Numbers for thought: Smart and Zeller are the difference makers?

Numbers for thought is a series that selects certain pieces of statistics before each game (or let's say every now and then to make this a more attainable goal) that may or may not be meaningful (you know, small sample size, outliers or whatever) but nonetheless provide entertainment value (or so I hope).

I have now written a few times about why the Celtics look like a decent Playoff team due to their high scoring and assists numbers, yet the way they failed at clutch time and their defensive woes put them lower than where they are supposed to be in the standings. Here's an excerpt from my last post:

So here's the thing: If the Celtics get better from the 3-point line, and if they somehow improve their interior defense, they can get better. Can they do it? Well, Pressey (1-13 3PT%) is soon going to be replaced by Marcus Smart (6-25) and hopefully the team will realize how horrible they are, so there's that. As for the OppPITP thing, Zeller is now the starter instead of Olynyk, and even though their oppFG% is not different at all (Olynyk's 46.6% vs. Zeller's 46.5%), maybe Zeller's size and his slightly better defensive awareness will mean something.

And boy, have things changed:

Part of Smart's defensive skill set is his telekinetic abilities.

13.1: That's Marcus Smart's NetRating, i.e. OffRating-DefRating. He leads the team by miles in that category. Now, usually players that don't get many minutes achieve such remarkable, or remarkably horrible, NetRatings due to sample size. Yet in Smart's case, he's playing 18.6 minutes per game so it's not necessarily a fluke. One could also argue that he played against weak teams and missed the ones against stronger ones, but that's not the case either because he was out there against Houston, Dallas, Toronto and Washington (twice). Again, 8 games with uneven minute distribution is something to watch out for, yet Smart's contribution is obvious.

Now let's dig a little deeper and see what's going on here:

0.75: That's Marcus Smart's number for Opponent Points in the Paint(OppPITP)/Minutes Played. In other words, for every minute Smart was out there, the opponents could only score 0.75 points in the paint. Is that an impressive number? Well, next up on the list is Gerald Wallace and James Young (statistical flukes) with numbers that are significantly higher than Smart's: 0.82 & 0.91. The fourth name on the list?

Teague running into Zeller's dance routine.
0.91: That's Tyler Zeller right there. Compare that to Kelly Olynyk's 0.97, and you can see what has been improving since Zeller has become a starter. Celtics' OppPITP has come down to 48.0 from 49.6 last week. Now, here's the disclaimer: The Pistons, the Lakers and the Wizards aren't exactly teams that dominate the paint. On the other hand, Zeller's DefensiveFG% (DFG%) is now 45.3% compared to Olynyk's 46.8%. In fact, let's dig a little more for a more robust stat:

50.7% v. 60.3%: That's Zeller's DFG% for shots taken less than 6ft. compared to the player's usual FG% from the same distance. Zeller definitely makes a difference, and the significant frop doesn't change for shots taken from 10ft. or less either. For Olynyk, however, the difference is just 1.6% for shots from 6ft or less and 3.5% for shots from 10ft or less.

Now let's go back to Smart. Take a guess on what Smart's stats are for those categories. All set? Let's go:

50.0% v. 57.4% & 40.0% v. 52.5%: There you go. Just like Zeller, Smart significantly alters his defensive assignments' shots in the paint area or inside in general. What's more, Rondo and Bradley's numbers are nowhere near Smart's, in fact, their assignments shoot better from 10 ft or less! Now, part of the reason might be Rondo and Bradley's teammates on the floor, but with such significant differences, it is safe to assume that even when such factors are isolated, Smart's defense will sparkle.

This is the end of the 7th post for the series. Like last week, let's finish with the Celtics playoff odds according to Hollinger's simulatiion. Drumroll please...

69.2!!! Playoffs, here we come!

Photo credits: Brian Babineau/NBAE and Brett Davis/USASPORTS
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