Boston Celtics Who Can Help Kevin Garnett on the Defensive End
He has been their rock, quite possibly the best individual defender in basketball, and without a doubt the best team defender in the game. He is their vocal leader and their last line of defense.
Defensively, he is their everything.
One of the most amazing aspects of Garnett's 2012-13 season is that while his offensive game has slipped slightly, his defensive numbers have actually gotten better.
According to Synergy Sports, KG is allowing just 0.75 PPP (points per possession) to the offensive player he is guarding this season, which the 31st-best number in basketball and among the best in the NBA for players who primarily play center.
Compare this to the 2009-10 season (the furthest Synergy goes back) when Garnett allowed 0.82 PPP, the 47th-best mark in basketball. KG has also improved his opponent shooting percentage—from 38.3 percent four years ago—down to 36.5 percent this season.
Despite the dip in his athletic ability, Garnett has become an even better defensive player this season, a testament to his greatness on that end.
But what about the rest of the Celtics' defensive abilities?
However, there is still plenty of defensive talent on the C's roster, and they'll certainly need that talent to shine in the postseason if they want any chance at all to make an extended run.
Let's take a look at the five Celtics that need to help Garnett on defense if the team is going to make any noise in the playoffs.
(Statistics courtesy of Synergy, Basketball-Reference.com and ESPN.com.)
5. Courtney Lee
In the 13 games prior to Rondo's injury (dating back to Avery Bradley's return from shoulder surgery), Lee was averaging just 18.5 minutes per game off the bench. However, since Rondo went down, Lee's minutes have spiked to over 27 per game over 32 games played.
Lee is certainly a limited offensive player, averaging 12.9 points per 36 minutes for his career and shooting just 43 percent from the field. However, for much of his career, Lee has been heralded as an above-average defensive player, someone who gives maximum effort and gets solid results on that end of the court.
However, the numbers show that Lee has never been a very good defender.
According to Synergy, Lee has given up 0.84 points per possession this season, the 133rd-best number in basketball. Considering Lee almost always guards the opponent's second-best guard (with Bradley taking the best), that is a troubling number.
Lee has also consistently had a poor impact on his team's defensive performance throughout his career.
While on/off splits are not perfect indicators of a player's value, Lee's teams have given up more points per possession while he is on the court in each of his five pro seasons. In nearly 10,000 career minutes, Lee's clubs give up 1.074 PPP when he plays, and only 1.048 when he's sitting on the bench.
So why does Lee make this list if he isn't all that good of a defender?
Pretty simple actually: If the Celtics are going to seriously threaten the New York Knicks in the first round, Lee is going to need to step up and guard either J.R. Smith or Raymond Felton for long stretches of time.
While he would never draw the Carmelo Anthony assignment, there will certainly be times when Lee is the top defensive guard on the court—namely any time that Bradley takes a breather—and at those times the Celtics will need him to play better than he has at any point this season.
4. Paul Pierce
The Celtics will open the playoffs against the Knicks, with potential series against the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat looming if Boston is able to advance. Each team has unique challenges that Boston would have to prepare for, but all of them have one thing in common.
An All-Star small forward.
Whether the Celtics are going head-to-head with LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Paul George, there is going to be a ton of pressure on the C's to try to limit the damage at the small forward position.
Much of that challenge will go to Jeff Green (we'll get to him), but a lot of it will still fall on the shoulders of Paul Pierce. Pierce has turned in a vintage performance, in this his 15th NBA season, averaging nearly 19 points per game while turning in his highest rebounding average since 2002-03 and his best assist total since 2003-04.
Most amazing of all, though, is that Pierce is in the midst of one of the best defensive seasons of his career. Pierce is allowing only 0.78 PPP this season, the 50th-best mark in the NBA. Even more impressive is that the Celtics captain is holding his opponents to just 33.6 percent shooting this season, on par with the best at the small forward position.
One thing to watch for is how Pierce adapts to guarding smaller, quicker shooting guards as opposed to small forwards, as Jeff Green continues his transition into the starting lineup.
The duo has quite a bit of familiarity closing games with one another, and when they're on the court together, the Celtics outscore their opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions—one of the best marks on the team.
It's amazing how much of the burden that Pierce still carries for this Celtics team, and once the playoffs get going that burden is only going to get heavier.
Thankfully for Celtics fans, Pierce can handle it.
3. Avery Bradley
Avery Bradley is, without question, the second-best defensive player on the Celtics behind KG.
He has dominant defensive statistics, allowing only 0.71 points per possession (15th in basketball), while holding his opposition to just 31.3 percent shooting this season.
His defense also passes the eye test, as ESPN's Kevin Pelton named Bradley to his first-team all-defensive team. An honor that he earned while missing 32 games this season—no small accomplishment.
With that said, he only ranks third on this list. Why?
The reason is that Bradley is a known commodity. Much like Garnett, he is expected to be great on the defensive end, and rarely disappoints.
The two players ranked higher than Bradley aren’t better defenders, but they’re more important, as the Celtics are relying on improved defensive performances from them to have any chance of advancing in the playoffs.
When we take a closer look at Bradley’s defensive game, there is really only one weakness, and that’s his propensity to get into foul trouble.
As we saw in last Wednesday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets, Deron Williams used Bradley’s aggressiveness against him, drawing two fouls early and sending him to the bench. Considering how valuable Bradley is to what the Celtics do on defense, it’s essential that he doesn’t take himself out of any games with senseless early fouls.
Looking ahead to the matchup with the Knicks, it’s rather amazing the impact Bradley has made on Carmelo Anthony this season.
According to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, with Bradley on the court, Anthony has averaged a mere 14.5 points per 36 minutes played while shooting just 21 percent from the field.
However, when Bradley goes to the bench, Anthony returns to his All-NBA self, scoring 42.9 points per 36 minutes and shooting 50 percent.
It’s safe to say that any chance the Celtics have against the Knicks next week is tied to Bradley staying out of foul trouble and bothering Carmelo the way he has thus far this year.
2. Jeff Green
Never known for his defensive capabilities, Jeff Green has taken massive steps forward this season in that department.
Over the past 10 weeks, Green has been an offensive force for the Celtics, averaging 16.6 points while shooting 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range since Jan. 25 (37 games).
While his offensive game took until midseason to pick up, Green’s had a strong defensive season from the get-go, allowing only 0.81 points per possession this season and holding opponents to 36.3 percent shooting.
Green missed the entire 2011-12 season while recovering from heart surgery but has returned from the procedure a different defensive player.
The biggest difference has been Green’s improvement defending the opposition in isolation situations (one-on-one). In 2010-11 Green allowed 0.99 PPP in isolation, ranking a dreadful 298th in that department. However, this season, Green has allowed only 0.73 PPP, the 74th-best mark in the league.
Green’s ability to play multiple positions has also given the Celtics a level of versatility that they have not had in recent seasons.
In fact, looking at the Celtics lineup breakdowns this season, the two most productive lineups Green has been a part of this season have him playing two different positions.
Green’s ideal lineup has featured Bradley and Lee at the guards, Pierce at the small forward position, Green at power forward and Brandon Bass at center. That lineup has outscored opponents by a staggering 31.5 points per 100 possessions, the best rating of any Celtics lineup this season (minimum 100 minutes played).
The second-best lineup involving Green has Jason Terry and Lee at guard, Green at small forward, Jared Sullinger at power forward and Garnett at center. With Green manning the 3, that lineup has outscored opponents by 26.6 points per 100 possessions.
Two vastly different roles for Green, yet a similar level of success.
That versatility allows the Doc Rivers to mix and match his rotation, with Green taking on bigger small forwards at times (hint: LeBron and Carmelo) and shifting to guard smaller power forwards at other times (think David West).
A lot of folks have called Green the Celtics' “X-factor” in the postseason, and it’s true, but more so for his defensive value and versatility than his ability to put points on the board in a hurry.
1. Brandon Bass
I know that sounds insane, and admittedly it's an exaggeration, but in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals it was the truth.
Bass is a big guy (6'8", 255 pounds), and he's fairly athletic and quick for his size. Not LeBron quick mind you, but he's about as fast and agile as a power forward could reasonably be expected to be.
He also had a phenomenal defensive year in 2011-12, allowing only 0.68 points per possession—16th in basketball—and a ridiculously good 0.58 PPP on isolation plays (14th in the NBA).
Therefore, when the Celtics stuck Bass on James for much of the epic seven-game series, it was actually the best move possible. It allowed a gimpy Pierce (who was dealing with a knee strain) to focus on the offensive end of the floor while putting Bass' fantastic one-on-one defensive abilities to good use.
While Bass didn't stop LeBron, he did manage to hold him to 50 percent shooting for the first five games of the series while forcing James into a rather pedestrian 20-17 assist-to-turnover ratio.
And then this year happened.
Bass has seen his defensive numbers plummet in his second year in Boston, falling to the 78th-best defender overall (0.78 PPP) and the 171st-best in isolation (0.83 PPP). That's not your run-of-the-mill down season, but instead a drop from one of the best in the league in one-on-one situations, to well below average in that situation.
That needs to change in a big way if the Celtics are going to channel their 2012 selves and make a deep playoff run. Bass is only 28 years old and is still in fine physical shape; therefore, it's not unrealistic to expect a return to form once the playoffs begin.
In fact, the only difference between 2012 Bass and 2013 Bass is the contract. Last year the Celtics big man was playing for his financial future, and if the defensive numbers don't improve, it's fair to ask whether he has changed his style of play after his big payday.