The time has come to face the question.
We have to ask the question because that’s what Boston has told us they are from the very first tip of the season through now.
The Celtics are two games ahead of the Bucks for first place in the Eastern Conference. They are second in raw Net Rating but first in SRS, which factors point differential and strength of schedule, and first in Adjusted Net Rating at Dunks And Threes, which factors both offensive and defensive strength of schedule.
The Celtics have the 17th-best SRS of all time currently. Ten of the sixteen teams ahead of them on the all-time list won the title.
All of this after a tumultuous offseason that was supposed to sink Boston. (Admission: I bet heavily on the Celtics under win total of 55.5.) They lost Danilo Gallinari to an ACL injury, then starting center Robert Williams for months to a knee injury, then their coach Ime Udoka was suspended for violation of team policy and an ensuing scandal.
All that, and they’re on top after the first quarter of the season. So is this for real? Are the Celtics just going to run away with the title? The answers to those questions start with the offense.
Celtics Green, Red Hot
The Celtics currently have the best Offensive Rating in NBA history. The gap in their Schedule-Adjusted Offensive Rating at Dunks And Threes and the second-best offensive team is the same as the gap between second (Utah Jazz) and the 16th-best offense.
They have the best effective field goal percentage (factoring in the extra point for 3s) in NBA history.
And that’s what is so fascinating about the Celtics. They’re known for their tough defense built on their versatility and ability to switch. But it’s the offense that has Boston here.
Is this sustainable? Boston has six players with at least 35 attempts shooting 40% or better from 3, and eight players total. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, their two best scorers, aren’t even among them. (Tatum is at 36%, Brown at just 34%.)
This is, to be honest, the greatest hot streak we may have ever seen.
The C’s are shooting 5 percentage points higher than expected on eFG% based on Second Spectrum data provided to Action Network and 6.9 percent better on jumpers. For perspective, the Atlanta Hawks finished last season with the best differential between actual and expected on jumpers at just 1.8.
When Boston’s hot streak began last season on Jan. 23, for example, they only shot 1.7 percent better on jumpers through the end of the season.
However, there is a number that gave me pause from what has been an unavoidable conclusion of “this has to regress in a major way at some point.”
Boston’s Offensive Rating is 121.5, again, just an astronomical figure. But the Celtics’ Offensive Rating from Jan. 23 through the end of last season was 120.2, just 1.3 points below the current mark. Now, that 1.3 differential matters, but this also shows that Boston has been at this offensive level for 46 games since January of last season; that’s more than half a season.
What still causes some resistance for me is more a matter of perception than fact. The greatest offenses we’ve ever seen had players like Jordan and Pippen surrounded by shooters like Kerr, MVP playmaker Steve Nash with Amar’e Stoudemire, the combo of Nash and Dirk Nowitzki, the pick-and-roll tandem of Stockton and Malone, and of course, the insanity of the 2016 Golden State Warriors behind the greatest shooting duo of all time in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
After that game a couple nights ago, the Celtics are up to the third-best offense since the merger. (Yes, I know they have the best O-Rtg. But the league average this year is the highest it's ever been, by a lot. This adjusts that that average.) pic.twitter.com/6VApFSYuuY
— Yaya Dubin (@JADubin5) November 30, 2022
And then … there’s this Celtics team.
Jayson Tatum has looked like he could be a fringe MVP candidate in the time since his rookie season. He’s made a certifiable leap this season. His floater has become a legit weapon, adding another layer to his game. He’s more explosive, is drawing more free throws per game, and is shooting a blistering 59% from inside the arc.
What’s more, Tatum has removed a huge chunk of mid-range shots. Tatum is averaging fewer mid-range attempts than Steph Curry, and as many shots at the rim as Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic while shooting 75.4%. He’s basically shot the same percentage at the rim as Anthony Davis.
Jaylen Brown similarly has been a beast despite the absence of 3-point efficiency. He’s shooting 68% at the rim and 45% on mid-range attempts.
Brown and Tatum are All-Stars, last season and, through the first month and a half of play this season, is at an MVP level. That’s certifiable.
But there isn’t a dynamism in either player’s game that creates an engine like we see with the other great offenses above.
Meanwhile, here’s a look at the top nine players in the Celtics’ rotation, their career eFG%, and their eFG% this season:
Usually, when a team is on a hot streak, there are still at least 1-2 players that are below expectation. Quite literally, every player in the Celtics’ rotation is above their career average in eFG%.
The eye test simply does not check out here; this should not be the best offense of all time based on the personnel and their entire NBA career’s.
There are two ways of looking at this:
1. Boston is on a completely unsustainable hot streak, and at least some level of regression is to be expected.
2. Even if some Celtics regress, the level of performance is so high it still makes them the best offense in the NBA by a significant margin.
The Weird Thing
If the Celtics essentially shooting like the ball is magnetized isn’t weird enough, the defensive fall-off has been just as jarring. Boston finished last season as the No. 1 Adjusted Defensive Rating team in the league. They are currently 20th in that category.
The assumption is that when Robert Williams returns from injury, over time, the Celtics’ defense will regress to form. But you have to be consistent. You can’t argue just that the defense will regress and the offense won’t.
The question is, to what degree will both regress?
An interesting wrinkle is where the points are coming from against Boston.
Boston is top-15 in points allowed in the paint, off turnovers, on second chances, and at the rim. Boston’s allowing the eighth-fewest 3-point attempts per game. They’re allowing the fourth-lowest expected eFG% in the league based on contest level and shot location.
They’re forcing the shots you want to force, opponents, are just, ironically, shooting exceptionally well against them. That’s promising and another sign in favor of Boston’s defense heading in the right direction. (It’s already started to improve from bottom-five to the middle of the pack.)
The Playoff Wrinkle
Boston’s offense struggled in the playoffs.
They finished with the ninth-best Offensive Rating among playoff teams and just the fifth-best 3-point shooting mark of playoff teams. Their turnover issues doomed them vs. the Warriors with a chance to win the title.
Any bet on Boston to win the title has not only to carry forward their early season performance in the regular season but project them into the playoffs. When Boston faces those teams, and things get tighter, when there are worse shooting opportunities, things may struggle.
NBA Futures Bet & Pick
So OK, we’ve come to the conclusion that Boston is likely going to regress offensively but are creating great looks with good talent, so still should be excellent. The defense should improve as the offense regresses.
The implied probability at +400 (FanDuel) to win the title is 20%. Do the Boston Celtics win the title more or less than one out of every five times this season?
Who are the teams that can beat Boston? The Bucks, Warriors, and Phoenix Suns are three “definitely yes” teams in terms of ability. Cleveland, Denver (despite Boston eviscerating them earlier this season), and the Los Angeles Clippers (if they are ever healthy) are maybes, but Boston would have to be favored. I’m leaving the Philadelphia 76ers out right now until Joel Embiid shows he can beat Al Horford on the Celtics.
This is close, but I do think there’s still a little value on Boston, still. More than anything, you need to choose now whether you want to bet on Boston. If you think they’ll regress and this is unsustainable across the board, then the value for them falls, and you likely don’t want to bet them at all. If you think this is sustainable, the number will not improve.
The Celtics’ win total is already up to 59.5 at FanDuel after closing pre-season at 54.5. If they go over, that will necessitate the books shortening their odds. Much of the uncertainty factored into the lines is based on injury concerns which is inherent in any bet you make.
I don’t know if the Celtics are really one of the best teams of all time. But they don’t have to be for you to bet them to win the title right now.