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The Disturbing Decline of the Celtics Offense

It’s been a slow disturbing decline for the Celtics’ offense over the past four seasons. With a core of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and a young Rajon Rondo at the helm, the C’s rode those horses to a top-10 NBA offense back in their championship 2007-08 season. After the team peaked with a high-octane top-6 offense the next year, it’s been a bit of a freefall as you can see in the chart below, as the team’s core offensive pieces aged and despite Danny Ainge’s best efforts, there were very few effective reinforcements during each subsequent offseasons for a variety of reasons.

Points per 100 possessions for Celtics offense:
2007-08: 110.2 (10th)
2008-09: 110.5 (6th)
2009-10: 107.7 (15th)
2010-11: 106.2 (18th)
2011-12: 100.1 (26th)

The bottoming out of the offense last year concluded with the C’s mustering just two points over the final 5:12 against the Miami Heat in Game 7, an almost fitting end for a team that struggled mightily with scoring droughts all year long. The offensive woes were as understandable as they were frustrating for the C’s over those past couple years however.

Countless injuries (Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox) combined with underwhelming talent (Mickael Pietrus was the team’s leading scorer off the bench averaging 6.9 points per game in 2011-12) led to a burden on the team’s aging core that was incapable of handling on a night in, night out basis. Amazingly, the team fought its way to a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals despite a bottom of the barrel offense, largely on the back of Rajon Rondo’s increased aggression but there was no doubt work had to be done this offseason to correct the team’s offensive deterioration.

In fact, when you look at the vast majority of Boston’s moves this offseason, that’s exactly the goal Ainge probably had as his first priority. Instead of bringing in defensive-minded players with a “limited” to put it nicely, offensive upside (Marquis Daniels, Sasha Pavlovic, Jermaine O’Neal, Greg Steimsma, Pietrus are just a few examples), Ainge loaded up on players that had offense as their main asset. Jason Terry, Leandro Barbosa, Jeff Green, Chris Wilcox, Brandon Bass were all signings in which the scoring and/or spacing the player would bring the C’s was their biggest weapon. Even more defensive-minded players brought in (Courtney Lee) were thought of being consistent two-way players.

On the surface, this made a lot of sense for Ainge. In giving the team’s core some support for the scoring load, it would not only improve the team’s offensive efficiency but take the onus off the likes of Pierce, Garnett and even Rondo, who still has not shown he can be counted on for significant scoring on a nightly basis when the team needs it. 

For the first month of the season, Ainge’s plan was looking good, at least on the offensive end. The C’s were middling around the .500 mark record-wise, but sported an improved top-10 offensive rating. The defense was going through a number of somewhat expected growing pains (21st in defensive efficiency) over this same month, but that had to be expected to a degree with the variety of new personnel at all positions. Schemes needed to be learned, trust needed to be developed between teammates, and a commitment needed to be shown to playing “Celtics defense.”

The offense over the month of November was probably exactly how Ainge envisioned it, productivity-wise. The C’s had cut down remarkably on their turnovers (8th in league rate), were shooting a high percentage from the field and the arc, and also got to the line a top-10 league rate. The offensive rebounding problem remained, as it always will with Doc Rivers at the helm, but the C’s were showing signs of having enough firepower offensively to keep pace with their high-octane opponents on “down” defensive nights, a luxury they simply did not have in past years.

Yet, that month of offensive production was short-lived, as for the past six weeks, the C’s offense has reversed course, falling the pattern of the team’s last four seasons…into an offensive free fall.

How bad has it become? Since November 28th, (17 games) the Celtics have sported the second worst offensive efficiency (97 points per 100 possessions) in the entire NBA, second to just the Washington Wizards. That means they’ve been scoring at a worse rate than offensive juggernauts such as the Cleveland Cavaliers, New Orleans Hornets, and the Charlotte Bobcats for more than half the season now. The exact trend that Ainge has tried to thwart this offseason, has now become a reality for this C’s team, as they have finally hit the rock bottom they seemed destined for the last few seasons.

So where exactly has it gone all wrong for Boston’s offense during this debilitating slump? Pretty much everywhere you look as a matter of fact. Let’s take a closer look at the gruesome numbers for the past month of action, along with the team’s league rankings over that stretch:

PPG: 92.3 (26th)
FG %: 44.7 (16th)
3pt FG %: 33.3 (23rd)

Four Factors
eFG %: 48.3 (18)
TOV %: 15.6 (20)
O REB %: 20.3 (30)
FT RATE: .242 (21)

Using these numbers, it’s safe to say the Celtics have been doing nothing well on the offensive end since the month of November. They haven’t shoot well, they are turning the ball over again (like they always have), they aren’t getting to the free throw line, and they continue not to grab second chance opportunities. They aren’t even doing any of these critical offensive objectives at a league-average rate. Put it all together, and you get the second-worst offense in the league for the past six weeks. (For the entire season, they have dropped to 23rd in offensive efficiency).

Now that the numbers are out there, it’s probably important to address the why question. What is causing such a dismal performance on the offensive end? As you might imagine there are a variety of factors. Here are a few of the more glaring ones:

1) An over-usage of Paul Pierce. I covered this one yesterday

2) Jason Collins in the starting lineup. When you put one of the league’s worst offensive players in the starting lineup and give him 15-20 minutes per night, the offense will suffer as the numbers above show.

3) Jason Terry and Brandon Bass are in shooting slumps. Each guy brings very little to nothing on the defensive end, so if they aren’t hitting their shots, they aren’t very useful out on the floor to the C’s.

Terry’s November: 52% FG, 42% 3pt FG. December: 37% FG, 35% 3pt FG
Bass in November: 9.5 PPG, Bass in December: 6.1 PPG

4) Jeff Green is posting the same kind of inefficient shooting numbers he has had for his whole career…(Slams head against desk)

5) Offensive minded players (Leandro Barbosa, Chris Wilcox) have fallen out of the rotation and/or got hurt.

6) An unhealthy dependence on jump shooting, which has diminished valuable trips to the charity stripe.

These are just a few of the many recurring issues. Many of these are fixable. Certain players undoubtedly will breaking out of slumps. Others will be benched (Collins), if Ainge is serious about wanting to see the team’s old starting five as he mentioned yesterday on WEEI. Boston’s offense may not be as good as the first month showed, but it’s certainly not this bad. Or it shouldn’t be anyway, not with the talent this team has.

Some of this has to go on Doc Rivers though, to find ways or plays to get this team back on track on the offensive end. Unlike past years, this team does not have a top-5 defense to lean on when the scoring droughts hit. The defense has been a lot better of this recent stretch (11th in defensive rating since the end of November) but as we all can see, it’s not all the way there yet. Ainge anticipated there would be a drop off on that end and tried to compensate for it, but the offensive parts simply aren’t clicking yet.

Until they start to, the losing will continue. And unlike in November, the losing won’t be because of the defense this time.

Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats and Basketball-Reference.com

  • That sixth point is extremely important: "An unhealthy dependence on jump shooting." With pick-and-pop players like KG and Brandon Bass, it is no surprise that the Celtics are very proficient at hitting the midrange jumper. Per HoopData, they lead the league, shooting 44.8% from 16-23 feet this year. They also lead the league with 73.1% of those shots being assisted, suggesting that, as expected, most of those shots are coming off of pick-and-pop plays. However, it is not necessarily a good thing to be proficient from that range because it leads to falling in love with the least efficient shot in basketball: the long two. The Celtics are fifth in the league in attempts per game from that range, while ranking 23rd in shot attempts at the rim and 28th in three-point attempts, those being the two most efficient shots on the court. This lack of high-efficiency attempts has caused the Celtics to rank 23rd in expected effective FG% (which essentially measures the team's expected points produced if they were to shoot a league-average percentage from each area of the court — based on the number of attempts each team generates in each specific area). So while it may seem that the Celtics' problem is poor shooting, they have actually shot well: they are 7th in the league in offensive ratio, which measures the ratio of a team's actual effective FG% to its expected effective FG%. So they have shot well considering where their shots are coming from.

    The question is obviously how to fix this. Aside from getting another big man, who will generate efficient shots from post-ups and put-backs, the Celtics will have to turn somewhat to what every commentator has beaten to death so far (if you watched the Christmas Day broadcast, Magic Johnson poisoned, suffocated, and pummeled it to death): Rondo must attack more and look to score. The Celtics rarely use the pick-and-roll, which makes sense considering Rondo doesn't have the jump shot to make the defense come out and leave the lane open (especially because the opposing guard can go under the screen confidently). Instead, they rely almost exclusively on the pick-and-pop using the exceptional shooting touch of KG and the frustrating but solid shooting touch of Brandon Bass to draw the defense out and open the lane for Rondo. However, most defenses are relatively willing to give up a midrange jumper so they just show the big man on Rondo and then often try to trap. Rondo often throws a slick behind-the-back pass to the screener for the midrange shot. For the Celtics to generate better shots, three things could happen:
    1. Rondo will have to become more comfortable attacking the big man quickly off of the screen.
    2. Avery Bradley will continue to develop as a baseline cutter, allowing Rondo to come off the screen, take a dribble and flip it to Bradley under the basket as they did early against Memphis.
    3. Jeff Green could be used more as the screener in the pick-and-pop, and if he can make defenses respect the jumper, he is skilled and athletic enough to shot-fake and attack the closeout hard when Rondo passes the ball to him.

    • Phil

      Good post. What I gather from that is that the team needs to schematically change a lot of what they do to get that high level offense. They don't have the overall talent to shoot long twos all day and finish in the top half of the league anymore.

      They're just not good enough to eschew 3s, attacking the basket and offensive rebounds.

      That change has to start with Rondo, but I'm not sure how much you can really do with the players on the roster. AB's cutting game will help, but I expect less than nothing from Green this year (or any year.) Terry's game is jump shooting, just like almost everyone else on the team. They're lacking in 3pt bombers and inside guys. Green obviously has to be involved in any vastly improved offense, but I'm referring to the mythical Jeff Green that exists in Ainge's head, not the real one that plays on the Cs.

      Also, thanks for making my posts look shorter :)

    • hydrofluoric

      Agreed with all of that novel, except that Rondo's midrange jumper is elite this season. No excuses for no rolls now.

      More painted area attempts would be fantastic, but the Celtics are undersized and under-athletic. Paul Pierce got blocked and stripped horribly in the paint against Memphis and… well, we all saw that clip of Brandon Bass fumbling in the paint, too. Rondo is our only consistently good penetration option (except, in some bizarre way, Courtney Lee…)

      • I wish I had access to Synergy Sports to get a more accurate read on it, but you're right, Rondo is shooting 51% from 16-23 feet. However, he is assisted on almost twice as many of those as are other top point guards (Kyrie, CP3, Tony Parker, etc.), suggesting that many of those jumpers are not coming out of pick-and-pop situations, at least relative to a pick-and-roll master like CP3.

  • Phil

    Yep… *sadly nodding.

    The one ray of hope that I take from this is that the offense this year was playing at its best level while they were still running the same KG at the 5 lineups from last year, and it was the defense that forced the switch that's turned them into the Wizards. Once they go back to KG at the 5 and Collins… changing light bulbs in the locker room? the offense should rebound to a (borderline) mediocre level. The hope then is that Avery can save the defense, and we're back where we started as a ~5 seed hoping for something to happen to give us a lift.

    As far as bumping the offense into the top 10 to make the team a true contender, I've got nothing. Maybe get Danny Ainge the GM job somewhere so he trades the team's best player for Jeff Green?

    • hydrofluoric

      Danny – in case you're reading this and are interested in becoming the Cavs' GM, here's a hot tip: I'll betcha Kyrie Irving and Jeff Green would make a phenomenal duo… and the league doesn't need big men anymore, Anderson Varejao is expendable.

  • new year 2013

    it is 1986-2007 all over again …
    no hope ,no PO ,no banners

  • nfrench88

    still not sure why barbosa is outta the line up. hes given us so many sparks

  • elroz

    Well, when you have Terry and Barbosa and Green – all they do is get in each others way: they all need touches, they are all about offense – but there is nobody to play D and rebound. You fill the team up with players that score, and now there is no role players, no defenders, no rebounders. Having Bass, Green, Terry on the floor means little D and little rebounding…instead, you got 3 guys that don't get enough touches.

  • Anthony

    Two other points that were missed is Rondo declining assists numbers the past few weeks and Celts overall poor defense. Throughout the KG era, the defense leads to offense, but this year's team can't stop anyone.

  • Ge0gre

    You know what's disturbing…. The number of times per day I check Celtics websites in expectation of seeing a headline that reads, "Ainge has just made an upgrade".
    Hasn't happened yet, but I have to keep hope alive.

  • Switcharoo

    Well now that we are laying on our backs at the bottom the only thing to do is stand up; that or grab a shovel I guess. I believe there is at least 3 maybe 4 players and a coach that refuse the second option.
    I gotta say the trade deadline should be exciting if not at least interesting. If I was anybody but 5,9,34,or 0 I would be packing my bags. And for Gods sakes put Collins back on Gatorade duty!