A few days ago, John Schuhmann of NBA.com’s Stats Cube had a superb piece quantifying Shaquille O’Neal’s impact on the Boston Celtics. The entire thing is worth a read but I’m going to excerpt a couple of key charts here as they offer tangible support for Danny Ainge’s thinking on Boston’s roster construction. Schuhmann pulled the top 10 five-man units in the NBA this season (the data is just a few days out of date). Here’s how it shakes down:
The Celtics are nothing less than spectacular with Shaq at the center spot. With Caron Butler on ice, Boston’s preferred starting five is the best unit in the entire league and by a wide margin over the Lakers’ best unit. That’s intuitive, based on the Celtics’ red hot first three months of the season.
Curiously, they’re almost as good with Glen Davis at the center spot. Second best in the entire league good. That feels counter-intuitive, probably because we’ve obsessed over Davis’ limitations defending big men and proclivity for bricking jumpshots all season. Whereas we’ve had comparatively less time to talk about Shaq’s on-court deficiencies.
It’s also surprising because Davis has played long minutes all season, including many games when the big four have played poorly. Almost all of Shaq’s minutes came when the big four were at their peak. And yet – both units are as elite as units get.
That’s where Schuhmann’s second chart really illuminates things. Have a look:
Over the last two months, as the Celtics have been stinking it up on the court, Ainge has repositioned the debate from the after-effects of the Kendrick Perkins trade to the play of the big four, in terms of accountability for failure. The numbers suggest he’s right, that no matter which big man you play with the big four, Boston will be championship contenders. And of course, that without the big four firing on all cylinders, it doesn’t matter who you put in the middle, because there’s not going to be a championship parade in June.
Of course, there’s a huge difference between the 19.1 efficiency differential of the Shaq unit and the 9.5 efficiency differential of the Jeff Green unit. And specific matchups aside (like Miami going small), it’d be surprising to see Green closing out fourth quarters, if Davis is available.
Other scattered thoughts:
- Boston, Los Angeles and San Antonio have two groups each in the top ten. Miami one. Chicago none. That’s about the right read on championship hopes, unless you think the Bulls are ready this year. I think they might be a year, and a shooting guard, away.
- Could Indiana cause the Bulls a little more trouble than we expect in the first round?
- The Rondo-Allen-Pierce-Green-KG lineup plays slower than any other combination. Could the lack of relative efficiency there be a mirage, and based more on the big four playing poorly with Green the last six weeks? Maybe, but those defensive numbers are still problematic.
- If Shaq isn’t able to come back, Krstic/O’Neal are the men in the middle after Davis. And those lineups compare poorly to the other title contenders. Shaq’s absence would then push the burden even more heavily to the other starters than it is now.
Of course, not all numbers are created equal. The figures above aggregate performance against all sorts of teams. And Boston isn’t going to be playing all sorts of teams. They will play — at most — four.
The playoffs are about matchups.
Get ready to hear that little cliche about a hundred times a day for the next two months. But it’s true. And Shaq’s presence in the middle gives the Celtics advantages in terms of post offense and defense, physicality and initimidation that their other options simply don’t. He also creates matchup problems for everyone from New York through L.A. or San Antonio. He forces them to adjust to him. And few teams have an effective answer for Boston’s 350 pound X factor.