Peruse the NBA’s list of the top rebounders and it’ll take a while to find the first Celtic. The league’s 17th-ranked team in rebounding differential (-0.4 per game, coincidentally tied with Doc Rivers’s Clippers) is led on the glass by Jared Sullinger whose 7.0 boards ranks just 41st in the league individually. That leaves the second-year man looking up on the list at the likes of well-traveled small forward Rudy Gay, now of the Kings and never known as a big rebounder, and Shawn Marion, who was a) a member of the Phoenix Suns when Sullinger was seven years old and b) lists among his former teammates the mayor of Gay’s new city (Kevin Johnson of Sacramento). So it should come as little surprise that there are reports swirling that the Celtics are one of a few teams involved in talks to acquire center Omer Asik, who started all 82 games for the Rockets last season but is currently mismatched in Houston’s front court with Dwight Howard.
Known mainly to hardcore basketball aficionados and fantasy players, Asik, 27, was signed surprisingly prior to last season by Houston to a three-year, $25-million contract in a deal that was widely looked upon as designed so that his old team, the Bulls, had little chance of matching it. Even more surprisingly, even now, was the fact that in his first season as a starter and third NBA campaign overall, the native of Turkey led the entire league in total rebounds (956) while placing fifth in average at 11.7 per contest, numbers the Celtics haven’t seen since the days of Robert Parish (996 total rebounds, 12.5 rpg in 1988-89) and met only by a few in franchise history.
Rebounding isn’t Asik’s only skill, evidenced by a career shooting percentage of .533 and a 10.1 points per game average last season for a team that featured gunners like James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons. In fact, last season Asik was one of only seven NBA players to average 10 points and 10 rebounds while shooting over 50% from the floor, and one of two (with Dwight Howard) when the bar is raised to at least 11 rebounds and 52.5%.
The Celtics are currently in first place in the Atlantic Division and tied for fourth-place in an incredibly lackluster Eastern Conference However Danny Ainge has described his team’s roster as a work in progress, and adding a talent like Asik, to a roster that already includes Sullinger, Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley—even at the cost of someone like Jeff Green or Brandon Bass—would be a big step in Ainge’s ultimate goal of creating a winning nucleus.
Celtics with seasons of at least 950 rebounds and 11.0 rebounds per game in a single season
- Bill Russell (12 times)
- Dave Cowens (7 times)
- Paul Silas (3 times)
- Robert Parish (once)
Celtics who shot .500 while averaging 10 points and 10 rebounds in a season
The Celtics had their four-game winning streak snapped last night by the Charlotte Bobcats. Jeff Green was the leading Celtics scorer for the third time this season with 20 points. It also marked that eighth straight contest that no individual Celtic reached 25 points. In fact Green’s 25-point, opening-night outburst against the Raptors is the only time all season a Celtic has scored as many as 25 points in a contest.
How rare is that? No Celtics team dating back to the ABA-NBA merger (and for at least a decade and a half before that) has gone this deep into a season without having a player rack up over 25 in a single game. Only two other teams this season have yet to have someone go over a quarter-century, the Kobe-less Lakers and somewhat surprisingly, the aging and therefore minutes conscious San Antonio Spurs.
The lack of a scoring standout shouldn’t really be a surprise for a team that over the past few summers shed itself of three Hall of Fame players and has been playing the entire schedule thus far without its only true star, Rajon Rondo. Gerald Wallace was once a consistent 30-point threat, but age and injuries have reduced him to a complimentary player on a team full of them. Jared Sullinger has the potential to be a big low post scorer, but he has yet to top 16 points in a professional game. As a Wizard Jordan Crawford showed that he's a pure scorer but one without a conscience, something that surely won't fly in Brad Stevens's system.
Perhaps Green, who showed he’s a capable scorer in March by pouring in 43 against the Heat, can be the go-to guy the green and white need, but in 405 career games he has 73% more games in which he’s scored fewer than 10 points (116) than those in which he scored at least 20 (67).
Here’s when each current member of the Celtics last scored as many as 25 points in an NBA game:
- Jeff Green (25 on October 30, 2013)
- Rajon Rondo (30 on January 18, 2013)
- MarShon Brooks (27 on April 3, 2013)
- Gerald Wallace (25 on December 13, 2012)
- Brandon Bass (27 on May 21, 2012 *playoffs)
- Avery Bradley (28 on April 20, 2012)
- Kris Humphries (29 on April 16, 2012)
- Courtney Lee (25 on April 8, 2012)
- Jordan Crawford (39 on March 30, 2011)
- Keith Bogans (27 on March 19, 2005)
- Vitor Favarani (not yet)
- Kelly Olynyk (not yet)
- Phil Pressey (not yet)
- Jared Sullinger (not yet)
As part of his keynote address at the Cynopsis Sports Business Summit yesterday in New York, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was boasting about how his league bounced back from a potentially catastrophic work stoppage by playing to 97% of capacity last year, the highest in the four major sports. Of the league’s 30 teams, more than half (16) played to at least 100% of their capacity, eight played over capacity (the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks led the way at 110.4%, thanks mainly to standing room at the United Center) while 26 played with at least 90% of the arena’s seats full.
The NHL was the leader for the 2012-13 season, but at nearly 95 percent full the NFL wasn’t far behind. The NBA placed third at just over 90%, and using data from the completed 2012 season, major league baseball, with it’s vast inventory, came in last among the Big Four at 71.4%.
The raw data enables us to take a closer look at the attendance figures, not only by league and team, but by region, and more specifically, metropolitan area, and gives us a metric by which we can measure fans rabidity. Given the success of the Bruins, Celtics, Patriots and Red Sox at the gate (granted the Red Sox “sellout streak” has been widely criticized), plus the well-known passion that Boston fans have for their teams, this area was sure to place high on the list, making it perfect fodder for this space.
To do a study like this fairly there have to be some ground rules in effect. Boston for example is a typical four-team, four-league town (apologies to the MLS). But limiting it to just regions where there’s four league participation would have eliminated places such as St. Louis, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Atlanta and a little place known as Los Angeles. So instead, to qualify, the bar the city had to reach was three or four teams in at least three leagues (the Lakers and Clippers both qualify for LA).
Another problem facing this look was the onus put on a region to support either poor performing, or niche teams, when they have more popular and successful teams to gravitate to. To eliminate any bias against cities that have multiple teams in each league—and with apologies to the Mets, White Sox, Jets, Islanders, Devils, Angels, Ducks, A’s and Raiders—we’ll look only at the most popular team in the region in each league (unless they fall into the above category).
That said, we summed up all of the attendance and approximate capacity figures, and calculated the rate of approximate capacity by region from the most recent completed seasons for each league.
Not only did Boston come out on top, it was the only area in which attendance exceeded capacity in the 2012 and 2012-13 seasons.
The NBA announced the 2013-14 schedule yesterday, setting the stage for one of the most greatly anticipated basketball returns to Boston in recent times. Celtics, fans, management and holdover players alike will be circling January 26 on their calendars, in preparation for the Brooklyn Nets’ first trip to the TD Garden. The last two members of the now-legendary “Big Three,” Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, will be making an emotional pilgrimage to the sight of some of the greatest moments in their illustrious and nearly certainly Hall of Fame careers.
It will be an especially poignant evening for Pierce who, whose impact on the Celtics was discussed in more detail here . One of the most prolific players in the annals of Celtics lore, Pierce has never appeared on Boston’s parque in any other professional uniform, a trait quite commonplace among the franchise’s major stars over the years. In fact, given the team’s propensity to have their greats remain with the team until retirement (Larry Bird, John Havlicek, Tommy Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones, Kevin McHale, Bill Russell) returns of even one major contributor (let alone two) to play against the Celtics at the Garden have been rare.
Of the 27 Celtics enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as players, 17 finished their playing days wearing the green and white (and Bob Cousy didn’t play in Boston after coming out of retirement) while a few others (Gary Payton, Dominique Wilkins, Bob McAdoo) spent very little time with Boston.
Here’s how some notable ex-Celtics players fared in their return to the Garden wearing a strange uniform.
•December 15, 1956 Ed Macauley, traded for the rights to Bill Russell, scored 19 points for the Hawks.
•November 10, 1976 Don Chaney manages just six points for the Lakers, one year after bolting Boston for San Antonio of the ABA.
•November 10, 1982 Coming out of retirement for the Bucks, Dave Cowens nearly double-doubles with 10 points and nine boards.
•November 2, 1983 Tiny Archibald gets a standing ovation in pregame introductions and proceeds to score seven points for the Bucks on 3 of 5 shooting.
• February 28, 1986 Traded the season before, it took awhile for Cedric Maxwell to make his way back to Boston. He responded with typical hustle, racking up six points, five rebounds two assists and two steals as a Clipper.
• February 4, 1990 While his shooting wasn’t that sharp (1 for 7, 2 points), Kings guard Danny Ainge turned to distributing the ball, notching 10 assists.
• November 23, 1994 Starting alongside Alonzo Mourning for Charlotte, the 41-year old Robert Parish scored eight points with four rebounds and a block in 22 minutes.
•February 5, 1999 Dee Brown’s 3 of 13 shooting for seven points with just three boards, two assists and two steals against the C’s could be a sign of why a promising player was traded to the Raptors.
•December 17, 2003 Dallas Mavericks forward Antoine Walker misses all six of his attempts from beyond the arc en route to 3-14 shooting. He does grab seven rebounds and dish out eight assists.
• January 16, 2012 Sent to Oklahoma City for Jeff Green, Kendrick Perkins occupies space as usual to the tune of seven points, five rebounds and a block.
• January 27, 2013 The first member of the "Big Three" to depart, Ray Allen torches his old mates for 21 points despite an uncharacteristically poor 2-8 shooting night from three-point range.
When the 2013-14 NBA season begins on October 29, new Celtics head coach Brad Stevens will be one week past his 37th birthday and, barring another hire, will be the youngest current coach in the NBA. The three headlines surrounding his hire are a) his six-year contract, giving he and the Celtics a sense of security that shows that they’re in the fight together for the long haul; b) the question of how Stevens will mesh with the mercurial Rajon Rondo and c) Stevens’ young age and lack of NBA expericence.
The six-year commitment sets the stage for a long and hopefully successful career with the potential for Stevens to join some of the greats of the game. Looking at the NBA’s alltime greatest coaches, many of them started their pro coaching careers in their 30’s. Perhaps the greatest coach of alltime, started in his 20’s (see below). Larry Brown, Lenny Wilkens (both 32), George Karl (33), Gene Shue (35), Don Nelson and Pat Riley (both 36) were all younger than Stevens when they first took control of an NBA squad. Even Stevens’ new boss, Danny Ainge, became a head coach at age 37.
With that as the backdrop, I decided to take a look at the age of other Celtics coaches when they began their NBA careers. What I found is Stevens will be the fifth-youngest coach in team history and the other four weren’t all that bad.
The youngest man ever hired for the Celtics head coaching job was Dave Cowens who was 30 during his only season at the helm, coinciding with with his final playing season on the parque. While Cowens’ team in Boston wasn’t very successful (27-41), he managed two 50-win seasons for the Charlotte Hornets later in his coaching career.
The second-youngest was Bill Russell, the best player in team history who became a player-coach in 1966-67 at the ripe old age of 32. All Russell did was win 66.1% of his regular season games, lead the team to two titles in three seasons before his 36th birthday.
Then there was a 33-year old who already had four-years of BAA/NBA coaching experience under his belt by the time he got to Boston. Arnold Auerbach got his first job in the fledgling BAA after coaching at the U.S. Naval Academy and managed a record of 61 games over .500 prior arriving with the Celtics. Nearly 1,000 victory cigars later, Red had transformed the Celtics into the greatest dynasty the NBA has ever seen with nine titles in his final 10 years on the bench, while revolutionizing virtually every aspect of professional basketball.
And finally there was Tom Heinsohn, who as a player, coach, broadcaster and unabashed cheerleader, might be the most visible Celtic of alltime. The 1972-73 NBA Coach of the Year gets plenty of Tommy Points for five 50-win seasons, a lifetime winning percentage of .619 in the regular season, .588 in the playoffs and two NBA titles, all starting at age 35.
Here's how old the Celtics other coaches were during their first Boston season:
39: Satch Sanders
42: Chris Ford
43: Doc Rivers
44: John Russell
45: M.L. Carr, Bill Fitch, Rick Pitino
46: Jimmy Rodgers
47: Alvin Julian
48: Jim O’Brien
49: Jim Carroll
51: K.C. Jones
At one point during last night’s broadcast of the NBA Draft, ESPN’s Bill Simmons said that watching Kentucky center (and Everett, MA’s own) Nerlens Noel drop out of the Top 5 was one of the most stunning things he had ever witnessed in the NBA Draft. For me, however, the most stunning drop both at the time it occurred and still today was seeing someone else currently making headlines, Paul Pierce, drop all the way to Rick Pitino and the Celtics in the 1998 draft. Marginal players like Michael Olowokandi, Raef LaFrentz (Pierce’s Kansas teammate), Robert Traylor, Jason Williams and Larry Hughes all came off the board while someone who at the time was widely considered the best player in the class waited to hear his name called. But thankfully for the Celtics’ faithful, nearly a third of the league blundered that night, giving Boston a player for the ages at selection no. 10.
Word broke yesterday that on or about July 10, Pierce will traded to the Brooklyn Nets along with Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry for draft picks and a cacophony of Brooklyn's extras. Garnett’s passion and attitude will surely be missed in these parts, but for all of his contributions, he’ll always be remembered first as a Timberwolf. In this deal, the loss of historic proportions for Boston is Pierce. He’s not the first Celtics legend to be traded as Dave Cowens, Jo Jo White and even the 41-year old and coming-out-of-retirement Bob Cousy all were peddled away off before him, but Pierce’s pending departure marks the first time the current face of the franchise is being dealt.
Take a look at the Celtics record book and you’ll see Paul Pierce everywhere, standing shoulder to shoulder with (and in some instances, ahead of) Celtic Green giants. Here's where he ranks in most of the major statistical categories in Boston's storied history:
- Games: John Havlicek (1,270), Robert Parish (1,106), Paul Pierce (1,102)
- Points: Havlicek (26,395), Pierce (24,021)
- Career Scoring Average: Larry Bird (24.3), Pierce (21.8)
- True Shooting Percentage (min 10K points): McHale (.605), Parish (.587), Pierce (.561)
- 3 Pointers: Pierce (1,823)
- Free Throws: Pierce (6,434)
- Assists: Cousy (6,945), Havlicek (6,114), Bird (5,695), Pierce (4,305)
- Blocks (since 1973): Parish (1,703), Kevin McHale (1,690), Bird (755), Pierce (668)
- Steals: Pierce (1,583)
Pierce also owns three of the top 10 scoring seasons in franchise history, six of the top 8 in made free throws, and six of the top 7 in usage percentage which takes into account the percentage of a team’s plays that a player was on the court, and calculated just for the players from the Larry Bird era on. Only Bird (11) averaged 20 or more points in more seasons than Pierce (8, tied with Havlicek) and Pierce is the only Celtic to score 50 points in a game since Bird in 1989.
Looking back on his the league-wide impact, Pierce wasn’t purely a Celtics phenomenon, he's a 10-time All Star, Finals MVP, and four-time member of an All NBA team. With hindsight being 20-20 he’s clearly one of the top two players taken in that 1998 draft, along with the eighth pick, Dirk Nowitzki. In fact, since the day Pierce was drafted only Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant have scored more regular season NBA points, a testament to his tenure of excellence as Celtic and an NBA superstar.
On more piece of truth about The Truth: Once his playing days are done, Pierce's 34 will be proudly displayed with numbers of Russell, Cousy, Bird and the rest of Boston's basketball legends in the Garden's rafters. He certainly earned his spot.
Having already lost Doc Rivers to the Clippers and with the futures of franchise cornerstones Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett very much in question, the Celtics enter tonight's NBA Draft at a crossroads. Barring any late transactions, Danny Ainge will be picking in the unenviable 16th slot, a position that has failed to produce an NBA superstar in nearly three decades since the Jazz took Hall of Fame point guard John Stockton from Gonzaga in 1984. During that time there have been some other quality NBA players selected 16th (Ron Artest, Tony Delk, Hedo Turkoglu) but those men fall under the heading of complementary players, not the face-of-the-franchise player Boston currently needs.
That got me to thinking, with so many great players to suit up in the green and white over the years, who were the best Boston has selected in the entry draft? To do so, I looked to basketball-reference.com’s Win shares rating, which evaluates players based on their contributions to wins, over the expected contributions of any other average player. The stat admittedly has some flaws, as many individual statistics used in it were not kept in the earlier years of the league, necessitating estimates for many players, but from the standpoint of comparing players from different eras, it does a decent job. Taking role of the 442 men the Celtics drafted since 1947, we were able to determine the alltime top 10 players picked. To say the results were unexpected would be a major understatement.
Let’s start off with the aforementioned Billups who amazingly places as the fourth best Celtics pick in terms of career NBA WS. In fact, he ranks 36th alltime in the NBA according to the metric. The leader of the Pistons 2004 title team and Finals MVP that season earned the nickname Mr. Big Shot by repeatedly burying clutch shots throughout his career, was taken third overall by Rick Pitino in 1997. Just 51 games into his rookie year however Billups shipped to the Raptors as part of a package for Kenny Anderson, Popeye Jones and Zan Tabak. Billups along withAntoine Walker ('96), Paul Pierce ('98) and Joe Johnson ('01)—is just one of four All Star players drafted by Boston over the past 25 years.
The greatest Celtic of them all, Bill Russell, wasn’t eligible for the list because he was taken out of the University of San Francisco, not by the Celtics but by the St. Louis Hawks. What was surprising from the list however is one of the two men Boston traded for him, guard Cliff Hagan, made the list as the no. 9 Celtic pick of alltime. Hagan, a 6’4” two-time All America guard from Kentucky was selected in the third round by Boston in 1953 but returned to play for the Wildcats in 1954 (leading them to an undefeated 25-0 season). He then served two years in the military, playing basketball at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland with the Celtics holding his rights the entire time. When St. Louis wouldn’t only accept Ed Macauley in exchange for Russell’s draft rights, Boston sweetened the deal by adding Hagan who went onto become a five-time NBA All Star.
And while seeing Larry Bird atop the list comes as no surprise to anyone, it is of note that with all of the Hall of Famers that played on the parque, it’s current captain Paul Pierce who contributed the second most win shares to the storied franchise. Pierce currently ranks in the top 4 in virtually every significant statistical category for the celtics and ranks second to John Havlicek in total points and second to Larry Bird in points per game.
And that leads us back to Danny Ainge, the man who’ll be at the helm for tonight’s draft charged with rebuilding the storied franchise that took him from BYU with the eighth pick of the second round in 1981. One of the NBA’s first three-point marksmen, Ainge ranks 10th in WS among players the C’s ever drafted.
After a rocky start to the season, the Celtics have clawed themselves solidly back into playoff position, currently sitting at seventh in the Eastern Conference. Standing pat at the trade deadline, the Celtics kept their core of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett together to attempt one more postseason run.
After last year’s gutty effort came up just a game short of the NBA Finals, we’ve seen that the Celtics can’t be totally ruled out of any playoff series. But gutty efforts can only take you so far in the playoffs. As history has proven, NBA basketball is a meritocracy, in which the teams ultimately crowned as champions are the ones that have demonstrated they deserve it during the regular season.
Below, I’ve graphed the seed number of each team to make the NBA Finals since the playoff field expanded to 16 teams in 1984.
Only two teams seeded lower than fourth have even made the Finals—the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets in 1995, led by Hakeem Olajuwon, and the eight-seed New York Knicks in the strike-shortened 1999 season. The vast majority of teams (81 percent) to play for the title have been the best or second best in their respective conferences in the regular season.
This is reflective of the fact that, in general, basketball is just a low variance sport. With 200 possessions—the average length of an NBA game—come 200 chances to score and a reduced role of random chance over that large of a sample. In the midst of March Madness, basketball may not seem like a sport in which things usually play out according to the script, but single-elimination scenarios introduce much more randomness. In addition, seeds mean much less than in the NBA, which has over twice as many games to sort out its postseason ratings of team quality. There’s a reason we don’t see low-seeded NBA teams competing for the title like we do in the NHL, for instance; eventually, true talent levels express themselves more reliably than in most other sports.
Despite how tough they’ve played Miami of late, I just don’t see the Celtics to repeating their near-run to the Finals of last season. It’s possible that they get back to the conference finals, but this team simply doesn’t have the firepower to compete with the Heat in a long series. I don’t take last year’s Miami-Boston series to be representative of what would happen if the two teams played out a best-of-seven series 10 or 100 times—and there’s no reason to believe this Celtics team has made up any ground on the Heat from last year, let alone the rest of the Eastern Conference. It may be quite some time before Boston sees basketball in June again.
On January 27th of this year, Celtics fans across the country watched their favorite team beat the rival Miami Heat in an overtime thriller. Not many people celebrated, however, as the team's star point guard, the future of the franchise, discovered that he had a torn ACL and would be out for the season. Analysts and fans alike wrote the Celtics off for the season. How could this 21-23 team make a playoff run? Would Danny Ainge blow up his team and give up on this season? The team has gone 9-4 since Rondo tore his ACL, putting them at 12-6 without him on the season. To put this into perspective, with Rondo as a starter, the team has gone 18-21. If the win-loss ratio of the team without Rondo is much higher than it is with him, are the Celtics a better team without him?
The idea of a team being better without its "best" player is not a novel idea—Bill Simmons termed it the "Ewing Theory." Before he went down, Rondo was the league-leader in assists and triple-doubles (he still leads the league in both categories). However, does this really mean he is one of the most valuable players in the league? The team with the league-leader in assists per game hasn't won an NBA championship since 1987, when the Lakers accomplished the feat.
But, how can we determine if the team needs Rondo?
First, let's take a look at the team overall and what exactly they have done better without him. The following stats have been pulled from http://www.nbawowy.com: With Rondo on the court, this season the team has averaged 1.011 points per possession. Without him on the court, the team has averaged 1.048. The team averages .5 fewer turnovers per 100 possessions without Rondo than they did with him. When it comes to rebounding, this Celtics team is much better without Rondo, averaging 9.6 offensive rebounds per 100 possessions, 34.6 defensive rebounds per 100 possessions, and 44.2 total rebounds per 100 possessions. With Rondo, the team averaged 8.6, 32.9, and 41.5 in the same categories.
Obviously some key numbers have fallen with Rondo on the sidelines. The team averages 1.6 fewer assists per 100 possessions and 0.9 fewer steals per 100 possessions.
How much do these differences impact the team overall? It's hard to determine whether or not there is a statistically significant difference in the core statistics. The best way to determine whether the team has any significantly different performance is to run a t-test on several players’ plus-minus with and without Rondo as well as the team's plus-minus. The results were very interesting.
But does this really mean that the team is better without Rondo? The sample size is really too small right now to suggest that the team is better. However, is the team playing better right now? Statistically, yes. It seems that the old veterans on the team want to make sure that they do not go down without a fight.
One criticism leveled at Rondo over the past year and a half or so is that he only "tries" during Nationally Televised games. The claim is backed by evidence that the majority of his triple-doubles occur when he plays on national television. I decided to test this theory by compiling data over the past two years and running a t-test using his non-nationally televised stats and his nationally televised stats at the .05 significance level to see if his stats were actually "better" when he played on national television. The results seemed counter-intuitive to what the critics claim.
Although all of his averages are clearly better in nationally televised games, we statistically cannot say that there is a difference in how well he plays. But though the p-values are not technically “statistically significant,” they are low enough to warrant a closer look. Perhaps with more data—more nationally televised games—in the sample, the effect would be more visible.
Last week, my colleague Gary Dzen argued that, given the integral role he plays within the team as a leader and what he means to the history of the franchise, the Celtics should forego shopping Paul Pierce to potential contenders. While I don’t dispute the truth of these points, I think they come as secondary to the future of the team and can still be compatible with Pierce’s desire to “retire as a Celtic.”
The worst place for an NBA franchise to exist is the dreaded middle ground between title contention and the lottery—somewhere around the seven or eight seed, where the Celtics are currently drifting. The NBA is not the place for Cinderella stories. The lowest seeded team ever to win a championship was the sixth-seeded Houston Rockets in 1995—and they still finished the regular season 12 games over .500. The reality of the seven-game series is that it reduces variance; an underdog can get lucky once or twice, but generally not four out of seven times, as the Celtics discovered last year.
The formula for success in the NBA is plain: get a superstar or two and build around them. It’s possible to do this via trade or the free agent market, as Boston successfully did in acquiring Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but more common is getting lucky in the lottery and subsequent draft, landing a Russell Westbrook or a Kyrie Irving. In this case, the Celtics need to start making their own luck. If they choose to keep Pierce, they’re headed for, at best, a second-round exit and forsaking an opportunity to obtain a young piece or a draft pick in the process, delaying the hard day that must inevitably come. It’s certainly not the sentimental choice, but general managers aren’t paid for the depth of their feelings.
And who’s to say Pierce can’t still retire a Celtic? He can play out the remainder of his contract on a contender and conceivably return for one last go-around with Boston, finishing his career the way it should be finished. If Rasheed Wallace can play into 2013, you can’t tell me Paul Pierce doesn’t have three years left in him.
Last May, Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus examined the history of player performance following an ACL tear in the aftermath of Derrick Rose’s injury. The first thing that jumped out at me is how seldom players of Rose and Rondo’s caliber sustained this injury; as Pelton writes, Rose’s was “the first ACL tear suffered by a current All-Star…since Danny Manning in 1995.” I don’t think there’s any causal explanation here, but it highlights the unique challenge Rondo will face in his recovery process.
Pelton’s sample size was small—he found only 22 players dating back to 1999-00 that had “usable pre- and post-injury numbers to compare”—but the general trend in performance was negative. Players’ true shooting percentage dropped 2.6 percent, and their usage rates dropped by .012; in other words, they were both less efficient and less assertive on offense. He also found a negative relationship between a player’s age at the time of ACL tear and the change in his performance upon returning from his injury. At 26, Rondo is by no means old, but players in his age bracket in Pelton’s sample did sustain a hit to their production on average, in some cases as large as 25 percent. Dealing with such a small group, there’s a lot of variance on a case-by-case basis, but overall, this analysis provides some indication that Rondo may not be quite the same when he eventually returns to the court.
It wouldn’t have been much of a surprise to see the Grousbeck family sharing one or two celebratory fist bumps on September 16, the day the NHL officially locked out its players. With one less horse in the local sports derby, they might reasonably have expected an increased level of exposure and revenue for their Celtics. Though the Bruins and Celtics do not play home games on the same nights, people looking for a Boston sports fix would find one of their regular options unavailable, turning their attention to basketball in a year that might otherwise have generated only mediocre levels of buzz.
This line of thinking assumes something about the typical sports fan: that he or she is just that, a generic sports fan, as eager to consume Celtics basketball as Bruins hockey. It also assumes that he or she prioritizes sports above other methods of consuming leisure time and dollars, such that the absence of one sports choice substantially affects the other sports choices in a city.
Though the ramifications of the 2012-13 NHL lockout are as yet unclear, this assumption remains testable due to the existence of a similar natural experiment: the 2004-05 NHL lockout, which knocked out an entire season of hockey. It’s certainly plausible that NBA teams that competed with an NHL team for attention received a boost from its absence from the sports scene for a year. I set out to answer this question, examining whether those NBA teams that occupied the same city as an NHL franchise received a significant increase in fan interest—measured in attendance—from the lack of hockey during the ’04-’05 lockout.
First, I collected the attendance figures for these 16 NBA teams during the lockout year and the two seasons before and after it, calculating them as a percentage of their arenas’ total capacities. Average attendance did indeed rise during the 2004-05 season, but only slightly. And as the plot below shows, there doesn’t seem to be a noticeable difference between the NHL lockout year and the ones preceding and following it; in fact, average NBA attendance rose again in each of the next two years following the lockout.
If the return of the NHL did not once more take some fan support away from the likes of the Celtics and Pistons, the assumption that sports fans substitute nearly perfectly from one sport to another holds less traction. It might be that another reason better explains the patterns in team attendance: fans go to games that interest them, and a team that wins a lot is much more interesting than a team that loses a lot.
To test this hypothesis, I gathered the winning percentages of these 16 teams during each of the five seasons I looked at—resulting in 80 team-years—and compared them to the corresponding attendance figures I recorded previously. To determine if winning percentage was indeed a consistent predictor of attendance (plotted below, with a line of best fit), I ran a simple linear regression of the two variables.
The model revealed a reasonably strong relationship between these two. Winning percentage was a significant predictor of attendance (p-value < 0.001) and explained about a quarter of the variation in attendance (R-squared = 0.26).
This finding corroborates some of the existing literature; the same relationship has been found in baseball, for example. While my analysis is not quite as rigorous—I’m not certain that a strictly linear theory of winning percentage and attendance is entirely accurate—I think I’ve at least confirmed the basic relationship and debunked one general hand-wavy hypothesis in the process.
What most interests me about this is the idea that the fanbases of NBA and NHL franchises are more distinct than one might otherwise think. Perhaps the idea of a generic sports fan—or at least one who regularly attends games across multiple sports—is not as realistic as that of a separation between hockey fans and basketball fans.
It might also be that the generic sports fan is actually a generic entertainment fan and is just as likely to spend his money on a Celtics game as on, say, a night out at the movies. If this is true, the absence of one entertainment option (NHL hockey) would not have as pronounced of an effect on a basketball franchise, given that it still has to compete with so many other entertainment options in the city. Personally, I’m inclined to believe attendance is primarily driven by simple human nature: people will pay for excitement, of which a winning team can supply more, and more consistently.
It’s hard to know where the problems with this year’s Celtics begin and end. Defense has been lacking, the new acquisitions are underperforming, and above it all hangs the specter of age, gradually taking its toll on the tired legs of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Over a third of the way through the season, the Celtics sit below .500, and if they hope to turn things around, they need to identify the sources of their problems now.
A good place to start the evaluation is with their personnel. There is a simple way to measure player value that looks beyond traditional box score statistics: taking the difference between how a team performs with a player on the court and off the court, or plus-minus.
Of itself, this is somewhat of a crude metric, as it doesn’t factor in game situation or who else is on the court. That’s where adjusted plus-minus—the best holistic measure of NBA player performance that advanced stats has to offer—comes in. APM accounts for teammate and opponent strength, as well as the pace at which a team and its opponents play. It’s not meant to be applied to individual games and is most accurate over the course of two or three years, but over the span of a season, APM can give a reasonable estimate of what people want to measure most of all: who helps a team win and lose games, encompassing offense, defense, and even intangibles. (For a more complete discussion of APM, its calculation, and its flaws, click here.)
Jeremias Engelmann compiles and regularizes these numbers for every team in the NBA, and I’ve listed the data for the 2012-13 Celtics below, limiting it to those players who have played 20 percent of the team’s total minutes. For the purposes of interpretation, each number signifies the amount of points per 100 possessions a player adds or takes away relative to a league-average player (APM = 0).
The names at the top are no surprise—one doesn’t need an advanced metric to tell you Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, and Paul Pierce are the Celtics’ three best players. What’s interesting, though, is just how much better Garnett has been than the rest of his team; the gap between him and second-place Rondo is larger than the difference between fourth-place Courtney Lee and tenth-place Leandro Barbosa.
Garnett ranks seventh in the league in APM, above All-NBA types like Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, and Carmelo Anthony. His contributions have come mostly on the defensive end, which becomes apparent every time he’s on the bench; the Celtics have allowed 12 more points per 100 possessions with KG off the court than on it.
The performance of his supporting cast has been…underwhelming. Jeff Green and Brandon Bass, both thought to be potentially key contributors before the season, have been among the least valuable players on the roster.
Things may improve with the return of Avery Bradley, but not sufficiently for the Celtics to make a serious playoff push unless the rest of the team shows quick and drastic improvement. Granted, it was through about this many games last year that people were proclaiming a premature end to the current era of Celtics basketball. We’ll see if this team is capable of a similar late-season turnaround.
The Celtics are in an interesting position heading into Thursday’s NBA draft. It’s arguable that it is time for the team to rebuild; three of their top five players in minutes were over 34 years old, and two of those had contracts that just expired. Going young wouldn’t mean a descent into the depths of Lottery-dom, either. The Celtics have talent on the right side of 30: a star in Rajon Rondo, a potentially elite defender in Avery Bradley, and a solid power forward in Brandon Bass, not to mention promising projects like Greg Stiemsma, E’Twaun Moore, and JaJuan Johnson. Pending the return of Jeff Green and Bass, the Celtics can no longer be considered the elder statesmen of the East.
On the other hand, those old guys are pretty good themselves, leading the team to within one game of the NBA Finals while still playing at a high level. The most likely scenario right now seems to have Garnett returning on a two-year deal and Ray Allen taking his talents to South Beach, and if that’s the case, the Celtics will put off rebuilding for a few years.
Or will they? Here’s the intriguing part: the Celtics have two first-round picks on Thursday. They can trade them for help in the present, or they can stockpile future talent, as they did with Johnson and Moore. Players that the Celtics take in this draft likely won’t yield much return on investment during the remainder of Garnett and Pierce’s tenure in Boston, but they might ease the transition into the Rondo/Bradley era.
Of course, late first-round choices are far from a sure thing, and the Celtics are firmly in the shallow end of the talent pool at 21st and 22nd overall. We decided to investigate exactly how much these picks are worth.
Using the complete draft records from basketball-reference.com for 1985-2006, we calculated the median and mean Win Shares for the NBA careers of players at each draft position, from 1 to 30.
(For additional information on Win Shares, click here. We chose it as an easy and readily available way to compare players across positions. Also, we used 2006 as the cutoff in order to allow for all drafted players in the sample to play out enough seasons to correspond to an average NBA career length, which is just under five seasons.)
Don’t be deceived by the spike at 21 and the sudden plummet at 22—those are simply artifacts of the data set. It’s much more informative to look at those two numbers in conjunction with the two or three levels above and below 21 and 22 to get a better idea of what to expect from those picks—around 12 or 13 Win Shares.
(As a point of reference, here’s a brief list of players and their corresponding career Win Shares: Kevin Garnett, 181.6; Paul Pierce, 131.2; Jermaine O’Neal, 61.3; Rajon Rondo, 40.7; Marquis Daniels, 16.0; Sasha Pavlovic, 6.9.)
To get a more traditional look at performance, we also examined the career average points per game, rebounds per game, and assists per game from the players at each draft position.
On average, it looks like one can expect picks 21 and 22 to produce solid role players, but not much more than that. Remember, these numbers are averages. Rondo and Boris Diaw were picked at 21, but so were Pavel Podkolzin and Dickey Simpkins. The Celtics can’t reasonably expect to get another Rondo, but they also should do better than P-Pod.
If the Celtics can’t get anything better than a dependable bench player in return for one of their picks, they’re better off using it themselves. Alternatively, if they plan to package both of their picks in a trade to move up in the draft, they shouldn’t settle for anything outside of the 10-12 range, according to the Win Shares data. Either way, the draft marks the beginning of what should be an intriguing offseason, and the Celtics are positioned to make good basketball decisions both for the present and the future.
The 2012 Eastern Conference Finals had the feel of a showdown between poker players shoving all their chips to the center of the table. By Game 7, the mind games were over; both were all-in, and the result would be determined solely by whose hand held the stronger cards. One also got the sense that big change was ahead for the loser.
For the Heat, the return of Chris Bosh proved to be the trump card, and Miami’s three of a kind sent Boston’s two pair home for the summer. The effort of this Celtics team is worth savoring for the present, but soon the attention of the front office must turn to the future: what sort of hand will the Celtics be playing with this fall?
The good news is that the Celtics will have loads of cash to work with (salary data from hoopshype.com). Obviously, the two biggest uncertainties are Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, unrestricted free agents who will only return to the Celtics at less than their respective market values. Both will have other suitors, likely on contenders with similar, if not better, chances at a championship in 2013; already, Garnett has been connected with the Spurs, and New York has been mentioned as a possible destination for Allen.
If the Big Three era is truly over, one of the most important lessons to be learned from it is that timing is everything. Provided with the unique opportunity to land two Hall of Fame names in the same offseason, the Celtics didn’t hesitate, and the result was an NBA title, an Eastern Conference championship, and another conference finals appearance.
The other takeaway is that only excellence can realistically contend for a championship. The last time a team seeded lower than fourth made an NBA Finals was the lockout-shortened 1999 season, when the 8th-seeded New York Knicks temporarily filled the power vacuum left by Michael Jordan’s retirement in what was otherwise a weak Eastern Conference. There’s a realistic case to be made that the ’12-‘13 Celtics might no longer be in the conference’s top four, even with the return of Garnett and Allen; Miami and Chicago show no signs of slowing down (assuming a full recovery by Derrick Rose), Indiana is similarly on the rise, and Orlando, New York, and Philadelphia could all conceivably outplay Boston’s aging legs a year from now.
At times, the Celtics’ performance this postseason suggested an ability to sustain excellence into next season, but the road had also never been so clear for them. Derrick Rose’s torn ACL prevented what would likely have been a second-round exit, and Bosh’s presence could easily have swung Games 4 and 5 in Miami’s favor. Given those circumstances, it’s hard to gauge just how deep this current squad could hope to travel next year.
But the comparative lack of transcendent talent on the free agent market this offseason should give Celtics management pause before parting ways with their veteran stars—cap space shouldn’t necessarily trigger a free agent bonanza. The blueprint to avoid: the 2009 Pistons, who inexplicably blew $90 million over five years on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, relegating the model franchise of the East in the 2000s to mediocrity or worse for the foreseeable future.
So please, Mr. Ainge, don’t open your wallet for O.J. Mayo. If you must spend money on a stopgap solution, negotiate one-year deals with Garnett and Allen, if they’re amenable. That leaves the Celtics with much more flexibility heading into the summer of 2013 when Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, among many other talented stars, become unrestricted free agents, the missing pieces of another potential championship-caliber team. It also allows a group that clearly relishes playing together one more chance to do something special—but with a healthy Avery Bradley and Jeff Green contributing much needed support. Maybe they won’t contend for a title next spring, but they’ll make just as passable of an effort as they would with the addition of anyone currently on the market.
Winning does not come without its costs; the Celtics have been over the luxury tax threshold in each season of the Big Three era. The key is to make those dollars count, and this offseason doesn’t provide that opportunity. Let’s give these old goats one last go-round before preparing for the next generation of Celtics basketball.
On the surface, the matchup looks awfully familiar. The Celtics, the league’s best defensive team, meet the explosive Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But with a year elapsed since Miami’s five-game series victory over Boston—and a year’s wear and tear added to the Celtics’ veteran odometers—why should we expect this installment of the rivalry to be any different?
As it stands now, however, history can’t tell us much. Injuries have distorted these teams’ makeups such that games from last season, or even earlier this season, are not particularly instructive for predicting what will unfold between the two teams starting tonight. Still, it’s worth examining the matchups we will see in this series to get a better sense of the task now facing the Celtics.
Miami’s offense all season has been predicated on the pick-and-roll penetration of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. But without the deadly 15-foot jump shot of Chris Bosh, who accounted for 18 percent of the Heat’s scoring during the regular season, the Celtics can follow the Pacers' blueprint and clog the lane against that penetration. The Heat's other candidates to knock down the pick-and-pop jumper: Udonis Haslem (39 percent from midrange) and Joel Anthony (yikes).
For Boston, the primary difficulty will be finding adequate defenders to slow down James and Wade. Paul Pierce has done a so-so job defending James the last two seasons; in 11 games dating back to last year, LeBron has averaged about two points more per 36 minutes with Pierce on the court than when he’s on the bench.
But the biggest concern, with shoulder surgery ending Avery Bradley’s season, is finding anyone to stop Wade. By default, that role falls to a hampered Ray Allen, and if Wade keeps up the level of offensive production he displayed over the last three games against the Pacers (33.0 points per game on 61.5 percent shooting), Allen won’t be in any position to stop him.
Slowing these two down, then, will require a total team defensive effort, which means peripheral defenders coming off their men to help out and double team. Perimeter shooters Mike Miller (45.3 percent from three), James Jones (40.4 percent) and Shane Battier (33.9 percent) will get their open looks, and if they knock them down consistently, the Celtics are in trouble.
Of course, the Celtics do have Rajon Rondo as their trump card, but it’s unclear whether his superiority over Mario Chalmers will be enough to counterbalance the prolific play expected from James and Wade. Michael Wilbon wondered aloud on ESPN whether the Heat’s two “great, great” players could defeat Boston’s four “great” players, and, by at least one metric, it appears they can. A look at Win Shares—a measure of how much a player contributes to his team’s wins over a season, offensively and defensively—on basketball-reference.com shows the Heat’s top four remaining players (not including Bosh) enjoying a 30 to 23.5 advantage in Win Shares, with James and Wade alone contributing 22.2.
Yet, despite that bleak assessment, I still expect the Celtics to take the floor at AmericanAirlines Arena tonight, and the only information we can be sure of is what we see once the ball tips. Far be it from me to dismiss these Celtics, who have warded off the dark embrace of Father Time for another series with stifling defense and timely shooting. Unfortunately, the Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers are not the Heat, and, as sad as it is to admit, the end of an era probably starts tonight.
As ESPN’s John Hollinger artfully illustrated in April, the Celtics’ dramatic turnaround from has-been, elder statesmen of the East to dangerous veterans bent on one last title run can be attributed almost entirely to their defensive resurgence. The introduction of Avery Bradley into the starting lineup and the shift of Kevin Garnett from power forward to center transformed a .500 team into a dark horse Finals pick.
The numbers back up the wisdom of this lineup shift. With what was the team’s most common five-man unit of Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen, the Celtics’ defensive efficiency (number of points allowed per 100 possessions) was 98.9 during the regular season—solidly below the league average of around 102, but still unspectacular, given that the unit was only just above the league average for offensive efficiency (103.4 points per 100 possessions).
But, after Allen’s nagging ankle injury caused Bradley to be inserted into the lineup, the Celtics have been a far more productive team, on both ends of the court. The unit of Rondo, Pierce, Bass, Garnett, and Bradley allowed just 89.8 points per 100 possessions, almost a full six points better than the team’s overall average (95.5). They have also been a superior offensive unit, averaging 109.4 points per 100 possessions, powered by a highly efficient shooting percentage (50.6 percent) from the field.
However, though this lineup is capable of locking down an opposing offense, it remains plagued by the one aspect of defense in which the Celtics have been notably deficient all year: rebounding. This is not a problem unique to this five-man unit, but rather due to the team’s construction; the Celtics' relative lack of size in the frontcourt makes them susceptible to getting pounded on the offensive glass, an issue that has increasingly come to light this postseason.
Friday’s Game 4 against the 76ers was particularly representative of this phenomenon. Though the Celtics held Philadelphia to 37.8 percent shooting from the field, the 76ers attempted 11 more shots from the field, in large part because of their 17-5 edge in offensive rebounds. As the Celtics discovered, stingy defense becomes less of a weapon when allowing more possessions each trip down the court.
In fact, the Celtics’ fortunes during the playoffs have closely followed their performance in the rebounding battle. In their series with the Hawks and now the 76ers, the Celtics have won every time they have outrebounded their opponent (5-0). When they have trailed their opponent in rebounding margin, however, the Celtics are just 1-4, with the only victory coming in the Game 4 blowout of Atlanta. In those four losses, the Celtics have been outrebounded 190-148, and in only two of these 10 contests have the Celtics held the advantage in offensive rebounding margin.
So far, the Celtics have been able to get by despite their futility on the boards due to their otherwise outstanding team defense; in ten postseason games, Boston opponents are shooting, on average, just 40.51 percent from the field. But, as happened Friday, much of that advantage is nullified when giving up a significant edge in offensive rebounding, and thus, additional attempts at the basket. Tied at two, the series looks to be a toss-up heading into Monday’s pivotal Game 5. The result may hinge not on the offensive production of Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass, but on the ability of the frontcourt to clean the glass and prevent second chance points.
It may have tapered off slightly after Monday’s lackluster effort against the Nets, but anyone who’s tuned in to ESPN in the last few days can confirm that Linsanity is still alive and well. Linsanity officially commenced following Lin’s 25-point performance against the Nets on Feb. 4 and has continued as frenzied crowds at Madison Square Garden continue to delight in the performance of their new point guard.
Like a few other Harvard economics majors, Lin’s influence has provided his corporate employer with a tidy profit, but he hasn’t forgotten about the little guy; Lin’s play on the court has provided ticket scalpers with a bonanza of their own, as the hoopla that surrounds him has led to a surge in demand for Knicks tickets on the secondary market.
Using data compiled by ticket search engine SeatGeek, we’ve graphed the average price of tickets to four different Knicks games, from Friday’s loss to the New Orleans Hornets to Wednesday’s matchup with the Atlanta Hawks, and their fluctuations over the preceding two weeks.
As the hype surrounding Lin compounded, single-game ticket prices soared by as much as 258 percent, in the case of Sunday’s matchup against the Dallas Mavericks, climbing from $140.57 on February 4 to $503.82 on February 17. The average rise for the four games was 208 percent, meaning the prices for these tickets effectively tripled since Lin assumed a starring role.
There exists a substantial correlation between Lin’s performances and jumps in ticket prices. Over the 15-day period we examined, six of the top eight single-day price increases came immediately following nights on which Lin played, and the other two came once ticket prices (and Linsanity) had already begun their precipitous rise.
The graph also shows that prices did not move significantly until Lin’s 38-point performance against the Lakers, which brought his international profile to its peak; the following day, Feb. 11, Google searches for “jeremy lin” reached their zenith worldwide.
How does Lin’s influence compare with that of another significant acquisition for the Knicks, Carmelo Anthony? In the week before Anthony’s arrival in New York on February 21, 2011, Knicks tickets sold on the secondary market for, on average, $128.51. After news of the trade broke, ticket prices rose to an average of $206.02 in the ensuing week, a 60.3 percent increase. Despite the smaller increase in ticket prices, Carmelo's impact upon them was instantaneous, whereas Lin's effect on prices took some time to gain traction.
Ironically, after months of speculation and trade rumors, the addition of Anthony—a perennial All-Star and All-NBA selection—caused the price to jump less than the emergence of an unheralded rookie. It’s possible that prices had already risen slightly, reflecting the expectation of a trade for Anthony, but the stark difference between the two suggests that the rise in demand is attributable to more than just basketball.
Consequently, perhaps the only phenomenon with which Linsanity can accurately be compared is Tebowmania, the similarly insufferable fad inspired by the one and only Tim Tebow, quarterback of the Denver Broncos.
And if ticket prices are any indication, Lin has actually created a greater spike in demand for his team than Tebow. Last fall, Broncos tickets moved from an average sale price of $143.20 before Tebow's first start to an average of $172.92 thereafter, a 21 percent increase. Even when we compare the pre-Tebow prices with their regular season peak in December, we find only a 57 percent increase.
Has Linsanity officially displaced Tebowmania as the most intense craze in recent sports memory? Comparing ticket prices across sports is tricky, and larger football stadiums may make it harder to drive up prices. But given that both venues were essentially sold out prior to the teams’ respective personnel changes, the 200-plus percent increase in ticket prices associated with the Knicks’ addition of Lin puts Anthony and Tebow to shame. So yes, someone may have produced cultural madness greater than that which was inspired by Tebow. Time to move to Canada.
On Feb. 9, John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Ratings on espn.com displayed one very curious entry. There, sandwiched at number two between Lebron James and Kevin Durant was…Jeremy Lin?
It’s been 12 days since the basketball world was first caught up in the throes of “Linsanity,” as Jeremy came off the bench to torch the Nets for 25 points and seven assists. In his next four games, starting for the first time, Lin scored 109 points and effectively revitalized the floundering, injury-ridden Knicks’ season. Predictably, a host of terrible puns, nicknames, and general Internet absurdity soon followed. For a moment, I almost missed Tebow.
For my part, I’ve regarded Linsanity with a more tempered eye (despite his excellent choice of undergraduate institution). This sports year has already seen one Harvard grad burst suddenly into prominence after an otherwise nondescript career, and as we’re now aware, Mr. Ryan Fitzpatrick found it quite difficult to sustain his lightning start. Will Lin have a similar regression? Let’s dig into his past to find any clues that might tip us off to his true ability.
Lin’s first NBA experience came with the Golden State Warriors, signing as an undrafted free agent after a stellar senior year with the Crimson. At Golden State, Lin was an entirely unremarkable bench player. His primary problem was getting on the court; he appeared in only 29 contests, averaging just 9.8 minutes per game. Yet even that number was inflated by extended spells of garbage time. Lin played more than 10 minutes in only 13 games, and the average margin of victory in those games was 15.9 points. As such, it’s hard to draw many conclusions from this period. He rarely played, and when he did, it was often when the game’s result was no longer in doubt and, thus, not really representative of true NBA competition.
Lin spent the remainder of 2010-11 with the NBDL’s Reno Bighorns, and it was here that he showed flashes of the skills we’ve seen over the past week. Over 20 games for the Bighorns, Lin averaged 18.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 2.1 steals, while playing 31.8 minutes per game. As Matt Kamalsky of Draft Express noted at the time, Lin was “extremely tough around the basket and show[ed] a very good understanding of … how to use screens and subtle changes of direction to turn the corner off the dribble. Lin won't land on a highlight reel any time soon, but he gets the job done in the D-League.”
While a generally positive assessment, it certainly doesn’t scream of potential NBA stardom. So what changed?
First, the toughness around the rim alluded to by Kamalsky has only increased. Lin has consistently displayed an ability to finish at the basket throughout his career. With the Warriors, Lin converted 58.1 percent of his attempts around the rim. This year, with the Knicks, he has boosted that number to 63.3 percent.
The main weakness in Lin’s game was his inability to knock down midrange jumpers. This was something about which Kamalsky expressed concern in his assessment of Lin’s D-League stint: “he'll need to become a reliable set shooter to give himself more staying power in the NBA.” And for good reason; in Golden State, he shot just 25 percent from 10-15 feet and 27 percent from 16-23 feet. As anyone who is familiar with Rajon Rondo’s career can tell you, this is particularly damaging for a pick-and-roll point guard who prefers to get into the lane. Defenses are perfectly content to allow those shot attempts if the guard can’t knock them down.
Yet, with the Knicks, knock them down he has. From 10-15 feet, Lin’s field goal percentage has improved to 55.6 percent, and from 16-23 feet, it’s all the way up to 63 percent.
What accounts for this improvement? Maybe, to quote Glenda the Good Witch, he’s “had it all along.” For one, he simply didn’t (and still doesn’t, really) have enough shot attempts in his first NBA go-around from which to draw any firm conclusions about his game. His poor shooting with Golden State could have been a fluke, and the improved numbers we’ve seen from Lin this season might be more indicative of his true ability.
Or perhaps he worked tirelessly on his game during the offseason and lockout, priming himself for one more shot at the pros. Personally, I’m more inclined toward this second explanation. In responding to his recent success, the one sentiment expressed universally by his former teammates at Harvard has been his extraordinary commitment to hard work. The unconventional form on his jumper also suggests that he’s never been a natural shooter, but with enough practice, he may have found a method that’s effective, if not pretty.
For now, Linsanity continues unchecked. But this week promises a couple new wrinkles in the Lin saga: notably, the reinsertion of Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony into the lineup. How will Lin coexist with the Knicks’ two biggest stars? Can he prevent the offense from devolving into the dual black hole attack it was a few weeks ago, with Anthony and Stoudemire jacking up shot after shot? I’ll be interested to see what happens to Lin’s own production. He won’t remain the focus of the offense, but he’ll get his looks. Can he continue to knock down open shots, as defenses rotate toward the Knicks’ two elite offensive players? Stay tuned; or, if you'd rather not, steer clear of the Internet for the next few days.
The clock is ticking quite loudly for the current iteration of the Celtics. Though the Big Three –– Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce –– were almost solely responsible for rescuing the franchise from the extended mediocrity of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, their time as the faces of the team will soon be at an end.
No one needs to be reminded that Garnett, Allen, and Pierce are getting a little gray around the temples, but there’s also the business end to consider. Garnett’s and Allen’s contracts expire following the 2011-12 season, and both will likely consider retirement –– Garnett will be 36 and Allen 37 by the start of the 2012-13 campaign. Even if they desire to re-sign, it’s not clear that the Celtics will want them back. At some point, GM Danny Ainge has to turn the page and build for the future.
Which brings me to the lockout: the Celtics need a deal to be reached as soon as possible. The loss of the entire season effectively narrows the title window for the Big Three to a crack and might even shut it completely. The foundation of the team is simply getting old, and aging teams don’t often raise championship banners.
As evidence, here’s a plot showing the average age of every NBA championship team since 1952, weighted according to each player’s minutes in proportion to the team’s total minutes. For an example of the concept, Jason Kidd’s 38 years counted more toward the 2011 Mavericks’ weighted age than J.J. Barea’s 26 years, since Kidd played almost 1,000 more of the Mavs’ minutes during the season.
The minutes-weighted average age for all these championship teams is 28.1; for comparison, the minutes-weighted average age of the NBA in 2011 was 26.6. We can see that teams younger than 25 and older than 30 very seldom win it all, which seems self-evident. A team’s best shot at a title comes when the majority of their roster is in the latter half of its prime, possessing the athleticism of youth along with the experience and savvy obtained from multiple seasons in the league.
Given the uncertainty surrounding the rest of the Celtics’ roster, it’s hard to project where exactly they would fall on this spectrum. The brief free agency period following any deal made now would result in a mad scramble for players, with the Celtics picking up as many as five new bodies, should Jeff Green and Glen Davis choose to depart. But as their weighted average age last season was 29.5 years, a conservative estimate would place the 2011-12 Celtics at about 30.
Only six teams have won an NBA title with an average minutes-weighted age of 30 or older. Of those six, two were Michael Jordan-led Bulls teams; unfortunately, the Celtics will not have the luxury of the greatest player in history on their roster this season –– that is, unless Brian Scalabrine plans an unexpected return from Italy.
Offering somewhat more hope are the 2011 Mavericks and the 1999 Spurs. Last year’s champions, the Mavericks, proved that sometimes age is just a number. Their top four players in terms of minutes, Kidd, Jason Terry, Dirk Nowitzki, and Shawn Marion, all topped 32 years, yet missed a combined 11 games over the regular season and played every game in the postseason.
The ’99 Spurs showed that, for an aging team, the cancellation of games may actually be a good thing. An abbreviated season, as Gary Dzen pointed out in July, is the best-case scenario for the Celtics, removing somewhere between 10 and 25 games of wear from the veteran legs of the Big Three. Ideally, the Celtics would follow San Antonio's blueprint (average age: 30.1), coasting into the playoffs after a shortened regular season and remaining unusually fresh for a deep run into May and June.
The good news is that, at this point, the players and owners seem
too close to an agreement to justify totally cancelling the season (Update: or maybe not...). The setback the league would suffer from a lost year is one they cannot afford, particularly with the buzz generated for the NBA during last spring's playoffs. As long as the negotiators don't try to compress too many games into too short of a schedule, the Big Three will be well-prepared to make one last push to claim their second title, before their time is officially up.
He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrateds 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.
Now living in Marblehead, hes focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.