In his season preview, John Hollinger noted something I’ve been meaning to write about for a while: The Celtics don’t take very many shots. In fact, only two teams attempted fewer shots than Boston’s 6333 last season—Memphis and Charlotte, two teams that weren’t so good at basketball.
Then Hollinger did some of his black magic witchcraft math, adjusted for pace and found that the Celtics took the fewest shots per possession of any team in the league:
This is a problem, yes? I mean, the point of playing basketball is the try and throw the ball into the basket. It stands to reason that it’s good to have more chances to do that than your opponent. But as Hollinger notes, the Celtics took fewer shots than their opponents last season—85 fewer to be exact. And they took the fewest shots in the entire league in 2008, when, as you might remember, they won title and there was much rejoicing.
We can all go through the reasons for this, and we’ll do it shortly. But I wanted to know: How big of a problem is this? How much does it hurt the C’s to routinely be taking fewer shots than their opponents?
(It is at this point that I should tell you this is not a definitive analysis, that I have minimal computer programming skills and thus no ability to sort massive amounts of data quickly, and that I haven’t taken a real math class since AP Calculus sometime in the mid-1990s unless you count that fake math class in college my friends and I nicknamed Math for Animals).
So I did something admittedly very simple: I took the five best teams and the five worst teams (by actual win-loss record) for the last five seasons, and I did some fancy math (“addition” and “subtraction”) to find out their field goal attempt differentials.
• The five best teams, on average, took 37 fewer shots than their opponents over the course of a season.
• The five worst teams, on average, took 51 more shots than their opponents over the course of a season.
Just look at last season, for example. The C’s -85 differential looks bad until you note that Orlando attempted 369 fewer shots than their opponents, the Nuggets 228 fewer and the Spurs 34 fewer. (The Spurs, by the way, are usually on the minus side of the ledger, something we’ll address later).
In 2008, when the Celtics smashed the Lakers into the small pieces for the championship, the C’s had a -55 differential—much “better” than LA’s -204 mark.
Of the 27 top teams I tracked (I included seven teams from last season because three teams finished 54-28, bringing the total to 27), only 12 had positive FGA differentials.
So is Hollinger wrong? Well, not in the sense that the Celtics would take more shots if they didn’t commit turnovers at a higher rate than almost every other team in the league. But it’s not that simple. Basketball is a complicated game with a huge number of factors that go into deciding which team wins and which team is the Knicks. Taking more shots than your opponent is just one of those factors, and that in itself is related to several variables—how often you make your shots, how often you rebound your misses, whether you are turnover prone, whether you draw a lot of shooting fouls, etc. The Celtics could increase their shot totals by cutting their turnovers, but shooting the ball less accurately would produce the same result because of second chance opportunities.
Example: The Celtics are a good offensive rebounding team but they don’t get many offensive rebounds. The C’s rebounded about 28 percent of their misses, the 8th-best mark in the league, but 20 teams grabbed more total offensive boards (and turned many of those offensive boards into more field goal attempts). Why the gap? Because the C’s make a high percentage of their shots.
Another example: Denver had a horrid-looking -228 differential in field goal attempts, but, like the Celtics, they were among the top seven offensive teams in the league. And that’s in part because they were the best team in the league at drawing fouls. Some of those fouls were shooting fouls, which artificially erased field goal attempts from the stat sheet. (Please note: Hollinger’s shots per possession takes this into account by factoring in free throws).
Last example: The Spurs had a negative FGA differential in four of the five seasons I looked at. The guys at 48MinutesofHell and Pounding the Rock could tell you that’s not a surprise—San Antonio shoots the ball well and foregoes offensive rebounding in favor of getting back on defense. Put those together, and you’ll get a low number of raw FGAs.
And we haven’t even mentioned defense, which can make up for a single offensive shortcoming such as turnovers. The Celtics may not shoot very often, but they limit their opponents FGAs by forcing turnovers (#9 in the league last year) and securing defensive rebounds (#3 in the NBA).
I’m not saying Hollinger is wrong to point at Boston’s low number of field goal attempts and see something the team can improve upon. I’m just saying it’s not a crisis when you put it in some context.