What can the Celtics learn from the Rockets in improving their offense?
To put it bluntly, the Boston Celtics were not a good offensive team last season. The Celtics' 101.1 offensive rating was third worst among 2012 playoff teams, ahead of only the Milwaukee Bucks and Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls. And at least on paper, the offense figures to get worse with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett in Brooklyn.
Still, there's reason to believe the Celtics could stave off offensive decay next year. Obviously, a big component will be Rajon Rondo's health, as Boston will struggle to create anything without one of the NBA's best passers and the team's only veteran ball-handler. His health, combined with some internal improvement and just a few tweaks in approach, could prop up the C's offense to a league-average outfit next year.
That may not sound particularly impressive, but with so many young players figuring to see big minutes, it's hard to expect much more. To become more than average in future seasons, the Celtics need to start by forging the right approach next year. With that in mind, here are three factors Boston should focus on to lay the foundation for a sustainable offensive model.
De-emphasize the Mid-Range Shot
Of all the revelations in the NBA's sabermetrics movement, the reclassification of "a good shot" is arguably the most important. Per Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry, an examination of shooting percentages from different spots on the floor has shown that threes, particularly corner threes, provide far more value than the mid-range jumper:
The Houston Rockets showed what the right approach can do for an offense. Last season, Houston shot 46.1 percent from the field, a solid percentage that was good for ninth in the league but certainly nothing special. In fact, the Celtics were actually a tick better, shooting 46.5 percent.
But the Rockets lapped the C's in offensive production because of their shot selection. Houston essentially abandoned the mid-range shot, taking the fewest in the league. They then emphasized pace and three-point shooting. Although they shot only 36.6 percent from three, they made up for that by sinking an astounding 867 threes.
Again, by seeking drives to the rim or three-point shots, the Rockets gave themselves leeway in terms of shooting percentage—just take a look at this jaw-dropping shot chart. Conversely, the Celtics gave themselves virtually no margin for error.
Compare the two teams' seasonal shot charts, and it's even more glaring:
As alluded to above, part of generating good looks involves pushing the tempo. The Celtics were a middle of the pack team in terms of pace last season. While running does not necessarily guarantee results, it's not rocket science to know that an offense can generate better shots when the defense is not set.
And as an ancillary benefit, running might help the Celtics' improve in the next factor.
Crash the Offensive Glass
Consequently, the 2011-12 Celtics were the worst offensive rebounding (ESPN Insider access required) team in NBA history, per ESPN's John Hollinger, while the 2012-13 team was merely the worst that season.
It's hard to imagine new coach Brad Stevens holding the same phobia. Last season, Butler's offensive rebounding rate was 34 percent (as opposed to 20.1 percent in Boston), 58th out of 347 teams, per TeamRankings.com.
On the C's roster, Jared Sullinger may be the prime benefactor of this change. He posted a 12.5 percent offensive rebounding rate, good for 20th among players with at least 15 minutes per game and 41 games played. Excluding Shavlik Randolph's late-season stint, he was by far the most effective offensive rebounder on the Celtics.
Remember how running helped the Rockets generate good shots? Pace bears a strong correlation to a higher volume of shots in the paint, as the three fastest teams were also three of the four teams with the most shots in the restricted area. As you might expect, the Celtics were once again a middle-of-the-pack team in that regard.
Of course, threes and rebounds are a lot easier when a team is running and the opposing defense does not have time to set. But as the Celtics have generally been a half-court offense, how can they still operate effectively at a more familiar pace?
Stress Ball Movement
Well, as many Celtics fans remember, Boston went on a seven-game winning streak immediately after Rondo played his last game. As Grantland's Zach Lowe elucidates, one main offensive aspect changed during that providential two-week stretch: The Celtics emphasized motion sets and drive-and-kicks from their secondary ball-handlers, leading to a more assists and better looks, like this:
Thus, after the All-Star break, the C's assisted on just 57.9 percent of their made shots, 10th worst in the league. By the time the playoffs rolled around, they were back to relying on their default Pierce isolation plays:
That would be almost the exact opposite of what occurred last season, when he essentially dribbled the ball at the top of the key and ran the same ineffective pick-and-rolls. In the Grantland article linked earlier in this section, Lowe details the staggering numbers behind Rondo's ball dominance:
It’s no secret Boston’s offense had grown very Rondo-dominant, especially this season. The Celtics are one of 15 teams that have invested in fancy data-tracking cameras from STATS LLC, and the information from those cameras, provided exclusively to Grantland, backs up that notion. Rondo has dribbled the ball about 486 times per tracked game this season, the fourth-highest figure in the league for players on those 15 camera teams, and about 90 more dribbles per game than he averaged last season, according to the data. A larger percentage of his touches — 41 percent this season, 35.5 percent last season — have involved at least six dribbles.
That obviously must change next season. Rondo is not the Durant or Anthony type of scoring ace who can afford so much isolation. The Celtics no longer have their go-to clear-out scorer, meaning that player and ball movement are musts for an effective offense.
The Big Picture
Make no mistake, these are drastic changes the Celtics would be implementing. Change is obviously part of the equation with a new coach, and Boston's personnel will need time to ingratiate themselves into Stevens' system.
But these are not hard concepts, and both the numbers and the eye test reveal fundamental flaws in the Celtics' recent offensive philosophy. One can debate the merits of offensive rebounding (and people have), and who knows if the Celtics can run a motion-heavy offense without their turnover rate skyrocketing.
However, when something is broken, change becomes necessary, even if the results are slow to show. If insanity is doing the same thing over and expecting different results, the Celtics would be downright deranged to rerun the same concepts next season.
Even if the Celtics do trend toward a more efficient offensive approach, they may not have the personnel to be effective. Nonetheless, if the 2013-14 season is about establishing the right culture and process, fixing the offense is the top priority.
*All stats courtesy NBA.com.