It took all of 12 seconds in Tuesday night’s game vs. the Bulls for the No. 1 problem of the 2012 Celtics season to become glaringly evident. Just after the jump ball, Chicago power forward Carlos Boozer rolled to the hoop as Kevin Garnett got caught in a pick-and-roll. Boozer took took a pass from Bulls center Joakim Noah in for a wide open lay-up. More defensive lapses followed as the Celtics allowed 100 points to a team that averages 92.4 points.
If you’re a numerologist, you may see some larger meaning in a team with a 12-12 record showcasing its biggest weakness 12 seconds into a game. If you’re a Celtics fan, any cuteness or coincidence to this early-season slumping has long worn off. After 12 wins and 12 losses, the bigger question is: What the heck is going on?
Two factors are largely at play. Defense, a staple of the teams led by Garnett and coached by Doc Rivers since 2007, has been a problem. And for the second straight year, the Celtics continue to struggle in the rebounding department. Just look at how the Celtics have declined in league rank in total rebounding and in both defensive effective field goal percentage (which accounts for defense against 3-pointers) and traditional defensive field goal percentage in the years since Garnett’s arrival:
Total rebounds: Def. eFG% Def. FG%
2012: 13th 18th 20th
2011: 21st 2d 1st
2010: 4th 2d 3d
2009: 9th 9th 9th
2008: 2d 3d 1st
2007: 2d 1st 1st
In the last two seasons the Celtics have been dead last in offensive rebounding percentage. They’re No. 12 in the NBA this season in John Hollinger’s (former ESPN columnist who just got a front-office gig with the Memphis Grizzlies) defensive efficiency ratings, the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions.
The numbers back up what we’ve seen on the court. Paul Pierce talked about getting “outworked” vs. the Bulls, and we’ve seen that in recent weeks. A Bulls-Celtics game will always be a grind-it-out affair, and the Bulls simply ground harder Tuesday night. Chicago scored 48 points in the paint and made 21 free throws. If there was a way to get to the basket, the Bulls — playing without former MVP Derrick Rose — found it.
“This team is not a good team right now,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “It’s who we are right now. I’ve been saying that. This is who we are. We’re a .500 team and we play like that. We’ve won two games in a row [once this] season. Right now we’re not a good team. We’re going to find it, but we’re not right now.”
The proof is everywhere, during every game. During last week’s loss to San Antonio, a rebound careened out toward the free throw line on the Spurs’ end of the floor. Courtney Lee was the closest player to the ball, but he hesitated and didn’t aggressively pursue it. The ball hit the floor, bounced to a Spur, and San Antonio retained possession. It’s an example that highlights, whether through effort or scheme, that something’s broken and needs to be fixed.
The Celtics tried to fix many of their problems in the offseason by getting younger and deeper. Acutely aware that relying on Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to carry too much of the workload was a bad thing as the players aged, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge brought in Jeff Green, Jason Terry, and Lee, and re-signed Brandon Bass to give the team depth. The theory went that the loss of Ray Allen to Miami would be softened by the addition of the newcomers.
It hasn’t worked. In addition to rebounding and defense, the production of the team’s depth is a concern. The debate over Major League Baseball’s MVP award shined light onto WAR, an advanced metric that calculates a player’s value relative to a replacement player at his position. Hollinger developed something similar for basketball players called Estimated Wins Added. Where Celtics players stand on this list is telling.
As you’d expect, Boston’s best three players rate highly. Rajon Rondo is 25th in the league in EWA at 3.5, Pierce is 26th at 3.4, and Garnett is 36th at 3.1. Then it gets hairy. Terry is the next highest-rated Celtics at 142d. Next in line are Leandro Barbosa and Chris Wilcox. You have to go all the way down to No. 253 to find Jeff Green (to be fair to the trade revisionists, Kendrick Perkins is down at 260). Courtney Lee is No. 312 out of 323 players listed, adding -0.6 wins above a replacement player. Ahead of all but the Celtics’ new big three, Ray Allen is 75th.
Add up all of this and it’s not surprising that the Celtics haven’t won a game this season with a starting lineup of Rondo, Lee, Pierce, Bass, and Garnett. The team’s problems are real, particularly on the defensive end, where they didn’t struggle nearly as much when they got off to their slow start last season. Avery Bradley’s ball pressure will help the defense, but it’s unikely to fix it. To give you an idea of what the Celtics are missing, potential Boston trade target Marcin Gortat tied for 13th last season in EWA, higher than any Celtic. The Celtics don’t just need Bradley and a big man. They need Bradley and a relentless, rebound-crazed big man. Seeing Joakim Noah Tuesday night and Anderson Varejao Wednesday night should hammer that home.
Rivers is right when he says the Celtics aren’t a very good team. The offense (the Celtics are 5th in the league in field goal percentage) is passable. The defense has been laughable. Until that changes, what you see is what you’re going to get.