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