Basketball writers give much thrift to Dean Oliver’s pioneering 2002 book Basketball On Paper. And rightfully so. It sorts through reams of data, provides quantitative analysis of basketball and includes many appealingly-formatted tables, some of which I understand. The book still exerts great influence on the way we evaluate teams and players.
One of the most frequently quoted parts of Oliver’s book is the section detailing the four factors: his summary of what most accurately determines wins and losses in basketball.
For the uninitiated, these four factors are: Effective Field Goal Percentage, Offensive Rebounding Rate, Turnover Rate and Free Throw Rate.
The Celtics rank as following based on these four factors: really good, awful, awful and mediocre. Based on this alone, you could make a compelling case Boston is in trouble this season. If you used stats instead of adjectives, you could make an even stronger case.
But for our purposes, what interests me is not what leads to success in basketball, broadly speaking, but what leads to success for this particular Celtics team. They may not be the same thing. That seems possible given this team’s serial aversion to offensive rebounds and esoteric point guard play.
So, I’m going to cast aside intellectual rigor and suggest four revised factors to assess this Celtics team. These ideas are 1) a work in progress 2) based on a single month of games and 3) corrupted by the fact that Paul Pierce has been a shell of himself for much of it. Thusly, I welcome your refinements and mockery in the comments section.
Here’s my mongrel version of the Four Factors Of Basketball Success for the 2011-12 Celtics:
1. Rondo’s free throw attempts >6
Rajon Rondo is currently averaging 5.4 free throw attempts per game, which is a career high and well above the 3.5 he managed in 2009-10. His usage rate (23.03) and PER (20.62) are also at career high levels so far this season. With Doc Rivers turning over more of the offensive load to him, it’s crucial Rondo’s efficiency remains high and that only happens if he attacks the basket.
We all know that if Rondo is consistently breaking down the defense, the offense opens up for his teammates. If he’s not doing that, we often get games like the loss to Phoenix last Friday night. But as a predictive measure, his free throw attempts seem more telling for this team than his steals, rebounds, point totals and maybe even his assists. If he’s getting to the line, good things are happening for the Boston offense. One way or another.
Six free throw attempts per game or more, then. That’s factor #1.
2. Ray Allen’s made three pointers – 4 or more
Of course, if Rondo’s doing too much scoring it can mean that Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett are either being checked or aren’t assertive enough. It seems like the perfect outcome of the Boston halfcourt offense (and often the transition attack as well) is Allen splashing down a three-ball. Of course, Allen rarely gets open without certain things happening. These usually include a series of screens to free him up off a baseline curl, Rondo or Pierce penetrating and forcing the defense to shift out of position, snappy ball movement or him eluding a defender in transition. It takes a village, more often than not.
Allen is currently averaging 2.6 three-pointers made per game. His long-range shooting remains one of Boston’s deadliest weapons and teams do everything they can to shut it down. If they can’t, the Celtics are probably in good shape. I want four threes per game out of Ray. That’s factor #2.
3. Non-Bass Bench Player Scoring > 10 points
It’s somewhat unthinking to use raw PPG scoring numbers but it’s also in the spirit of this exercise.
By now, we know what Bass is going to bring, and we have no complaints about it. We celebrate his ball-hogging ways with the same vigor we damned Glen Davis’ last season. But even with Bass’ production, there’s still a gap on this bench, one Danny Ainge tried to fill with Jeff Green and David West.
Somebody needs to fill that gap with 10+ points each night.
It can be Marquis Daniels or Mickael Pietrus. It can be a different guy every game. But the C’s have already seen too many nights worth of single-digit scoring from guys with sub-10 PERs. That ain’t, as Mark Jackson might say, gonna get it done.
10+ points a game. One guy not named Bass. That’s factor #3.
4. Pierce/Wilcox > 20 DRR
Here, I completely cede the floor to the original four factors (as though that needs stating). The Celtics’ defensive rebounding mediocrity (16th in the league) messes up their defense and their offense.
Garnett has slipped as a rebounder this year. He’s down to a 22.6 DRR after a Boston-high 28.7 last year. Bass (20.3) and Jermaine O’Neal (21.5) are both competent but with no other big on the court, the Celtics are at a bit of a loss. They seem to need a fourth guy who can put up a 20+ DRR.
Chris Wilcox has one of those lingering injuries guys get in Boston where you start wondering if he’s going to lose most of the year to a minor ailment. Otherwise, he’d be a good candidate (he’s topped a 20 DRR the last three years). Pierce has hit 20 two of the last four games, and that may be the only immediate solution, failing a roster shakeup. He’s averaging a 16 DRR so far this year. Can he get to 20 most nights? That’s unlikely perhaps, but it’s what the Celtics need. Pierce or Wilcox – that’s factor #4.
So, that’s the end of this thought exercise. It’s meant more to be representative than comprehensive, so there are other things you could sub in for the above. But if I told you before a game that Rondo was going to get to the line 8 times, Allen would hit 5 three-pointers, Daniels would score a dozen points and Pierce would rebound like a center, you’d probably feel pretty good about the C’s prospects on that night.