramento Kings are currently dead last in defensive efficiency, and per Synergy Sports (subscription required), they, as a collective, are allowing just 0.93 points per possession.

Anvil. Dropped.

Understandably, it's rather easy for Boston and company to view any lineup they start with as far from ideal. Any starting five is bound to pale in comparison to the one that included Rondo.

Still, the Celtics can do better.

Before seeing how much better, it's imperative that we are aware of any and all stipulations that apply toward potential changes to Boston's rotation. To make this as realistic as possible, there are certain factors that simply cannot be altered.

In this case, I'm referring to the statuses of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. No matter what some of the numbers imply and no matter how old they are, Rivers is not benching either half of this duo. It would be absurd to believe otherwise.

Also of importance is our rejection of insubstantial sample sizes, five-man experiments that have seen little to no simultaneous court time. That a combination of Bass, Bradley, Jeff Green, Lee and Pierce is outscoring opponents by 44.5 points per 100 possessions means nothing, because they've logged just over 32 minutes together. 

Clad with this basket of knowledge, is it still possible for the Celtics to do better?

Absolutely, Boston just has to be open to making some adjustments. Like benching Bass and Lee in favor of Green and Jason Terry.

When on the floor together, a five-man clique of Bradley, Garnett, Green, Pierce and Terry is outscoring their opponents by 17.1 points per 100 possessions, the sixth-largest differential of any Celtics lineups. Given that three of the first five contain at least one of the presently sidelined Rondo and Sullinger, that's huge.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this lineup is the domineering partnerships it imposes. 

Removing Rondo and Sullinger from the equation, Boston's most effective two-man combination is Green and Pierce. The Celtics are outscoring opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions when they're on the floor together.

I hope your mind hasn't started to wonder either, because it's about to be blown.

Once again, removing Rondo and Sullinger from the equation, this five-man conclave is made up of six of the Celtics' 10 most productive two-man combinations.

As for those disquieting defensive numbers we alluded to earlier, this group eradicates them as well. They're allowing just 0.82 points per possession, a far cry from the 1.06 the present starting lineup is relinquishing.

In our never-ending thirst for gaining perspective, consider the Indiana Pacers. They rank first in defensive efficiency, and per Synergy Sports, they're allowing 0.82 points per possession as well.

For all the offensive juggernauts out there, these five also have you covered. They're dropping 1.1 points per possession.

Craving even more contextual clarity? The Thunder presently rank first in offensive efficiency, and they're putting up one point per possession.

Far be it for us to question the methodology of Rivers or the Celtics in general. Again, they've bordered on brilliant for stretches.

Just like the five-man lineup the numbers point to here.

That the Celtics have managed to restore hope and order to a depleted roster while their starting lineup has actually been outscored and tarnished their numerical defensive performance is incredible. And potentially crippling. Very crippling.

Their current lineup can't stand up to an amalgamated schedule that includes lottery-bound components. How is it going to stand up against the league's elite come April and May? How is it supposed to instill the potential for the Celtics to play into June?

The numbers suggest it won't. They also imply that there's a lineup that could, or at the very least, could come closer to.

And they also reveal that there is an ideal starting lineup to be found in Bradley, Garnett, Green, Pierce and Terry, at a time when the Celtics are operating under far from ideal circumstances.

*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted, and are accurate as of March 5, 2013.


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