One of the more surprising aspects of this season’s Celtics team has been how far the gap has closed between the team’s offensive and defensive efficiencies. During the garnett-era, the actual numbers have been all over the map, but the overall gap between the two has been roughly 7 points per 100 possessions. In other words, it hasn’t really mattered how good the Celtics offense or defense was compared to the rest of the league. The Celtics still saw sustained success as long as they scored on average 7 points more than their opponent per 100 possessions. This year, the gap is 0.03.
This isn’t surprising given the fact that the Celtics enter today with a 9-8 record and sitting a comfortable fourth in the divisional standings. A slightly over .500 team would on average score slightly more points than they give up. A big reason for this discrepancy is the drastic change in defensive efficiency from past seasons in the Garnett-era. I think every writer on this site has at the very least mentioned the Celtics diminishing capacity on defense in the grades of a face-palming loss. While the defense is definitely a problem, it is unfortunately not the only problem the Celtics have.
It would be really nice and clean if offense and defense were this sort of mystical inverse proportion where a team could automatically become more efficient on offense if they tightened up their defensive rotations. Not the case. The Celtics can be a really bad defensive team and a really bad offensive team, or in the case of this season, an eh offensive team and an eh defensive team.
Fixing the defense is going to be a long process. We know that now because the familiar excuses aren’t even plausible anymore. Last season, the Celtics could point to myriad reasons for their shortcomings. No full training camp. No off days for practice. Too many back-to-backs. Injuries. This season is entirely different. The Celtics have had a full training camp, are about to play their second game in five nights, and are supposedly younger and deeper than they have been in years. The Celtics can only hope to fix their problems defending the ball through attrition. Doc Rivers needs to wear away his team’s bad habits of over-helping, under crashing, and not adequately contesting three point shooters until the number of points the Celtics allow per 100 possessions goes down to where were used to for a Garnett-anchored team.
That’s a long term
In the short term, if there is one cog in the Celtics offensive machine that could use a little oiling it’s Brandon Bass. Last season, the Bass/Rondo pick-and-roll was not only intrinsic to the Celtics success but also one of the main reasons why retaining Bass was a top priority for Danny Ainge this past offseason. Rondo and Bass play really well together because of Rondo’s ability to completely suck defenses in only to kick it out to the open man. When the Celtics have guys like Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, and Courtney Lee on the floor it’s easy to see why the open guy is often Bass.
Last season, Bass shot 48% from the field. That number is down to 44% this season. Anecdotally, there are many reasons for this. Bass tends to not catch balls cleanly, can make poor decisions, hesitates. By the numbers, however, Bass is shooting the ball as well as he did last season in all but one area of the floor. From 3-9 feet (according to HoopData). Historically, Bass hasn’t exactly been great from this area but so far this season he’s down to a putrid 18%. With Bass being so effective from the mid-range and at the rim, it’s conceivable that Bass has trouble in this area because the floor has shrunk and his lack of height is exposed. If this be the case than Bass needs to be a better decision maker when presented with these types of shot opportunities. He showed some mid-game growth in Portland when after getting an offensive rebound and then his shot blocked on the ensuring put-back attempt, he kicked the ball out to the perimeter when he secured a second offensive rebound later in the game. If Bass finds himself with the ball between 3-9 feet, he should probably look elsewhere. The last thing I want for Bass to do is over-think. He seems to play his best basketball when he’s catch-and-shooting from 12+ feet, or he’s powering a ball up to the rim for a two-handed slam. So, in order to really attempt to rectify this issue, the Celtics should avoid offensive sets where Bass finds himself in that Bermuda Triangle of 18%.
For the most part, the Celtics do this with Bass. This also may seem nit-picky and small but as I mentioned before, Bass is going to get touches on a team with this many offensive threats and the more the Celtics can maximize the effectiveness of those possessions, the more success they’ll likely to have.
The Celtics have also had a problem with offensive execution this season. If the Celtics flub an execution and Bass isn’t in the right position or mishandles a pass, it usually results in an end-of-the-shot-clock heave or a low percentage shot from a player who doesn’t mind taking any shot (i.e. Paul Pierce).
There are a lot of chicken-and-egg situations going on here. Does Bass wind up in his not so sweet spot because of poor offensive execution or because he’s in the wrong spot? Does Bass find opportunities there because he’s being more aggressive on the offensive glass? Is Bass just a victim of a small sample size and his number of attempts from this area will go down once the Celtics secure their offensive identity? Admittedly, I set out to lament the decline of Bass’ mid-range jump shot from last season to now but the numbers don’t bear that out. My memory tells me that Bass is missing a lot of open jumpers but since his FG% from that area hasn’t declined and his attempts haven’t declined significantly, he could just be making the harder shots and missing the easy ones. Whatever the actual answers are to any of these questions, the Celtics starting lineup is really only as good as its weakest link.
Bottom line: Bass needs to play better.