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The Numbers Game: Celtics' offense not at championship level

By John Schuhmann,
Posted Nov 19 2008 6:42PM

So, what's wrong with the Celtics?

Yes, they're 10-2. And yes, their defense is still stifling, allowing just 98.6 points per 100 possessions (second in the league behind the Lakers).

But Boston is not as dominant as it was last season, and the reason is their offense.

The Celtics are scoring just 104.0 points per 100 possessions through their 12 games, which is 25th in the league. Last season, they ranked 10th with an offensive rating of 111.8. So, they're down almost eight points per 100 possessions, which in the long run will make a difference in the win column.

Celtics Ratings
Offensive Rat. Rank Defensive Rat. Rank
2007-08 111.8 (10) 100.4 (1)
2008-09 104.0 (25) 98.6 (2)

The Celtics have shown they're hungry for another title, playing some playoff-style games this early in the season. But the similarities to the playoffs don't end with the intensity. Boston's inability to score also reminds us of the Conference Semifinal series with Cleveland, when two games were won by a team that scored in the 70s.

So, what's wrong with the Celtics? Simply put, the offense has taken a step back almost everywhere.

The problems start with the Celtics' ability to take care of the ball. Boston leads the league with 18.8 turnovers per 100 possessions. This was an issue last year as well (they ranked second with 16.9), but an additional two turnovers per 100 possessions basically equates to two less shots at the basket per game.

To make matters worse, the Celtics aren't making shots. They're shooting .447 from the field, down from .475 last season. They're also shooting just .311 from three point range, down from .381 last season. Their effective field goal percentage (which gives increased value to threes) is down from .522 (fifth in the league last season) to .481 (15th in 2008-09).

Even the Celtics' free throw percentage is down (from .771 to .758), but they are getting to the line more often. They attempt 33.0 free throws per 100 possessions, which ranks third in the NBA and is up from 29.5 last season.

Rebounding is not really an issue. The Celtics aren't the greatest offensive rebounding team, ranking 18th in the league with an offensive rebounding rate of .265, but that's almost identical where they were last season (.266). Ball movement doesn't seem to be an issue either, as the Celtics' assist-to-field goal ratio hasn't changed much from last season.

So, other than the turnovers, the problems clearly come from the shots from the field.

One might think that the Celtics' best players would rest more to start the season, knowing that in order to defend their title they'll need to be fresh come spring. But each of Boston's starters is playing more minutes than they did last season, with Paul Pierce's minutes up from 35.9 to 39.0 per game.

Celtics: Percentage of Shots Taken
2007-08 2008-09 Change
Ray Allen 15.7 17.4 + 1.7
Kevin Garnett 15.7 18.2 + 2.5
Paul Pierce 17.5 19.4 + 1.9

The Celtics are distributing their shots a little differently, however. Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett are taking a slightly greater percentage of their team's total shots (which goes along with the increased minutes), while Rajon Rondo, despite the increased minutes, is taking fewer shots (from 11.3 percent to 8.3 percent of their total field goal attempts).

Boston is also missing James Posey, who took 6.6 percent of their shots last year, with an effective field goal percentage of .546. Posey is highly regarded for his defense and his leadership, but his absence is being felt more on the offensive end of the floor than anywhere else.

Still, when we talk about how the Celtics have fallen off offensively, we have to start with the big three.

Effective FG pct.
2007-08 2008-09 Change
Ray Allen .537 .500 - .037
Kevin Garnett .539 .479 - .060
Paul Pierce .529 .480 - .049

Kevin Garnett had an effective shooting percentage of .539 last season (above the .522 mark of his team), while taking 15.7 percent of their shots. This season, Garnett's EFG% is just .479 (below the team's .481) and he's taking 18.2 percent of their shots. Paul Pierce's EFG% has gone from .529 to .480 while his shots have increased from 17.5 to 19.4 percent.

Ray Allen's EFG% has gone from .537 to .500 while his shots have increased from 15.7 percent to 17.4 percent. At least he's still shooting better than the rest of his team.

In general though, the big three are shooting more and shooting worse.

Perhaps it's fatigue. The Celtics played 108 games last season, and they haven't had much time to rest.

Perhaps it's just a slump. Twelve games is a small sample size.

Perhaps they need a new Posey. A sixth man who can take some of the load off the starters and give quality minutes down the stretch of games is invaluable.

Whatever it is, the Celtics of the first 12 games this season are not the Celtics of 2007-08, despite what the standings say.

If you have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail.

Terms used in The Numbers Game:

Pace: Possessions (per team) per game, estimated using the formula:
Poss. = .96 * (FGA + (.44*FTA) -- Off. Reb. + TO)

Offensive Rating: Points scored per 100 possessions

Defensive Rating: Points allowed per 100 possessions

Effective Field Goal Percentage: Shooting percentage where threes count 1.5x
EFG% = (FGM + (.5*3PM))/FGA

Rebounding Rate: Percentage of available rebounds attained
Offensive Reb. Rate = Off. Reb./(Off. Reb. + Opp. Def. Reb.)
Defensive Reb. Rate = Def. Reb./(Def. Reb. + Opp. Off. Reb.)

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