When Danny Ainge took to the airwaves and defended his guy Paul Pierce from the wrath of the Internet and the vicious fans of Miami, the Celtics’ president of basketball operations wielded a specific statistic as his sword in the battle over who had the better career: Pierce or retiring Heat guard Dwyane Wade.
“We have an analysis called Adjusted Plus/Minus,” Ainge said during an appearance on 98.5 The Sports Hub. “That’s probably the best number you can come up with for a player’s impact in the game.”
Ainge argued that Pierce’s career was consistently better for a longer period of time, based on what his analysts had reported back to their boss. Most others had come down on Wade’s side of the debate, and Ainge’s bias is obvious, but there’s some validity to his choice of metric on which to gauge a player’s value.
Adjusted plus/minus is similar to the “real plus/minus” published by ESPN, and here are the top four names on the list when that stat is calculated for the 2018-19 regular season: Paul George, James Harden, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo. That reads like a theoretical MVP ballot. For what it’s worth, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant also appear inside the top 10.
The highest-ranking Celtic is, naturally, Kyrie Irving, at No. 17. Al Horford is next at No. 21, followed by Marcus Smart, who before going down for four to six weeks with a sprained oblique registered at No. 38. According to ESPN, the real plus/minus tabulates a “player’s estimated on-court impact on team performance, measured in net point differential per 100 offensive and defensive possessions. RPM takes into account teammates, opponents, and additional factors.”
The Celtics’ first-round opponent, the Pacers, did not have an active player higher than 64th on the list, which is where Domantas Sabonis showed up. That’s largely irrelevant now, given that Indiana’s success is based on how hard and well it plays as a team, and collectively it’s a group capable of beating Boston in a seven-game series, despite the C’s apparent advantage in top-end talent.
R I S E T O G E T H E R
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) April 12, 2019
How does that talent stack up after 82 games? How does it fit together going into the playoffs? How will Brad Stevens’ team adjust to life without Smart? Some potential answers follow, in the latest Celtics power rankings:
14. Guerschon Yabusele (No. 13 last time): Coming up on three years since taking him 16th overall, the Celtics have 486 minutes and 173 points from the 23-year-old, including averages of 3.1 minutes and 1.1 points when 41 DNPs are added into his per-game contributions this season. He’ll likely spend the postseason in street clothes.
13. Brad Wanamaker (14): Smart’s injury creates an opportunity in the Boston backcourt, and while Wanamaker won’t be the first choice, the 29-year-old rookie has shown enough this season that Stevens should be able to trust him for a spell. Granted, it was in a limited, low-pressure role — but Wanamaker shot the ball well, maintained a three-to-one ratio of assists to turnovers, and averaged 14.7 points per 36 minutes during the regular season.
12. Robert Williams III (12): The Pacers are a team with good size and talented big men, but they rank in the middle of the pack in terms of points in the paint. If the Celtics survive, and face the Bucks next, Williams could be a bigger factor as a potential rim protector.
11. Semi Ojeleye (10): He played 48 percent fewer minutes this season (down to 594 from 1,150) and appeared in 17 fewer games, but let’s not forget that Stevens trusted Ojeleye with significant responsibilities last postseason. The Southern Methodist product started Games 5, 6, and 7 of the Celtics’ first playoff round last spring, so if Boston is in need of a big-bodied, athletic wing to help fill the void left by Smart, Ojeleye figures to be an option.
10. Daniel Theis (11): His minutes have diminished as Horford’s level of play and Baynes’ impact have elevated, but bursts of energy like Theis brings can be momentum-turning difference makers in a postseason series. In terms of efficiency and value, the metrics suggest Theis is typically a positive influence when he’s on the court; just how positive could depend on how the coaches can manage to time his deployment.
9. Terry Rozier (8): The numbers say Rozier struggled mightily over the final 15 games of the regular season, when his defensive rating was the team’s worst, and his offensive rating placed him ahead of only Ojeleye and Yabusele. He did almost nothing in the two meetings against the Pacers, too, totaling four points in 22 minutes. That said, he is the most natural fit to take over Smart’s role, and he elevated his play last postseason. Nobody should dismiss the idea he could make himself a factor — but, at the same time, nobody knows for sure just which connotation of “scary” will apply to Scary Terry’s postseason performance.
8. Aron Baynes (9): The Australian was a beast in both late-season meetings between Boston and Indiana, averaging 12 points and 12 rebounds in 30 minutes over those two tilts. The Pacers aren’t a team that crashes the offensive glass, but no team in the NBA came away with a lower percentage of contested rebounds than the Celtics this season. Baynes could be pivotal in making sure the Pacers aren’t able to unexpectedly exploit that.
7. Marcus Morris (7): With Morris, the contributions continue to boil down to whether he’s missing or making his shots — because he’s going to keep shooting it either way. Over the last 15 games of the regular season, he averaged 11.3 shots (fourth-most on the team), but his 36.7 percent conversion rate was lowest among Celtic regulars. That was part of the reason his plus/minus over that closing stretch averaged a team-worst negative-5.8. If that continues into the postseason it’ll be up to Morris to find another way to make an impact, but he’s enough of a competitor that it can’t be ruled out.
6. Jaylen Brown (5): There’s a massive opportunity in front of Brown at the moment. Without Smart, the Celtics will be missing a tenacious, physical, on-ball defender who doesn’t mind mixing it up. Brown can provide all of that. Offensively, Smart tried 61 percent of his field goal attempts from 3-point territory (a team-high). Brown hit better than 51 percent of his 3s over the past 15 games, and he’s over 40 percent since the All-Star break. At both ends, Brown could be primed for a big series.
5. Marcus Smart (6): Smart has his flaws, but supporters have long insisted he’s a guy who makes “winning plays.” It’s tough for the Celtics to lose a guy like that at the time when winning is really all that matters — especially in a season when the stats supported what hasn’t always been so easily quantifiable, and the Win Shares calculation rated Smart as the C’s third-most valuable player this season.
Danny Ainge spoke prior to practice today about Marcus Smart's injury. pic.twitter.com/ZJbeAetvYg
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) April 11, 2019
4. Jayson Tatum (3): The second-year wing has seen his scoring slide to 13.7 points per game since the All-Star break (from 16.5), and he enters the postseason battling a shin contusion. Further, the Pacers defense is anchored by Myles Turner, the NBA’s leading shot blocker. However, if the Celtics are struggling from the outside, Tatum’s ability to get to the rim could be a crucial weapon. Encouraging in that respect is that since the break, the percentage of points Tatum scores in the paint has spiked from 37 percent to 47 percent.
3. Gordon Hayward (4): The transition has occurred. No longer is Hayward a role player returning from injury; he’s progressed into a critical piece the Celtics are counting on to produce. He scored in double figures in each of his last eight regular-season games (at an average of 16.4), and he was especially effective against the Pacers. In those two games he totaled 32 points, hitting 13 of 16 shots, including 12 of 13 from inside the arc. He’s hot, he’s gaining confidence, and perhaps now he’s got a chance to reaffirm that he’s capable of being Kyrie’s primary sidekick on a team that can compete deep into the spring.
2. Al Horford (2): In what has overall been an excellent season, Horford attempted and made fewer 3-pointers than he has in any season since 2014-15, and his success rate slid from 42.9 percent a year ago to 36 percent in 2018-19. A big factor against the Pacers, however, could be Boston’s ability to make Indiana respect the threat of Horford (and, to a lesser extent, Baynes) as shooters from distance. Pulling Turner away from the basket, and complicating defensive decisions on pick and rolls with Irving could create a variety of offensive options for the Celtics by simply stretching an excellent Pacer defense.
1. Kyrie Irving (1): For all the frustrating moments, Irving has been as-advertised on the court this season. He’s one of the NBA’s elite talents. His ultimate value to the franchise, however, is just beginning. In the NBA, it’s the superstars who rule the day in the postseason — and who run the show in the offseason. For Irving, in particular, Sunday essentially starts a three-month stretch where the eyes of Boston’s basketball community will be watching everything he does (regardless of how much longer his team is on the court).