Data is influencing the NBA, resulting in slow but noticeable changes to playing style, the never-ending hunt for value and various other aspects related to how the league operates.
How do we know this? Empirical evidence. Teams are playing faster, attempting more three-pointers (especially in the corner, but also above the break) and recognizing how important the word “efficient” really is.
The Boston Celtics have the league’s third-worst offense. That shouldn’t surprise anyone who scans their roster for 15 seconds. But what’s peculiar is how the Celtics—one of the most analytically savvy organizations in the league—operate.
Head coach Brad Stevens doesn’t base all his decisions on numbers, but he has an open mind and uses it to absorb all sorts of useful information.
But instead of riding the league’s analytical wave, Stevens has mostly opted to maximize his player’s skill sets. There have been a few experiments here and there (Jared Sullinger’s dangerous affair with the three-point line being the loudest example), but for the most part, Boston has conducted a conservative offense.
It hasn’t been very successful.
Why Not Faster?
In line with most teams, the Celtics will often take the first open shot they can find—especially when Avery Bradley has the ball in his hands—but they don’t look for baskets in transition as much as they could/should.
Instead of pushing the pace and looking to catch the defense before it sets, the Celtics average 95.76 possessions per 48 minutes, which is below league average. Since the All-Star break, that number’s spiked a whole 00.01 possessions per 48 minutes. They aren't getting faster.
Only 11.9 percent of their points come on fast breaks (also below average), and their 11.6 fast-break points per game is 21st in the league. Why? Is it because they didn’t have a real point guard for over half the season?
Not really. The Celtics play a smidge slower with Rajon Rondo on the court. Again, why is this? The Celtics are a young team with no dependable individual scorers outside Jeff Green (yes, we just called Green “dependable”) and possibly Rondo.
Is it because Stevens doesn't want to compromise Boston’s 16th-ranked defense? A two-way transition game doesn't allow the Celtics to grind defensive possessions out in the half court, which is one of their better areas.
But they could still stand to force the issue more often, especially off missed shots and turnovers. The Celtics are 25th in team turnover percentage, and that number would surely go down if they took quicker shots and made fewer passes.
The Celtics aren't three-toed sloths like the Memphis Grizzlies or Brooklyn Nets. But they also don’t have large, plodding big men and old, injury-prone veterans. Instead, their roster is closer aligned with the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that’s treated their lost season as a science experiment.
Having players inject Red Bull into their veins before every game may not be the wisest strategy, but Boston could stand to loosen its collar just a little bit.
Shot Selection Could Be Better
The most important part of every offense—more important than pace—is what type of shots are attempted. Any offense that gets to the rim or free-throw line at will is probably effective. There’s a good chance this team also employs a superstar. On the other hand, offenses unable to create open threes or muster penetration into the paint will likely struggle.
The Celtics attempt just 14.7 above-the-break three-pointers per game, which is 18th in the league. Why don’t they attempt more? Well, this is purely a case of “doing what you do best.” They only make 30.9 percent of them—only the woeful Detroit Pistons are more inept.
From the corner, they attempt a respectable 5.4 on the year (as many as the Oklahoma City Thunder) and nearly connect on 40 percent of them. Again, respectable. The hunt for corner threes is clearly on Stevens’ mind. Even though most defenses are trained to take it away, Boston finds a solid amount.
More disturbing in Boston’s offense is their obsession with mid-range jumpers. The greater basketball community has probably gone too far in condemning this shot as blasphemy, but it remains less effective relative to attempts in the restricted area and behind the three-point line.
Only the Orlando Magic milk the long two with more voracity than the Celtics, where 22.4 percent of their points are produced. This could easily be explained by the slew of decent to really good mid-range shooters on Boston’s roster, like Brandon Bass, Kris Humphries, Sullinger, Bradley and Rondo.
Rondo and Sullinger are two Celtics who've made an effort to extend their range to 24 feet, and this team might be better off making this a team-wide trend. Bass and Humphries are fine doing what they’re doing, but Kelly Olynyk and Jerryd Bayless should not shoot unless they’re behind the three-point line or in the paint.
The Celtics have spent this entire season climbing uphill. They don't have the talent to steamroll inferior opponents but for the most part have made the best of what they have.
Could their offense be better if they played faster and attempted more threes? Maybe, but right now, that isn't the biggest problem, and even though threes and speed are popular means to winning, plenty of good teams defy at least one and still maintain incredible levels of efficiency.
The problem remains a lack of talent. And their offense won't be back to a respectable level until they acquire some. But if the Celtics play slow, avoid the three-point line and remain below average on defense even after they get another All-Star, then it'll be time to question the strategy.
Until then, Stevens is doing the best he can to build a house out of Popsicle sticks.