Most Celtics fans, at heart, are optimists.
It’s an understandable affliction. The franchise has 17 championships and 51 playoff appearances. Save for one extended stretch of awfulness during the 90s, the team has largely been successful.
The one downside to all of this success is that we have — in the eyes of the basketball world — an extremely irritating flaw: We believe in our players. Before the season, we can talk ourselves into just about any lineup. Take last year, for instance. After losing the best 3-point shooter in NBA history, I managed to convince myself that adding Jason Terry (a career 38% shooter from 3-point range) and Courtney Lee (who, since his breakout 2009-10 season, has never averaged more than 3.7 3-point attempts per game) would be sufficient to make up the difference from behind the arc. The Celtics had reloaded and were ready for one last run, I reasoned. I was, of course, wrong.
There are times, however, when the excitement non-Celtics fans sneer at is justified. I would argue — with the caution that I’ve been very wrong before — that one player in particular might justify his offseason hype.
Pretend, for a moment, you are an NBA talent evaluator, and you have to recommend one of two players to your general manager.
For the sake of this argument, you have no background information (age, height and weight info, etc.), no scouting video and no contractual worries. In essence, you haven’t really done your basic scouting homework and you are showing up to a meeting with the general manager with just two spreadsheets in front of you. Way to blow it, idiot.
But here’s the comparison.
|PPG||Pts/36||PPP||TTS%||3-pt %||TRB %||Opp PPP|
|Player A (SF)||12.8||16.6||0.99||0.561||39||8.3||0.81|
|Player B (SF)||17.6||16.7||0.89||0.531||36||11.3||0.82|
Looking at those numbers as an evaluator, you would have a mild panic attack, right? Nearly equal defenders on paper. One is a superior scorer in terms of volume and a superior rebounder. One (the slightly superior defender) is a better scorer in terms of efficiency, 3-pointers in particular. Both are very long and athletic. One has a better first step, the other is better at finishing at the rim.
Now say a small amount of background was added. Player A’s spot-up 3-point percentage (the most useful 3-point type for a small forward) was 48.1%, and if you subtract end-of-the-clock heaves, his 3-point percentage overall was 41%. As a spot-up shooter, player B shot 37.7% from 3-point range.
Player A averaged 20 points per game in the playoffs and came on extremely strong at the end of the year, returning from a major life-threatening surgery. He may be more of a question mark, but his positive statistics are also skewed by negative ones that can be easily explained from the beginning of the year.
But, as your memo notes, Player B was more relied-upon by his team. He was inarguably either the first or the second best player on an Eastern Conference finalist. He’s also nearly four years younger.
Now things are a little clearer. Player B is the solid choice, right? And since we have been long devoid of any subtlety (just look at the picture above and the headline), I’ll clarify: Player A is Jeff Green. Player B is Paul George of the Indiana Pacers.
George had a fantastic season last year. He was an All-Star for the first time, a dangerous scorer and a solid defender. He bought into his team’s system and did nice things on the defensive end. His team, full of other offensive and defensive options, went to the Eastern Conference finals and gave the eventual champion Miami Heat everything they could handle.
And through it all, George’s 2013 stats — particularly his pace-adjusted and efficiency stats, the ones which are generally better indicative of a player’s overall performance — were nearly identical to Jeff Green’s.
Let’s be clear: I’m not saying that Jeff Green is Paul George (he’s not) nor that he is as good as Paul George (he’s not) nor that he is better for his team (he’s considerably older, so he’s not). I’m saying that statistically, Green is comparable to George, and since All-Star appearances are generally decided by statistics — and since Green will be shouldering more of a scoring load this season — the potential for an All-Star appearance is there.
Continuing the comparison, both players have concerns in regards to their ball-handling. George’s scoring was more varied, which is significant. Green’s efficiency was largely due to his shot selection. When he was guarded by wings, Green took a ton of shots from the corner. When he was covered by bigs, Green generally cut to the basket for layups and thunderous dunks. Layups and 3-pointers are the most efficient shots, and it’s great that he subsisted on them. Further, it’s great that he improved as the season went on: After January 25, Green averaged 17.7 points per game (showing that his per 36 minutes numbers could carry over into per game stats) and .505 from the field.
But all-stars make things happen in less-than-ideal circumstances. Green’s numbers were solid, but this year he will be asked to do more. Last year, all he needed to do was play a role. In 2013-14, he will be a focal point of the offense, which may force him into roles similar to George’s last season. He may be expected to create more in the post, in isolation and off-the-dribble. Will he be able to take that leap?
Handoffs would be a solid place to start. Last year, devoid of a solid point guard, the Celtics used handoffs to kickstart penetration frequently, and handoff plays seem like a solid backup plan that would allow Green to be effective. Handoffs create mismatches, penetration and open jumpshots, which are already three parts of Green’s game. But in 2012-13, just 3.7% of Green’s offense was created from handoffs. Stevens may took a look at using Green more in handoff situations when isolations and spot-up shots fail.
Post-ups — which made up 12.9% of Green’s offense last season — could also stand for some improvement, but much like the rest of Green’s offense, he also began to hit his stride as the season went on. This was due, in part, to the fact that the Celtics began to integrate Green more as a traditional post-up player. Early in the season, Green seemed rushed, like he had been awarded a big contract in the offseason and he was in a hurry to justify it. But when he settled in to his role, he showed flashes. His face-up game was good when he drove to the basket. He was also able to bully smaller defenders to work close to the hoop and create jumphooks. If Green could add a face-up jumper (he shot 41% from 10-15 feet and 36% from 16-23 feet, poor in both cases), his face-up game would be deadly.
Last year’s team demonstrated a nice way to get Green room to work. Rather than setting up a shooter on the perimeter, which would have allowed Green to kick the ball out if he was doubled, the Celtics would overload the weak side whenever Green got the ball in the post.
Earlier in this game, Green had beaten Jimmy Butler when Butler tried to front him. Now Butler didn’t dare do the same thing after the Celtics ran a screen play which established Green on the low block. After Lee dished to Green, he moved the other way so that the Bulls literally had no one who could help from the perimeter. Chicago’s only help option here would be Joakim Noah, and if Green turned toward the baseline, not even Noah would be able to help. Sets like this were key in improving Green’s post-up efficiency.
We can’t claim that Green will be an All-Star. That’s incredibly presumptive and it ignores the fact that Green struggled when he first arrived in Boston. Anyone can have a hot streak, and although 43 games is a solid sample size for a season, it’s not a great sample size for a career. Becoming an All-Star would be career-changing, both from an impact and an earning-potential perspective. Predicting that kind of improvement is unfair both to Green and to fans.
But it’s not near-sighted to suggest that Green’s second half might be more indicative of his play going forward than his play at the beginning of the season. Green is an incredibly likable player with a nice comeback story, so we are a little bit biased, but given a real offseason (surgery free!) and the security of a solid contract, Green may look a lot more like the February-May version from last season as opposed to the October-January model.
Whether or not that results in an All-Star appearance remains to be seen. But, as always, I am overly optimistic about his prospects.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.
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