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Almost Ageless

 

It’s interesting to watch the ways Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are changing as they age.

And as they don’t age.

Because in some important ways, Pierce and Allen are actually better offensive players now than they were during the championship season of 2007-08.

When the new big three was put together back in the summer of 2007, forecasts on how long Allen and Pierce would remain great players were largely optimistic in nature. The story went something like: ‘Allen keeps himself in great shape and has a gorgeous stroke and Pierce‘s game has never been heavily dependent on athleticism. Plus, neither will have to shoulder such a significant offensive burden now they’re finally on a team with other legitimate stars.’

These predictions have largely been borne out over the last three and a half years. Usage numbers for Allen and Pierce (and Kevin Garnett, but he’ll be tangential to this particular discussion) have seriously declined from their peak years. Pierce went from a 30.7 USG% in 2006-07 to 24.8 in the championship season. Allen saw an even larger drop, from 29.5 to 21.6. Both have declined moderately since then, with Pierce hanging in at 23.0 this year and Allen at 20.2.

You’re probably thinking – that ain’t news, pal. We heard a thousand times that the stars would have to sacrifice some of their production for the good of the team, and they did. Big deal.

But there’s a difference between sacrificing usage because it’s the best thing for the good of the team and sacrificing because you simply can’t produce at that same level anymore. And in the grey area where one of those ideas ends and the other begins lies a set of questions, the answers to which will play heavily into the Celtics’ overall success this season.

But before we get to them, we should first examine how well Pierce and Allen’s games are handling the encroachment of Father Time.

***

Have a look at Pierce’s advanced stats, pulled from the indispensable Basketball Reference:

PAUL PIERCE

Pierce’s .602 TS% is second only to last year’s .613 as his career high and should he maintain his current eFG% of .541, it would be a career-best. We could pick at his three-point percentage, which is down this year at .356 (from last year’s career high of .414) but should Pierce’s figures normalize to the ~.390 he’s put up in the big three era, Celtics fans should have little to complain about. Pierce is a superior shooter to when he won MVP of The Finals.

Heartening stuff, right?

There’s more.

Pierce’s total rebound rate is 8.4, almost exactly what it was in 07-08. His 17.9 PER is within shouting distance of his championship season’s mark of 19.6. And he takes care of the ball better now than at any time previously in his career.

How does Ray Allen fare in comparison?

Have a look:

RAY ALLEN

Allen is tied for a career high in TS% (at .610). His eFG% of .567 is within sniffing distance of a career high. And Allen, at age 35, is shooting his best ever percentage (.435) from the three-point-line. Like Pierce, he is a more effective shooter now than ever before.

Allen’s total rebound rate of 5.8 is almost exactly the same figure he tallied in the championship season. Also like Pierce, Allen’s turnovers are effectively duplicates of his 07-08 numbers.

Allen’s PER? Actually higher than the championship season, if only just.

And here’s where we get to the little snafu with all this happy talk.

That whole grey area.

***

I would argue that at this point in their careers, Pierce and Allen are primarily shot makers, not shot creators (which is not to say they create no shots). But on the offensive end of the floor, they do not make other players better the way they used to.

A player’s AST% indicates what percentage of their teammates’ field goals are assisted by the player in question. For example, Lebron James assists 36.8% of his teammates field goals. Kobe Bryant – 25.6%. Manu Ginobli - 25.2%. Carmelo Anthony – 17.6%.

Pierce’s figures for the last six years: 23.4, 22.1, 21.8, 16.3, 15.1 and 12.7 this year.

Allen: 17.2, 19.0, 14.6, 12.6, 12.3, and 13.3 this year.

(Garnett’s are in significant decline as well).

Part of the reason that Pierce and Allen create fewer shots for their teammates is summed up in the mere existence of Rajon Rondo. Rondo’s masterful shot creation abilities (a league-leading AST% of 53) means that Pierce and Allen are relieved of the burdensome work of breaking down defenders off the dribble and taking punishment in the paint. Both now naturally gravitate towards spot-up threes, curls for mid-range jumpers and similar shots.

In fact, remove the names on the charts above and Pierce and Allen’s numbers are not as easy to distinguish from one another as you might expect. They are, in very real ways, cogs in this offense, not primary drivers of it. Key cogs clearly, but not irreplaceable ones.

The ‘let Rondo create’ approach works fine much of the time. But remember the Portland game, the one the C’s nearly blew down the stretch? Pierce and Allen spent most of crunch time standing on the perimeter, waiting for catch-and-shoot opportunities.

There was a time when that was unthinkable.

Check the youtube Pierce mixes. Watch old game footage. Consult your memory. There was a time when Pierce could break down almost any defender one-on-one. When he didn’t finish the play himself, he could find a teammate for a good look as the defense rotated to stop him. Or he’d draw a foul. But those days are much rarer now. He’s lost something off his first step and he’s not as explosive or fast as he was five years ago. I believe we are seeing fewer Pierce ISOs as much as a result of his decline in this area as we are because the Celtics’ offensive philosophy stresses ball movement.

Allen is in a similar boat. With Boston, Allen’s dribble-drives seem to come off second options or broken plays. The ball will come up to him on the wing (often the weak side, where he’s spotted up to spread the floor) and he’ll put the ball on the floor. Or he’ll come off a curl without sufficient space to shoot and he’ll keep his drive alive, or set up a pick and roll with one of the bigs.

So, why is this such an area of concern? After all, despite all this, the C’s have one of the better offenses in the league (they were 9th in offensive efficiency before Monday night’s games).

I’d argue that playoff basketball is not the same as regular season basketball. What works during the first 82-games can fall short when the bad teams have gone home and the focus on defense becomes more intense each successive round (see Suns, Phoenix for an example of a team whose regular season approach doesn’t always translate). It’s very challenging to generate consistent scores without (amongst other things, which the Celtics have) a player who can break down the defense off the dribble, consistently finish and draw fouls. Right now, the Celtics’ best off-the-dribble player is Rondo, but his unreliability at the free throw line (which, until he proves otherwise, affects his assertiveness driving the paint) and from the mid-range remains a concern. If teams continue to have success playing centerfield against him, as happened multiple times in the 2010 playoffs, the Celtics might be left scrambling to score.

To me, besides health, this is the biggest potential hole in the 2010-11 Celtics.

When the chips are down, who will score and how?

So, I’d suggest some relevant questions we can consider for the rest of the season are – in three bunches:

1) Can Pierce and Allen maintain their offensive efficiency if forced into higher usage situations? Tasked with guarding the likes of Bryant, James, and Dwayne Wade, will they be able to maintain their regular season efficiency, much less take their games to a higher level? Remember, there’s no Tony Allen to give them a breather now, unless you’re sold on Marquis Daniels. Can they create shots off the bounce and get into the paint the way they used to? How much elite offensive play is being kept in reserve for the spring and how much is now just a thing of the past?

2) Can Rondo maintain his current mid/long range efficiency if sagging and elite defenses force him into taking significant volumes of jumpshots? Or are his solid quarter-season numbers merely a function of minimal usage? Will he be consistently aggressive in the halfcourt offense down the stretch of tight games, given his struggles at the line?

3) Can Delonte West fill the role of shot creator, or will the C’s eventually need to think about looking for another off-the-dribble scorer in trade?

Thoughts, everyone?

  • http://twitter.com/JdotD @JdotD

    after going back onto some of his bucks and especially sonics games, i'm still struggling to see how ray allens game has changed since when he was in his prime (proportionally). in his old game he was always primarily a 3pt gunner, who had the option of a dribble drive to him, i still think he has this… its just now that he is being used 1/3 less than before, so everything is down by proportion and as the least used part of his offensive game, the dribble drives are the largest bit to decrease, but as we all see he can still put the ball on the floor and get to the hoop (he has always been a bit shaky going towards the hoop although i will admit that he has lot a bit of handle recently). when compared to pierce especially, who has clearly lost a step (although fair play to him for finding a way to still be as effective on offense regardless of this), allen seems to be pretty much the same player he always was, or if not that, at least the same player we got in 2007. not bad for a 35 year old guy!

  • NHBluesMan

    i think Pierce and Ray can still create their own shots, but as you said before, because of the ball movement emphasis the C's are trying to get away from that. Iso plays were what killed us those last few minutes of game 7.

    Celtics will be fine because of one key piece: Doc Rivers. He knows his players, he knows how to get them going, and he knows when its time for ball movement and when its time for an iso play. In Doc we trust!

  • Batman

    Rondo is the key to this.
    Rondo's FT % is ridiculous, It needs to change
    I like how he's begun to incorporate the 3 into his arsenal, and he needs to use the regular season as practice with his outside shot
    But the FT% really has to change Like at least a 60%

  • JP-

    Any analysis on these numbers the games Rondo hasn't played? Has Nate taken on the play making duties according to the statistics? I think the TA Marquis comparison is a bit overrated, TA was a great defense, a liability on offense. Daniels at least has some offensive life, and he does a good job on defense. The team is deeper up front, which was the real difference a year ago, not TA. Rondo's free throw shooting is now, easily, the weakest part of his game. He needs to work on this.

    • Ryan DeGama

      Good idea to look closely at those games without Rondo JP. At some point this year, I'll do that.

      Wrote this after the Nets game (the one where Delonte got hurt; Rondo was also out):

      "He didn’t look sharp early on but can we now appreciate Pierce’s superb second half? Maybe the captain was deliberately trying to pick up the energy and the crowd after West’s injury. Maybe it was merely a function of being forced into a point-forward role, but Pierce was all over the place in the last 24 minutes. He cut up the porous NJ defense off the dribble, found open guys for good looks, played strong help defense, rebounded the ball, and even knocked down a couple of elbow jumpers down the stretch, an all-too-rare occurrence lately."

      Now, that's against New Jersey, but it's exactly the kind of thing I hope to see, in spot duty, against the best teams.

  • Batman

    After crawling some ESPN message boards for a while during class, I kept hearing the arguement that if Derrick Rose/Steve Nash and etc. were on this team instead of Rondo we would have 4 rings
    What do you guys think? Are you happy with Rondo? I think the arguement where you switch player X with player Y is weak, and I'm happy with Rondo.

    • Tom W

      derrick rose/steve nash couldn't have stopped Garnett from getting injured two years ago or Perkins from getting injured last year. that was what stopped us from winning the championships, not Rondo. Rondo's playoff brilliance kept pushing us along.

      • hdavenport

        Also, don't like Rose's style among so many other scorers and Nash's defense would just not work.

        • Ryan DeGama

          I'm with Hayes on this one. LOVE Rose as a player, but wonder what he looks like on this Celtics team.

  • ElRoz

    My hope is that the elite players from other teams – LeBron and Wade, for example – will have to guard Pierce and Allen as well, and Pierce and Allen will have Rondo and Celtic's offense working for them, while LeBron and Wade will not have Rondo. Boston's bench will provide better quality relief when healthy.

  • CelticNut

    I remember Rondo drastically outplaying Rose in the playoffs and averaging a triple double in that Bulls series that the Celts won. I'll take Rondo over Rose all day every day. Now Steve Nash might be another story…but I'm still taking Rondo with age factored in.

    Pierce has obviously lost a step (or 2) but so has Kobe Bryant. The question is, can he continue to find new ways to be a successful scorer in the league and a positive contributor to the C's offense? Pierce has added the three pointer in the past couple years to counteract the aging process. Maybe we need to start working him in the low post with KG and Baby on the floor at the 4 and 5 spots. Should guarantee he gets single coverage and maybe he can score 1 on 1 down there easier than he can on the perimeter now.

  • phreesh

    The thing with the Celtics is that they have enough offensive weapons that they can live with 80-90% of each player's prime. Maybe Allen and Pierce can get shut down for stretches by a great defender or two, but Garnett/Rondo/Shaq will be able to abuse their defender.

    The Celtic's depth is their greatest weapon against their star's decline.

  • Zain

    This article is eye opening and scares me a bit =|

    • Zain

      I should clarify. It scares me in terms of the future of the team. I'm not worries about this year, or next (unless there is a lockout, that's another issue). But as players get older, times change and teams change. For now, it's a well built team, and while of course it'd be better if Rondo's FT % or jumper was more reliable, I still can't see anyone stopping them 4 out of 7 times in a playoff series (as long as they are healthy, damn that catch).

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