-Chris Denari, Indiana Pacers play-by-play man, two nights ago.
I’m paraphrasing that quote, but this myth that offensive shortcomings have brought the Celtics their losing record has pervaded pretty much all levels of sports commentary. Not hard to see why: Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are posting their worst shooting numbers in Boston, the bench lacks firepower per the usual, and as the Pacers announcer above pointed out, the team does not score many points.
But it’s wrong! It’s completely wrong. This team has been doing on offense pretty much what every other Celtics team in recent memory has done. The offense isn’t the problem.
The Celtics rank 12th in the league right now in offensive efficiency. Last year they were 13th at season’s end. The season before that? 13th. The decline in Garnett and Pierce’s shooting has been pretty much compensated for by the improvements in Rajon Rondo’s and Ray Allen’s, along with the sizable upgrade from Glen Davis to Brandon Bass.
Yes, their offensive efficiency is down overall from last year’s, but offense is down everywhere. It’s a shortened season. The Celtics are down in proportion to the rest of this exhausted, out-of-shape league. If they currently were posting the same efficiency they finished with last year, they’d have the seventh-best offense in the league, which would be absurd. As it is, they’ve scored more efficiently so far than the Pacers, the Mavericks, and the Lakers.
You’re a thinking person, so you know the reason the Celtics don’t score a ton of points: they run at the league’s slowest pace.
89.5 possessions per game, making them the slowest team of the Garnett era by about three whole possessions. The pace presents its own problem, as Ryan gently pointed out a few days ago. The Celtics are actually the league’s second-most efficient team when they play fast, but they almost never do. Several players on the team probably just don’t have the energy to run breaks every other possession, so things are not likely to speed up.
But no, the Celtics are not 4-7 because they’re not scoring enough. They’re 4-7 because they need a top-five defense to support their average offense, and their defensive efficiency is 18th in the league. That’s…two spots behind Toronto.
Last year the Celtics allowed the third-lowest FG percentage at the rim, and the fifth-lowest attempts. Now they’re nineteenth in FG percentage at the rim, while allowing more attempts. They’ve fallen from third in opponent true shooting percentage last year to 13th this year. Those defensive numbers would be sustainable on a team with a great offense (the Clippers, for example, would be running away with the West if they could defend like the Celtics do now).
But the Celtics offense does not come with room for improvement, beyond what all teams will show as they shake off their lockout rust. The offense is nestled comfortably in the league’s upper-middle third. The defense is what needs the attention.
One positive sign: the Celtics’ efficiency differential is in the positive (.79). That means the number of points they’ve scored per 100 possessions is higher than the number they’ve given up. That doesn’t necessarily equate to a winning record, but it implies a better record than the one they have: by efficiency differential, Boston should be 7th in the East instead of tied for ninth. Of course, every silver lining has a dark cloud: the Celtics have also had the 5th-easiest schedule in the entire league so far.
Most numbers courtesy of Hoopdata.