It doesn’t take an accomplished sabermetrician to tell you that the Boston Celtics were a horrendous shooting team last year. It was evident just by watching the games every now and then. Their 43.5% FG shooting was tied with the 76ers for second-worst in the league. Their 33.3% mark from beyond the arc was tied with the Kings for the 3rd worst. The Celtics scored 1.15 points per shot, which was also second-worst in the NBA. The Celtics ranked just 17th in pace (possessions per 48 minutes), also ranking in the bottom five in offensive rating and effective FG%. In order to become a more effective offensive team, the Celtics can/need to do at least two of three things.
They need to play faster (either through more fast-breaks or better half court ball-movement), take smarter/more efficient shots, and add better shooters to their roster.
The Celtics need to push the ball and shoot earlier in the shot clock.
Let’s start with with the first one. The Celtics should be a much faster team pretty much by default due to the addition of Marcus Smart. Whether he’s at the point or not, Smart thrives in transition. He doesn’t want to get stuck in a half court game. A team like the Celtics, that lack knockdown shooters and dominant big men, need to rank in the top 10 in pace. It’s really that simple. Ranking 17th in total fast break points and 20th in fast break efficiency is just not acceptable for a team apparently trying to build its core from the outside-in.
The best way to start a fast break is by pressuring the back court and forcing turnovers outside the 3-pt line. Unfortunately, Avery Bradley doesn’t do this nearly as well as you may think. And Rajon Rondo has just become an abysmal defensive player (most likely due to the load he’s had to carry on offense over the last 3 years). When guarding SG’s, Bradley allowed a 17.2 PER last year and only forced 2.3 turnovers per 48 minutes. That’s far from elite. In fact, that makes him a defensive equivalent to Jodie Meeks. When guarding PG’s, however, Bradley allows a PER of 15.2 and an AST/TO just over 2. Those are good numbers. He can pressure ball-handlers, as long as those ball-handlers aren’t four inches taller than him.
Rondo is another player who should strictly guard point guards, and even then, he doesn’t provide much pressure. His length generates 3.3 TO’s per 48 but he allowed a PER of 18.3 last season. In 2010, Rondo led the entire NBA in fast break points generated. He hasn’t ranked in the top 20 since. The Celtics scored 12.5% of their points on the fast break last season, good for 19th in the NBA. With the exception of Charlotte, the teams that ranked below Boston that made the playoffs (Dallas, Memphis, Chicago, Portland, Indiana, Toronto, and Brooklyn) all were either ELITE defensive teams, good shooting teams, and/or teams with elite big men.
The Marcus Smart-led Oklahoma State Cowboys were the 3rd fastest team in the Big 12 last season and ranked in the 89th percentile for all teams in Division 1 in terms of pace. Marcus Smart single-handedly makes a team faster, and he has to, because his weaknesses are magnified in a half-court game. James Young has good up-and-down athleticism and shoots very well of the dribble or catch. He should also help improve the Celtics fast break.
Due to him having a solid 2″ of height and 4″ of wingspan on both Rondo and Bradley, Smart will likely spend most of his time guarding SG’s as a rookie. This will allow Rondo and Bradley to play to their strengths more often, and will put Smart in a position to generate turnovers off the ball. Like in the video above.
Taking smarter shots.
It needs to be noted that the Celtics weren’t exactly trying to win a championship last season. It’s unlikely they would’ve let guy like Jared Sullinger shoot so many low-percentage shots if they were. Brad Stevens has been at the forefront of statistic-based coaching. He’s a smart guy. He knows the Celtics were taking a lot of dumb shots last season. He brought his operations assistant Drew Canon, pretty much the Bill James of college basketball, with him to Boston for a reason.
Let’s start with Sullinger, who attempted 208 threes last season despite only converting 26.9% of them. That wasn’t a killer…last year. The Celtics were “tanking” and it definitely wouldn’t hurt Sullinger’s game if he could become at least a mild threat from deep. Out of those three-point attempts, just 9.6% of them came from the corners. It’s admittedly a little bit harder for big men to escape to the corners than wings but still, that’s a telling number. We’ve seen current Celtics players (Avery Bradley and Jeff Green) improve their shooting tremendously by going to the corners more. We’ve seen other big men (Chris Bosh and Serge Ibaka) do the same. Sullinger may never become a real threat from deep, but if plans to, attempting more 3’s from the corners would help.
As a team, the Celtics actually shot a respectable 38.7% from the corners last season. But the team simply suffered from the same problem that Sullinger did, they were taking to many of their threes from above the break (just 25.2% of their 3-pt attempts came from the corners). Jeff Green shot 39.1% from the corners versus 31.4% on threes above the break. Avery Bradley is a strange case, and last seasons number are most likely a statistical outlier, as he actually shoots much better above the break than in the corners (though for his career he’s more effective from the corners).
Here’s a chart showing the Celtics main shooters, comparing their percentages from the corners vs. above the break. The Corner Effectiveness Ratio is something I drew up that represents how many points a player produces for each corner three they take divided by the points produced for an above the break three. Rajon Rondo and Phil Pressey aren’t included because they shouldn’t be taking threes, and as point guards, almost all of their threes are going to come from the top of the arc. Click on the chart to enlarge it.
James Young, who shot a ridiculous 52% from the left corner in college, should also help in that regard. He won’t have any ball-handling duties and he won’t have to post-up at all. He’ll be free to run off screens and try and find space in the corners. It’s likely that Stevens will draw up plays to utilize this. Or at the very least teach Rondo and Smart to looks the corners for kick outs when they penetrate.
It’s a known fact that the midrange jumper is the least efficient shot in basketball. Now, you need to take and make your fair share to keep opponents honest. But your offense should be based around getting to rim and kicking it out to the corners. It’s why Miami and San Antonio played in the finals for two straight years. The Celtics shot 40.7% from the midrange (outside the paint, inside the arc) last season. That’s actually a pretty good number. What isn’t a good number is Boston ranking 6th in midrange jumpers attempted last season. With the exception of the Clippers, Thunder, and Mavericks none of the NBA’s top 15 offenses also ranked in the top 15 in midrange jumpers taken.
If you look at effective FG% (which takes into account that a 3 is worth more than a 2), the Celtics reliance on midrange jumpers becomes more alarming. Compare the Celtics eFG of 40.7% from the midrange with their eFG of 58.3% on corner 3’s and you begin to see the problem. Again, the Celtics aren’t a bad midrange shooting team. But they took nearly 1/3 of all their shots from the midrange. Compare that to a more efficient offense like Miami (23.9% of FG attempts from the midrange), Houston (11%), or Golden State (23.8%) and you start to see the trends. Obviously the Celtics currently lack of the firepower of those three teams, both in terms of finishing at the rim and shooting 3’s, but the numbers still show the Celtics would be a significantly more effective offensive team if they took less midrange jumpers.
Kris Humphries and Jerryd Bayless were two of the the teams most effective guys from midrange. They’re both gone. The only efficient midrange shooters on the Celtics current roster are Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass, and Bass may very well be traded before the deadline. Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger should continue to improve, but the Celtics would still be wise to shy away from taking the amount of midrange shots they did last season.
As far as Brad Stevens’ offensive sets, they struggled to translate to the NBA right away but he was probably hiding some things. And the Celtics just didn’t have very much talent. Stevens like to spread 4 guys pretty much across the baseline and allow his point guard to make plays off the dribble or a high screen from a good shooting big man. It’s sort of a cross between a typical motion offense, a multi-option flex offense, and a new-age spread offense. The wings generally drift towards the corners. Big men have to have the ability to come up and pass. If run correctly, his offense is innovative and creates so many different shot oppurtunites. Here’s a quick look at some of Stevens’ half court sets at Butler, from a 2009 game against LSU.
We didn’t see a ton of that last season with the Celtics. Stevens certainly wasn’t trying to play all his cards in a rebuilding year. But Rondo and Smart’s ability to penetrate, along with Sullinger and Olynyk’s ability to step out and pass, will allow Stevens to continue to shift this Celtics offense into a well-oiled machine like his offenses at Butler, that almost always ranked in the top 5 in the country in terms of offensive efficiency.
Smart should be able to penetrate and finish at the rim. Hopefully Rondo will be healthier which will lead to him creating efficient shots for teammates at the rate we’re used to seeing. James Young should help spread the floor a bit when he’s on the court. And hopefully, when players like Olynyk and Sullinger do take jumpers, they pick better spots. It also doesn’t help that both Avery Bradley and Phil Pressey rank right at the bottom of the league in finishing at the rim. But again, Smart should help there.
The Celtics are a young team and their core will continue to grow mentally. I expect them to be a smarter offensive team. They sure as hell need to be.
Add better shooters.
As it stands, Bradley, Young, Green, and Olynyk are the only 3-pt threats on the team. Bradley will likely regress compared to last year. Young is a rookie. Jeff Green and Kelly Olynyk are average shooters. The newly acquired Marcus Thornton might actually be the best shooter on the roster at the moment. But he’s unlikely to see major minutes, and he’s so inefficient on offense that it’ll be hard for Stevens to throw him out there in a backcourt that is already struggles with efficiency.
The Celtics still don’t have the talent to make a huge leap offensively. But jumping into that 16-22 range in terms of offensive rating would be a nice, and realistic, improvement. Smart and Young are both players that will allow Stevens to do what he wants on offense. We will hopefully see a Celtics offense more reliant on corner 3’s and penetration (like Stevens’ at Butler) than midrange jumpers. The team will play faster.
The Celtics aren’t going to turn into the San Antonio Spurs overnight. But Stevens, and his slew of intelligent assistants and operations people, have the new-age insight to create an offense similar to that of the Spurs. It’s a matter of Danny Ainge adding the right players over the next couple of years. I believe both Smart and Young will help tremendously right away. The Celtics should, at the very least, be a much more exciting team to watch this season.