Boston Celtics: A Question of Balance

Thomas HalzackAnalyst ISeptember 12, 2007

The days of future...passed. Thoughts of past are present.

The Celtic Summer of Love is drawing to a close. 

This is a little long. It should probably be in two parts—but hey, things are slow. You've got the time.

Let’s get this kicked right off. 

Most Celtic fans these days aren’t into hearing anything that might potentially dampen their rising hopes and expanding dreams of a return to Celtic dominance after a 20-year lull.

I can’t blame them— I'm one of them. Hope springs eternal after a unique and controversial set of transactions made by Danny Ainge. 

After peeking at the dark side of the team and the potential bumps in the road to Celtic banner number 17, I was willing to let the "question of scoring balance" take me wherever it led.

The news is...not bad at all. In fact, it’s good.

These imbalanced Celtics are projected to be top-heavy in scoring—another criticism of the "team."

By isolating "scoring balance" as a single factor for study, though, I arrived at a much more hopeful conclusion.

Let’s start by asking...

Has Danny Ainge really done anything special by getting these three stars together?

To answer it, I did some basic statistical research on scoring distribution.

First, I looked at the Celtics during the Bird "Big Three" years, and compared them to the modern San Antonio Spurs. Then, I studied the 2006-07 NBA season. Finally, I looked at scoring in the NBA Finals.

A few interesting things popped up.


The Larry Bird Celtics

A study of the Celtics' original Big Three from (1982-1990, minus the 1988-89 season, when Bird was out) produced these observations:

Double-figure scoring for the team followed a downward trend as the Big Three emerged—mostly as Bird started drilling upwards toward 30 points per game. Those fifth and sixth guys had a harder time getting points.

It went like this: 

6 men in double figures for the first three years (1982-1985)

5 men in double figures for the next two years (1986-1987)

4 men in double figures for the next two full Bird years  (1989-1990)

The top three scorers were accounting for the following percentages of the teams total points:

‘82-3: 57 pts = 51%

‘83-4: 61.6 pts = 55%

‘84-5: 66.1 pts = 58%

‘85-6: 63.2 pts = 55%

‘86-7: 71.7 pts = 64%

‘87-8: 68.2 pts = 60%

‘89-90: 62.2 pts = 56%

These are numbers easily achievable by the new Celtic Big Three.

Bird and Co. won three championships together, and made the Finals four consecutive times and five times totals. They also made the Conference Finals eight times.

So I guess the reduced scoring options as time went on worked out quite well.

It could also be argued that that’s why there was no succession plan, Len Bias and Reggie Lewis aside. Those two were to replace two of the Big Three, but they had nothing to do with the surrounding role players.

The team rode the Big Three into the sunset and into the ground. When you have horses like that, you think anyone will do as a role player...and, for a while, almost anyone will do.

It ended up, in hindsight, being a poor team-building strategy. I would say that’s a different story, but it actually relates directly to what Danny is trying to do.

Danny Ainge—take heed. 

I’m sure he is.

By comparison, here are the recent Spurs stats:

2005-6: Top 3 = 52.6 pts = 50.4%  (104 pts total)

2004-5: Top 3 = 52.9 pts = 50.4%  (104.9 pts total)

2003-4: Top 3 = 49.8 pts = 49.6%   (100.4 pts total)

The Spurs top scorers account for 10 to 20 percent fewer points than the old Celtics' big three—a more even spread in the total distribution of points.

This year, though, things were different.  The Spurs' Big Three (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili) averaged 20, 18.6, 16.5 in 2006-07; the next highest scorer (Finley) averaged 9.0.

That's a Celtic-like 56 percent monopolization of scoring.

You would think that someone could put the screws into an imbalanced scoring distribution like that, wouldn’t you? It didn’t happen...and the Spurs are the champs again.


2006-2007 NBA Teams

I looked at the scoring distribution of every NBA team last year—again with an eye to the top three scorers.

I found significantly varied scoring distribution patterns of the teams.

There were one-trick ponies like the Lakers—with Kobe (31.6 pts) far outdistancing the second highest scorer (Odom 15.9)—and the Hawks—with Joe Johnson’s 25 points-per to Josh Smith’s 16.4.

Most teams' top three scorers were around 45 to 50 percent of the team's total points.

Here are the teams with the top-heaviest top threes:

1) Houston Rockets:  62.9 pts of 97 pts total = 65%  

2) Washington Wizards: 67.4 pts of 104.3 pts total= 64.6% 

3) Denver Nuggets: 66.7 pts of 105.5 pts total = 63%  

4) Dallas Mavericks: 60.2 pts of 100.0 pts total = 60% 

5) New Jersey Nets: 57.9 pts of 97.6 pts total = 59% 

6) Chicago Bulls: 56.8 pts of 98.8 pts total = 57% 

7) Spurs at 55%

All of them solid teams. All of them playoff teams. 

FYI: The Suns at 52 percent don’t quite fit the pattern. Utah, a team people generally consider balanced, was at close at 54 percent

It's important to note that none of the teams had good distribution among all three top scorers. It was always one or two very good scorers and a more modest third scorer to round things out.

The only poor-performing team with more than 55 percent of their scoring coming from their top three was Sacramento.

In recent memory, only the RunTMC teams of Don Nelson’s first Golden State tenure had three 20-point scorers for a whole year. But they were all "smalls." KG is the difference maker for the Cs in that comparison—and it’s an extremely important difference.

The Celtic trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen are like nothing the league has seen in quite a long while...if ever.


Playoff Scoring

The playoffs are a whole ‘nother story.

A look at the last 12 Finals series shows that scoring becomes even more concentrated in crunch time. The rotation gets shorter ball ends up in the hands of fewer players—usually the team’s stars.

In the last 12 Finals series (65 games total), only once was there double-digit scoring by more than five players on a team (2005 Game Four—the Pistons had seven double-digit scorers in a total rout.

That’s right: Only one time in 130 opportunities did more than five players score in double digits for a single team.



And proof that concentrated scoring by a few players is not only not a bad thing—it's the norm when the chips are down.

Even five guys in double figures was rare for a team in the Finals—it occurred just 18 times in 122 opportunities in 61 games in 11 series. Less than 1 in 6 times.



This 2007-08 Celtics will have one of the league’s premier big men coupled with two of its top swingmen. All of them could score 20-25 points every single night, even under great duress.

The fact that Garnett, Allen, and Pierce are so equally good is exceptional in recent memory. Defending two great scorers is a difficult task. Guarding all three will be a huge challenge for opposing defenses.

I see these three averaging about 60-65 percent of the team’s points this year. If it’s five percent less than that, it means Doc has devised a good system to get other players in the flow. If it's higher, it means someone is underperforming on offense or someone is gobbling up touches (not likely, IMO).

There will be pressure on the other starters, Kendrick Perkins (assumed) and Rajon Rondo, to average about 10 points each per game. I figure Rondo for 10-12 and Perkins for 8-10 if things are going to work well. And James Posey must be the fourth-leading scorer at around 12-14 points.

Can Perkins get 8-10 points on a consistent basis? I’m more confident of Rondo getting double digits than Perk. But they both must be more than decoys.

Posey is that outlet scorer the team will need. Eddie House will also fill that role on a lesser basis.

If a solid eighth player develops among Brian Scalabrine, Leon Powe, or Glen Davis, it will help a lot. Come playoff time, this player will see reduced opportunity, but that's how it goes.

So yes—Danny has done something really special by getting these three stars on one team. And the "Question of Balance" yields very positive answers in a Celtic Summer of Love...the likes of which we've seen rarely, if ever.

The days of future passed. This team is now.

Getting seats will be harder than getting tickets to an old rock ‘n roll band performance.


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