Behind the Curtain: Past, Present and Future Analysis of the Celtics season

The Celtics continued struggle to string together wins this season has them at 16-13 and on the outside looking in on the Eastern Conference playoffs. Their current winning percentage puts them on pace for 45/46 wins this season.  I imagine 45/46 wins will get Boston into the playoffs, but given the lack of separation between the ten contending teams in the current playoff picture, i.e. almost everyone is pace for the same win total, it will likely take 50 wins to not only win the Atlantic Division, but also get the two or three seed.

As referenced above, there are 10 teams with winning records and the Wizards are only one game under .500. Most recently, the Cavaliers have created some separation with the rest of the pack, but they are still only 4.5 ahead of the Celtics, who sit in ninth place, with the gap between Boston and the other seven teams ahead of them being games or less. This is all to say we must be careful with how critical we are as it relates to their performance to date, as they could very well be the two or three seed had they simply beaten the Nets in their second meeting and held on against the Mavericks.


1. The Celtics are 7-12 against teams with winning records, which is the worst among the 10 teams currently contending in the Eastern Conference.  Seven of the these losses have been by eight or more: 8, 8, 10, 11, 24, 19 and 12.  This demonstrates how little they are even competing in these games, which should be a major concern for those clamoring for a deep playoff run.

2. At 9-1, the Celtics have the best record in the Eastern Conference against teams with losing records, with the lone loss being against the Nets.  It is critical to win the games you are supposed to win, as this is what usually separates the teams at the top.  Moreover, winning these games can be difficult.  For example, the Raptors are 8-6, Pistons 8-5, Bulls 7-4 and Pacers 6-4 against teams with losing records.

3. Among the 10 contenders in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics are tied with the Hornets for the least amount of games against teams under .500, and they have played the NBA's eighth most difficult schedule, which suggests easier times may be coming.

4. The Celtics are struggling to win games down the stretch.  Although it is a small sample size, they are 0-3 in games decided by three points or less, which does not include the heartbreaking four-point loss to the Mavericks earlier this season that was decided in the final minutes.  However, they are 13-6 in games decided by 10 points or more.

5. Among the 10 contenders in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics are one of only two teams who are top 10 in the NBA in points scored (sixth) and points allowed (tenth) per game.  Their overall margin of victory (+4.2) is second in the Eastern Conference.  The last time the top two seeds in the East did NOT have the top two margin of victory averages was the 2006-2007 season, which suggests the odds are in Boston's favor if they can sustain this pace.

6. However, the advanced statistics suggest those rankings may be slightly misleading as they are second in defensive rating (100) and eighteenth in offensive rating (104.2).  Why?  Rebounding and the resulting extra possessions.  While Boston is ranked twenty-first in defensive rebounding, which gives their opponent more scoring chances per possession, they are also sixth in offensive rebounding, which gives them more scoring chances per possession.  Regardless of the statistics telling a different story on the surface, their margin of victory based on offensive versus defensive ratings is second in the East and fifth in the NBA.

7. The Celtics inefficient offense can be attributed to their poor shooting.  They rank fourth in shot attempts per game (88.6), but twenty-third in field goal percentage (.435%).  Furthermore, they rank fifth in three-point attempts per game (27.9), seventh in three-pointers made per game (9.4), but twentieth in three-point shooting percentage (.336%).  Finally, their total shooting percentage, which combines a teams shooting percentage for all types of shots, is .527% and ranked twenty-second in the NBA.

8. The Celtics are sharing the ball well despite the absence of their starting point guard.  They rank fourth in the NBA in assists per game (24.5) and third in percentage of points assisted on (63.5%). With regard to the latter stat, they are behind only the one-loss Warriors and the team they hope to emulate in the Hawks.

9. The Celtics are top 10 in free throw shooting percentage (78.2%), which is a major positive. However, they only get to the line approximately 21 times per game, which is ranked twenty-fourth in the NBA.

10. Even without one of their top ball hawks in Marcus Smart, the Celtics average 9.9 steals per game, which is good for third in the NBA.  Their top five pace continues to disrupt other teams offenses, but one has to wonder if slowing things down would help their offensive efficiency.


1. With 26 of their final 52 games against teams with losing records, the Celtics need to continue to win the games they should.  In fact, with four of their next five are against such teams, including three against the Nets and Lakers, they can easily get to 20-14, which would put them on pace for 48-49 wins.

2. Although it has only been a few games and mostly a result of injuries, the Celtics have recently given more playing time to Kelly Olynk, David Lee and Tyler Zeller.  Based on the numbers, this is something they may want to consider continuing.  With regard to Lee, he is someone who can address their rebounding struggles.  He grabs approximately 20.4% of the defensive rebounds available to him while on the floor, which is second on the team.  He is also part of Boston's top two five-man combinations on the season.

3. As for Olynk, he seems to do everything right, including three-point shooting, which we cannot say for many on the roster.  He is third on the team in that category at just under 40%.  Also, he is second on the team in defensive rating and fifth in offensive.  Of the team's top 10 five-man lineup combinations, Olynk is in six of them.  Play him more!

4. With regard to Zeller, he can improve the team's offensive efficiency.  He is fourth on the roster in offensive rating, makes 55% of his field goal attempts and averages an impressive five points in eight minutes per game.

5. Again, despite the fact this was the result of injuries, the Celtics would be wise to take another look at the starting five of Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, Lee and Olynk.  In their limited time together, they have done everything right, including offensive efficiency, especially in three-point shooting, and defensive rebounding, which are two things the team has to improve.

6. This may be easier to do once Marcus Smart returns to the lineup, but the Celtics must play Evan Turner less.  His offensive rating of 93.8 is ahead of only RJ Hunter and Terry Rozier, neither of which sees regular minutes.  Given the fact the team's struggles to date are largely due to their inefficient offense and Turner is fourth on the team in minutes per game, this is an obvious fix.

7. The Celtics need to let Jae Crowder do more on offense as he has been one of the few bright spots on that side of the floor.  Of the regulars, his offensive rating of 109.9 is behind only Isaiah Thomas. In terms of margin between one's offensive-and-defensive ratings, Jae is first among the regulars at 10.6.  He also shoots a very respectable 36% from three, which is important because their biggest roster deficiency is wings who can shoot from the outside.  In fact, the offensive development we have seen thus far may be most important of all, especially when one considers he will be in Boston for another four seasons for a reasonable $7 million per year.  The problem is he only takes 10 shots per game.  Brad Stevens and Boston need to increase that, which they can do by taking shots away from Turner, Hunter, and Thomas, who by himself takes almost 17 shots per game.

8. This also may be more doable once Smart returns, but the Celtics need to address the wear and tear on Thomas.  He has never played this much before and we are only 29 games into the season.  He leads the teams in minutes and shots per game, but is shooting 42% from the field and 35% from three, which is near the worst numbers of his career and likely due to the burden he is carrying.  This can be alleviated by playing the offensive-minded Olynk and offensively-efficient Zeller more, which I addressed in more detail above, as well as giving more shots to Crowder.

9. Do not rush Marcus Smart back.  As you know by now, a lot of the Celtics issues, and required fixes, are addressed by having him in the lineup.  Therefore, they must handle him with great caution and potentially sacrifice some games he is capable of playing in if it will help shore up his long-term durability.  For example, with four of the next five coming against teams with losing records, there is no need for him to return during that stretch.  Although he is slated to return sometime soon, waiting an extra week or two may benefit all interested parties.

10. Once Smart returns, play him with Bradley, Thomas, Crowder and Olynk to close out games. The Celtics best three-man combination right now is Bradley, Thomas and Crowder and adding Smart to the mix will only improve their production on both sides of the ball.  Combining this four with Olynk at center has the chance of becoming Boston's equivalent to the Warriors lineup of Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Barnes and Green.  All five can shoot from the outside, especially Crowder and Olynk, who play the most important role in Stevens' pace-and-space offense at the four and five spots.  Together, they can stretch the floor, allowing more room for Smart and Thomas to drive-and-dish or get to the line.  Plus, both can take their defenders off the dribble.  The Celtics are losing games late because they cannot get baskets and this five-man lineup solves that problem.

Assuming the roster stays the same for the rest of the season, the Celtics have the players and the schedule to succeed in the Eastern Conference.  It is clear they are weakest on the offensive end of the floor, which is negatively impacting their ability to win games late and defeat teams above .500. As I outlined above though, there are ways to address this.  Hopefully, Boston implements some of these changes and begin their long overdue ascent up the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Questions for the Readers: what do you think is the biggest reason for the Celtics current position and what do you think is the top one or two things they need to do in order to improve their position going forward? Please be specific.

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