NBA basketball returns Oct. 24. We are counting down the days like the seconds on a shot clock — literally, that’s what we’re doing. As of Oct. 1, our writers will list 24 storylines heading into the 2023-24 NBA season.
A new storyline will drop each day. Here is No. 22:
The additions of Jrue Holiday and Kristaps Porzingis can’t make the Celtics a much better team, but they could be enough.
The Celtics were, statistically, the best team in the Eastern Conference by a healthy margin last season. And they were just the third team in the 27 years for which we have play-by-play data to rank in the top three on both ends of the floor.
So it’s impossible for this team to be dramatically improved. But they can do better in the margins. Over the six regular seasons in which they’ve had Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, the Celtics have had a much worse record in games that were within five points in the last five minutes (129-116, .527) than they’ve been otherwise (167-60, .736). That’s the league’s biggest such differential by a healthy margin.
Their differential in the playoffs hasn’t been quite as big: 27-22 in clutch games, 25-20 otherwise. But in this past postseason, the Celtics’ second-ranked defense allowed their opponents to score 89 points on just 69 clutch possessions (129 per 100). In these last six years, the Celtics (94) have played 16 more playoff games than any other team. But all six postseasons have ended with a loss.
Jrue Holiday’s Bucks have had similar clutch issues (except in the 2021 Finals), but he’s been a better clutch shooter (39.8%) than Marcus Smart (36.6%) over the last five years. He’s also had a much better assist-turnover ratio in the clutch (2.28) than Brown (1.52) or Tatum (1.03), and his defense will help when the Celtics need to get a critical stop.
Kristaps Porzingis has struggled (9-for-43, 21%) on clutch 3-pointers over the last five years. Frontline depth is now a big question for this team because the Celtics have little beyond Porzingis and Al Horford in regard to true bigs. The former missed 194 games over the five seasons prior to last, while the latter is now 37 years old.
But Porzingis is coming off the best season of his career and should get better shots in Boston. And while the changes the Celtics have made can’t make them a much better team in aggregate, they just need to help in the margins.
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