Boston’s torrid start has the big brains at ESPN Insider wondering if the Celtics – minus Gordon Hayward – are legitimate championship contenders.
I don’t want to get too deep here, but legitimate is a subjective term. The heavily favored Warriors are at the front of the class and there are 3-4 teams behind them. I think it’s fair to say the Celtics are in that mix.
Let’s get to the numbers:
…the Celtics have been below-average offensively. They rank 18th in offensive rating, and even that has been bolstered by frequent second-chance scores and efficiency in transition. According to CleaningTheGlass.com, Boston’s half-court offense ranks 23rd in terms of points per play.
Ranked 18th and 23rd in key offensive indicators and we’re still 12-2? I’m willing to bet my kids’ college savings account ($144) that Boston improves here. Giddy, up.
Boston’s league-leading 95.4 points allowed per 100 possessions is 3.1 points per 100 better than the next-best team in defensive rating (the Oklahoma City Thunder) and 8.4 percent better than league average (104.1 points per 100 possessions). If the Celtics were able to maintain that, it would surpass their 2007-08 championship team as the second-best defense relative to league average since the ABA-NBA merger.
WOW. Now that’s impressive. There’s room to regress and still be dominant.
But here’s the caveat – the nerds says Boston’s strength defensively is fueled by low-shooting percentage and that’s not a good thing:
…opponent shooting percentages early in the season tend to be less predictive than shot distribution, which hasn’t been a real strength for Boston. If all opponents were making shots at a league-average rate from each of the zones tracked by NBA.com (in the restricted area, other paint attempts, non-paint 2-pointers, corner 3-pointers and above-the-break 3-pointers), the Celtics’ defensive shot distribution would put them 12th in the league in opponent effective field-goal percentage (eFG).
Crap. We’re doomed. But what about our clutch play?
Boston hasn’t actually been exceptional in clutch situations. The Celtics have outscored opponents by 15.5 points per 100 possessions in these situations, according to NBA.com/Stats, which ranks eighth in the league. Boston is third in rating differential overall and had the fifth-best clutch differential (plus-14.9 points per 100 possessions) last season.
Double crap. Our offensive is mediocre, our defense is fraudulent and we’re not clutch? Are we even going to make the playoffs?
Add in some regression defensively and Boston is probably playing more like a 55-win team than a 70-win one. That would almost certainly be good enough for the Celtics to finish first in the Eastern Conference for the second season in a row, particularly given they’ve already banked their 12 wins so far.
Such a pace is around what’s suggested by FiveThirtyEight’s Carm-ELO projections (which have Boston finishing with an average of 56 wins) and ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (an average of 60 wins).
Phew. I think I can survive with 55-60 win projections. Now might be a good time to recall these same nerds predicted a slow start for Boston and 45-49 wins.
Editor’s note: I have much respect and adoration for basketball analytics experts and usage of the term ‘nerds’ is meant as a compliment.