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Speed Kills: Why The Celtics Need To Play Faster

 

The Celtics aren’t playing fast enough.

Boston is second-last in the league in pace, averaging only 90.7 possessions per game. But according to Synergy Sports Technology, they’re second in the league with 1.32 points scored per transition possession.

Read that again. The Celtics have the second-most potent transition attack in the league and are playing at exactly the wrong pace to maximize that competitive advantage.

That’s especially concerning given the sludgy offense they’ve trotted out the last few years. The Celtics finished 17th in offensive efficiency last season, 13th in 2009-10, and 5th in 2008-09. It’s a trend moving in the wrong direction.

(The Celtics are 10th in the league so far this season, although, after a hot start, that number has been on a decline in recent games).

The Celtics know all this, of course. Boston is one of the more statistically-savvy organizations in the NBA. That’s why you’ve heard Doc Rivers admonish his troops for lack of pace, and implore them to get the ball to Rajon Rondo and push tempo. He knows they’re deadly when they do.

It’s not just the young guys who are driving this transition efficiency.

In Ray Allen and Paul Pierce, Boston has two lethal fast break options. Allen is 7th in the entire league with 1.7 points per possession (PPP) in transition. That makes sense given his inclination to trail the play and spot up for a three on the arc. Uncontested, that’s a devastating weapon for the Celtics. And when challenged, he can still take the ball to the hole. To wit:

Paul Pierce is also elite, ranking 30th at 1.36 PPP.

Boston has two more guys in the top-100. Brandon Bass is also thriving on the break. He’s currently 38th at 1.3 PPP. And, of course, Rondo, who creates much of the efficiency of this offense out of whole cloth, is 78th in the league when finishing transition plays himself.

Of course, while we expect that kind of production from the young guys, nobody expects Allen and Pierce to get out and run every lane at their age. But which is more taxing: grinding out repeated 24-second half-court offensive possessions or sprinting for easy shots? Is it possible a fast break offense is actually less wear and tear on the older guys?

That leads to a related item that’s been gnawing at me. Somehow, it’s been decided that Kevin Garnett at center is a good idea. Somehow, we’ve decided that’s in line with the direction of the league, where we have fewer traditional centers, and less of a need for Kendrick Perkins-size clogs in the middle.

I think that’s a problematic assertion on a few levels but here’s one that’s germane to discussion of the transition offense: the Celtics are a bad defensive rebounding team. And over the long term, KG at center makes them worse.

The Celtics rank 19th in the league in defensive rebound rate, so they aren’t getting enough boards to turn the ball up the floor and take advantage of their efficient transition attack. And by walking away from someone like Perkins (25.4 DRR last season) and offloading the burden onto injury-prone guys like Jermaine O’Neal and undersizers like Bass, Boston ultimately sacrifices offensive possessions.

Consider this: Garnett is shooting 86.7% at the rim but he has only two baskets on the fast break all season.

Is it because he’s fighting for position underneath the boards and can’t expend regular energy going up and down the floor? Possibly. Is it a good idea to ask someone his age, someone who isn’t built for or interested in contact in the paint to be the primary inside defender and rebounder? Possibly not. Is all that even more worrisome given the compressed schedule?

You know my answers. But maybe those aren’t even the right questions.

Maybe we should ask what would happen if the Celtics had a real center underneath, somebody who could pony up a 25% DRR and 30 minutes worth of bruising physicality? Or even just one of those two things. Wouldn’t that increase the number of fast break opportunities? Wouldn’t that save wear and tear on KG, who is so crucial to any kind of playoff run?

Wouldn’t that make a lot of sense for a Boston team that will – sooner or later – struggle to score?

I know that’s a lot of questions and I know real centers aren’t easy to find (especially ones who can defend, rebound and throw outlet passes). But if the C’s expect this last drive at a title to materialize, they need a better offense than they’ve had the last few years. They’ve got the wing players. Credit Danny Ainge for that. But the ultimate success of Boston’s season may prove dependent on finding real, dependable size in the middle.

So they can do more stuff like this:

  • Chris from Danvers

    Great data and support for the idea. As Tommy would say, they should, "run, baby, run."

    To be honest, Rondo is their greatest asset for transition. Their stars are quite good at it as well, despite their age. I think the fact that the second unit is all new has helped slow them down, but they have such skilled – and in Brandon Bass, Pietrus, and Daniels – quick players, that transition is the way to go. Let's hope for a trend in that direction.

  • IBleedGreen

    What happened to the half-court offense that was one of the best, if not the best in the league just a couple years ago?

  • W2.

    Rebounding is a concern.

    Hard to run when the other team has the ball. Obvious, but true.

    Wilcox where are you?

  • smalltownID

    The positive transition numbers are simply a function of small sample sizes. Rondo will fall out of the top 100 I guarantee it. His only option is a lay-in or pass with almost no pull-up jumper & most defenders know this. That is why Ray has always been deadly in transition, he can finish at the rim (remember all those transition dunks from Ray last year? I''m not being facetious, it was a lot for an aging 2-guard), he can hit the pull-up, or make the easy pass.

    I think there is a fine line with Boston and pushing tempo. Rondo really needs to learn to recognize when it isn't there. Perfect example, the last minute versus Miami when Rondo throws the outlet pass over the middle of the court. Stupid to begin with, even more dump when the guy who isn't open to begin with. Can't tell you how many times Rondo has done that especially when the game is close. Costed us the game. I think he's improved a bit but I would say he still has poor decision making in transition especially at the end of games. It is a catch-22 with Rondo, the behind the back bounce pass on a dead run to Ray is sick-nasty, but necessary? or smart?

    There is such a thing as pushing tempo in transition and then setting up your offense if nothing is there. Rarely ever occurs with Boston. Look to the head of the snake.

  • CG12

    I would absolutely love to see the Celts play faster, especially the reserves. I'd think that a Dooling-Bradley-Daniels-Bass-Wilcox lineup could really run the floor. No shooting, though, so we are unlikely to see much of it. It drives me nuts to see them walk it up, not even try to catch the D before it is set, and only initiate the half-court offense with like 10 seconds on the shot clock. We have seen too many crappy possession consisting only of the PG dribbling around aimlessly way above the 3-point line, followed by the PG pressing to get a shot and chucking up some serious junk. Get into your offense as soon as you can. You don't need to hurry, just move as quickly as you comfortably can.

  • High Rollers

    When the wing players stop allowing dribble penetrations, the bigs will have better opportunities to rebound. When that happens, regardless of whether he's playing the 4 or 5 position, KG won't have to work so hard, not just physically but mentally. As the defensive glue and best talker on the floor, he's working out a million details old and new right now. When his troops fall in line, he'll be plenty energized, ready to harass, rebound, and get all sneaky in transition with the best of them once again. Of course, this means the wings do actually have to come up with the goods and block off the paint to their counterparts. We'll see. Rondo loves to gamble, Ray and Paul are a step slower (if two steps savvier), 'Quis has been out of basketball just long enough to mess with his head, Dooling's there somewhere (but where?), Bradley's still on a bit of an island, Pietrus is excited and talking in the third person… I'd say just give them time. Jan/Feb/Mar is a faster slog this time… but still a slog nevertheless.

    Two things about that vaunted/elusive half-court offense: we're a few steps slower and the competition's D has improved exponentially. (The C's can thank their own success over the past 4+ yrs. for that. They've been nothing if not inspiring.)

    One more thing… I must have seen Rondo pleading for the ball in order to take advantage of fast break opportunities only for the newbies to hesitate (because they're new) at least a hundred times already. When everybody has down the size and shape and speed of Mr. "Whole Cloth" … then we'll be in business! Just imagine Bass, Pietrus, 'Quis, etc. on the satisfying end of a perfect Rondo pass for the easy layup or dunk.

    • Robert

      Definitely agree on Rondo not getting the ball enough as the Celts transition to offense. He's a ball-handling, passing magician: give him the damn ball and let him run the show.

  • High Rollers

    P. S. Great statistology, DeGama! One of the best things I've read all day.

    • http://twitter.com/Donnie_Peters @Donnie_Peters

      I agree. And I'm sure the Celtics have and know all of these stats plus many more. Now they just need to fix things.

  • http://letdld.blogspot.com/2013/05/need-for-speed.html need for speed

    Really good post, thanks for all of that, provide useful info

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