A. Sherrod Blakely pointed out something last week that we’ve brought up before: Danny Ainge’s signings this off-season showed an understanding that the Celtics offense was too often a liability in 2010. We mentioned it when the C’s re-signed Nate Robinson and added Von Wafer and Shaquille O’Neal—two defensive question marks (and that’s being kind to Robinson) and one pick-and-roll sieve.
The move to sure shore up the offense raises two questions:
• Will the C’s score more efficiently?
• Will they do so at the expense of their defense?
We should expect a small drop-off in the C’s defensive efficiency with key players aging and the departure of Tony Allen. If Boston can minimize that drop-off and get the offense back to 2009 level efficiency, the team can be a legit title contender.
But Boston fans have to face it: The offense got significantly worse in 2010. The C’s put up 107.7 points per 100 possessions last season, the 15th best mark in the league. They were average, and they were one of the worst offensive teams ever to make the Finals. A year earlier, when KG missed a third of the regular season, Boston scored 110.5 points per 100 possessions—good for 6thin the NBA.
How big was that drop relative to the rest of the league?
Only 6 teams saw bigger offensive declines in 2010:
• New Jersey: -7.7 points/100 possessions (traded Vince Carter, lost Devin Harris for significant time).
• Chicago: -4.9 (lost Ben Gordon to free agency, had Vinny Del Negro as head coach)
• Minnesota: -4.4 (installed triangle offense as Al Jefferson recovered from knee surgery)
• Indiana: -4.4 (got nothing from point guards; Danny Granger missed 20 games)
• Los Angeles Lakers: -4.0 (integrated Ron Artest, survived Kobe and Bynum injuries, dropped from a very high perch and returned there in the playoffs)
• Portland: -3.1 (massive injuries)
• Boston -2.8 (?)
The league as a whole scored 0.7 fewer points per 100 possessions in 2010, but still: Boston’s drop was relatively steep.
Why did it happen? Here are some of the reasons, and they won’t surprise any regular readers of this and other sites:
• Three-point shooting. The C’s hit 39.7 percent from deep in ’09, the best mark in the league and one of the dozen or so best team three-point shooting seasons in league history. They dropped to 34.8 percent in 2010, a mark just below the league average.
Ray Allen put up his worst three-point percentage since the lockout season in 1999, Eddie House couldn’t duplicate his ’09 performance before the C’s dealt him to New York and Rasheed Wallace gave us one of the very worst individual long-range shooting seasons in league history.
Can we expect a bounce back this season? Wafer hit 39 percent from deep for Houston in 2009, and Robinson, with the proper discipline, should be able to approach 40 percent. Delonte West is a capable three-point shooter, but you don’t design plays for West to jack threes.
You design those plays for Allen. A small rebound from Ray would be huge. Does he have it in him at age 35?
• Offensive rebounding. The team fell from 8th to 28th in offensive rebounding rate, and the fall-off should not have surprised us. Older big men tend to focus on jump-shooting and defense, and that left Big Baby as the only member of the 2010 C’s capable of grabbing extra possessions. Exchanging Leon Powe for Rasheed Wallace was the equivalent of exchanging the league’s best offensive rebounding big man for the league’s “worst” offensive rebounding big man. (The use of quotes there is a way of defending Wallace, since grabbing offensive boards never really meshed with his style of play, not even during his prime).
Davis was an elite offensive rebounder last season, and that should continue. Shaq remains a (slightly) above average offensive rebounder, and that is one area where he can really have an impact in Boston—especially if he’s in decent shape. (Ahem).
• Turnovers. The Celtics have been among the three most turnover-prone teams in each of the last three seasons. They will not suddenly become the Hawks or the Mavs, but giving away two or three fewer possessions per game would add a couple of points to the good guys’ score every night.
There is hope here. Jermaine O’Neal and Wafer are low-turnover players, and West, though not exactly careful with the ball, isn’t Tony Allen, either. Rondo could divvy out his high-risk passes more prudently, and Perk needs to cut the traveling calls. (The illegal screen calls on Perk are a reality we’re just going to have to accept as the collateral damage from an offense that asks a big center to set dozens of deadly screens every game).
There are of course things individual players can do to help the team’s offense. We can hope Paul Pierce’s percentage from mid-range jumps back to his career norms. Rondo must improve his free-throw shooting, and I’ll continue to wage a hopeless battle against Nate Robinson’s heat checks.
But the main team-wide issues are listed above. It’s a tribute to Boston’s defense—both players and coaches—that the team nearly won the title last season despite scoring just 104.9 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs. It’s probably wishful thinking to hope they can pull that off again.
Defense might be a bit more important than offense when it comes to winning championships, but offense matters, and Danny Ainge and his team recognized that and did they best they could to address it.