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)
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