Diagnosing the Celtics early struggles and 3 simple solutions

Given the Celtics early season struggles, I decided to dive into the numbers because as we all know: the numbers never lie.   I set out on this path to answer the following questions:

1. How has everyone played?
2. Do the numbers indicate any reasons for those who are struggling?
3. Are there any who need more minutes, or less?
4. What are Brad Stevens' best lineup combinations?
5. In need of a win, who should start tonight's game?

For purposes of this analysis, I only considered the top ten in minutes played.   Here is what I learned:


Based on his numbers, as well as the role he was expected to play, Bradley has had a very disappointing start to the season.

He is first on the team in three-point shooting at 35%, and his seven threes are tied for most on the roster.   With that said, he is sixth in true-shooting percentage, which is an advanced statistic combining a players efficiency in shooting two-point shots, three-point field goals, and free throws.

Bradley has an offensive rating of 100 (estimates points scored over 100 possessions with player in game), and defensive rating of 104 (estimates points allowed over 100 possessions with player in game).   Surprisingly, for such a good defender, his defensive rating is second worst on the team.  In line with these numbers, his minus-16 in total plus/minus is good for third worst on the Celtics.

We all know his defense will get there.   However, his offense has always been a concern.   So far this season, the average distance of his shot attempts is 18.1 feet.   With the three-point line being approximately 22 to 23 feet from the basket, Bradley seems to be settling for the long two-point shot, which may be the worst in all of basketball.

Here is the breakdown of his shot attempts: 5% from 0-3 feet; 18% from 3-10 feet; 2% from 10-16 feet; 35% from 16 feet to the three-point line; and 39% from three.   As you can see, his shot selection needs a lot of improvement.

It does not make any sense that one of the team leaders in shooting percentage from 0-3 feet (67% made) is only taking 5% of his shot attempts from that distance.   Moreover, over a third of his shots have been the dreaded long two-point jumper.   These shots have no value.

If you are going to shoot from distance, you might as well step a couple feet back so any make is worth three points instead of two.   Plus, Avery is shooting 44% between 16 feet and the three-point line.   While some may see that and say he needs to keep shooting from there, I see that and see wasted points.   How many of those 19-foot makes would he have also hit from 22 feet?   How many points has this cost the team?

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff


Isaiah has been very good for the Celtics through the first four games.   He is averaging 23 points, 6 assists and 2 steals, and leads the team in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) at 24.9.

Thomas' plus-9 in total plus/minus is third on the team.   His offensive rating is 109 and defensive rating is 103.   This rating-differential of plus-6 is fourth best on the team.

Isaiah needs to improve his shot selection, which has resulted in an uncharacteristic 40% shooting percentage.   Through the first four games, Thomas' best shot on the floor is from 0 and 10 feet, but he has only taken a third of his attempts from within that area.

Instead, he has taken half his shots from beyond 10 feet, including 30% from three.   However, he is shooting 22% from 10-16 feet, 12% from between 16 feet and the three-point line, and 32% from three.

Keep getting to the basket, Isaiah.


Crowder and the Celtics have struggled with him on the floor.  He is a team-worst minus-28 in total plus/minus.   His best contribution to the team this season has been on defense, as evidenced by his low 96 defensive rating.

However, he has really struggled offensively, as indicated by his 97 rating.  The solution to his offensive struggles are simple:  STOP TAKING 50% OF YOUR SHOT ATTEMPTS FROM THREE.

For some reason, 49% of Jae's shots on the season are from three, but he is shooting 30%.  All the while he is shooting 52% on his two-point field goals.

Stop shooting three-pointers, Jae.


Smart has been a positive force for the Celtics this season.

Marcus' plus-15 in total plus/minus is best on the team.  He is second in offensive rating with 110, and equally as strong with a defensive rating of 100.  That rating-differential of plus-10 is ranked third.

Interestingly, while Smart is shooting 30% from three overall, he is making 40% of his corner threes. The problem is that only a third of his three-point attempts come from the corner.

Shoot more corner threes, Marcus.


Danny Ainge did not do much this offseason, but he did sign Amir Johnson.  The early returns have been extremely positive.  Amir is third in PER at 16.4.  He is first in true-shooting percentage at 63%.  He leads the team with an offensive rating of 112, and has a strong defensive rating of 100.   His 12-point rating-differential is second on the roster.


Based on the numbers, Turner is the most polarizing player on the Celtics.  His statistics are a walking contradiction, which makes it difficult to determine his true value.  For example, Turner's plus-15 in total plus/minus is second on the team.  However, he has an offensive rating of 74 and defensive rating of 103.  That is an especially bad rating-differential (minus-29).

Another statistic that assists in gauging a player's value to his team is win/share per 48 minutes (WS/48), which is defined as the number of wins contributed by a player per 48 minutes.  For context, the league average is .10 and Turner's is -.08, and only one other regular rotation player has contributed a negative amount of wins.

The average distance of his shot attempts is 14.8 feet, which simply cannot be allowed to continue because he is not a good shooter. For example, 57% of his shot attempts have been beyond 16 feet, but he is making 33% of his shots between 16 feet and the three-point line, and only 20% from three.

Stop settling, Evan.


Although Jared has a total plus/minus of minus-6, the numbers suggest he has been the most complete player on the Celtics and should get more playing time.

He is second in PER at 19.7.  His offensive rating is 110 and defensive rating is 94.  That rating-differential of plus-16 is best on the team.

Jared has also been the Celtics best rebounder.  He leads the team in rebounding on both ends of the floor.  He has grabbed a team-best 11.3% of potential offensive rebounds and 23.6% of defensive rebounds.

He needs to stop shooting so many three-pointers.  Mainly, because he is shooting so well from every other spot on the floor.  His field goal percentage on two-point shots is an impressive 54%.  Most importantly, his WS/48 of .19 is nearly twice the league average, and better than everyone on the Celtics except Isaiah Thomas.

Get in better shape because the Celtics need you in the game a whole lot more.


The other acquisition during the offseason has struggled in his time with the Celtics.  He has a total plus/minus of minus-8, and his offensive and defensive rating-differential is minus-6.

On a positive note, Lee was much better on both ends of the floor against the Pacers on Wednesday night.  And overall, he has also been the team's second best rebounder.


Jerebko has a total plus/minus of plus-3.  His offensive rating is 106 and defensive rating is 103. Jonas' true-shooting percentage is 61%, which is second best on the Celtics.

Jonas has been one of the Celtics most consistent players this season.  All of his numbers, whether related to offense or defense, whether advanced or normal, reflect that consistency.  Most importantly, with regard to every team-related statistic, Jerebko is one of the rare players on the roster who are consistently on the plus-side.

Shoot more when in the game, Jonas.


Kelly Olynk is also a statistical contradiction.  While he is plus-4 in total plus/minus, he is bad everywhere else.

His offensive rating of 62 is by far the lowest on the roster, while his defensive rating of 92 is the best.  This rating-differential of minus-30 is the worst on the team.

To improve his offense, Olynk must improve his shot selection.  He is somehow second on the Celtics with regard to average shooting distance at 17.4 feet, which is the result of 56% of his attempts being from three.  This will come as no surprise to anyone, but spoiler alert: he has only made 10% of his threes.


1. The combination of Marcus Smart, Isaiah Thomas and Amir Johnson have played approximately 34 minutes together.  Extrapolating their performance together on the floor this year over 100 possessions, they are a team best plus-18 points.  For context, no other combination of three does better than plus-6.

2. Marcus Smart and Isaiah Thomas play great together.  The two have played 43 minutes together this season.  They have been the second best two-man combination on the team. The first?  Marcus Smart and Amir Johnson.

3. The best four-man combination this season has been Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, Evan Turner and Amir Johnson.  If their performance this season was calculated over 100 possessions, they are plus-52 points.  However, Brad Stevens has used this lineup combination for only 15 minutes this season.

4. The second best four-man combination?  Thomas, Smart, Johnson and Jonas Jerebko, who would be plus-44 points over 100 possessions.


1. Play Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart and Amir Johnson more together.  Not only do the individual numbers suggest these have been the Celtics three best players this season, but they have been one of the few lineup combinations that can work within any lineup of five and put more points on the board than they allow.  Unfortunately, that has been a rarity this year.

2. Play Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart together in the backcourt more often.  Although this may seem redundant since they are the team's two point guards, they play extremely well with one another.  Smart is so good off the ball, as evidence by his ability to sit in the corner and knock down threes at over 40%.  He provides Thomas with a running mate he currently does not have on the second unit.

3. Start Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, and Amir Johnson.  It is a shame to have Marcus playing with a starting lineup that does not feature either of his two best running mates.  Furthermore, the trio has been Stevens' best combination of three this year.  As for the remaining two, Sullinger will add his team best rebounding and team best rating-differential. Jerebko will bring his consistency.  He also happens to fit perfectly with Thomas and Smart because he can roam the perimeter and hit open shots.

Follow Max Sandgrund on Twitter @SotoSpeakz

Photo Credit: Brian Babineau/NBA Getty Images