Celtics are not contenders? The numbers beg to differ / Green Trends analysis

On Wednesday night, the Celtics played a typical mid-season game against the Denver Nuggets, a middling Western Conference team. They won, no problem, no big deal really. No big deal that they managed to score at a rate equivalent to the 4th best team in the league, and defended like the 2nd best. Just another ho-hum January game in the Garden.

Folks who still think the Celtics aren't "true" contenders aren't looking at the right numbers. This ho-hum game that was no big deal actually stands as a pretty good example of what the Boston squad's been doing night in, night out for a while now — to good teams and bad.

We'll look at some of the relevant numbers below, as we make the case that the Cs really are contending, this season, right now. No kidding.

Meanwhile, here are details on Wednesday's game and where the club stands now...


Cs' Off. & Def. Efficiency Ratings vs. Denver – Jan 27 2016:


Cs’ Offensive Rating for this game = 108.9 (pts scored per 100 possessions) — equivalent to the #4 offense in the NBA this season.
  • Prior to this game, DEN's defense was rated #27 in the league (Def.Rtg. = 108.7) — poor.
  • Versus the Cs, DEN's D performed like the #29 defense in the league (Def.Rtg. = 108.9). Note: The Nuggets were well below #30 until the last 50 seconds of the game, when, with the outcome no longer in question and the Celts getting ready to pack it in, they managed to score a quick 5 points that took them out of the basement.
Cs’ Defensive Rating for this game = 101.0 (pts allowed per 100 possessions) — equivalent to the league's #2 defense this season. It was only DEN's last-50-seconds run that moved this rating out of the #1-equivalent spot.
  • Coming into this game, the Nuggets' offense was rated #18 in the league (Off.Rtg. = 104.4) — mediocre.
  • The Cs' D held DEN's O to a level equivalent to the league's #28 offense (Off.Rtg. = 101.0) — well below DEN's season average.
Pace: Each team had 102 possessions – faster than the Cs' season average (98.4 – #4 in NBA). League average = 95.5/game. (Pace is usually high when there are a lot of turnovers. DEN gave up 20 in this one, and the Cs 12.)

Referees: Grade: B. Observations: The officiating crew of Monty McCutchen (#13), Derrick Collins (#11) and Ben Taylor (#46) did a mostly-decent job of officiating — but they let too many obvious fouls go uncalled, and they had 2 egregious calls:
  • At ~9:54 of the 2nd quarter, Tyler Zeller was whistled for a traveling violation by Monty McCutchen (#13) -- a ref with a history of bad travel calls (who desperately needs a refresher course on the subject). NBA rules allow two steps after the ball is gathered prior to a shot (or pass) — and Zeller took exactly 2 steps. Yes, his steps were funny-looking — he looked as if he were tiptoeing through tulips — but there is no rule about that. The video is clear: bad call.
  • At ~9:12 of the 4th quarter, Gary Harris put his shoulder down and dribbled straight and hard into Kelly Olynyk, who fell over backwards. Derrick Collins called it a blocking foul. We don't normally enter into debates about block/charge calls, but this was egregious. Rather than read about it, have a look at the video clip (complete with slow-motion closeup).
We 15, we happy 15

Where do the Celtics stand now?


After the Nuggets game...
  • Offensive Rating = 105.6 — ~#12 in NBA. (Range: #11–#14 in a very tight group.)
  • Defensive Rating = 101.5 — #2 in NBA.
  • Net Rating = +4.1 — #6 in NBA.
So are the Celts contenders or not?

Looking just at current season ratings, we see that the Cs are ranked #6 in the NBA in the all-important Net Rating category (pretty much the gold standard of team evaluations). That alone should make them contenders — unless you define that term as limited to only Golden State and San Antonio (in which case... why are we even talking about this?).

For the record, we define "contender" as any team that has a reasonable shot at getting to its conference finals.

But wait, there's more. One of the hallmarks of a true contender is having top-10 ratings for both offense and defense. For the full season to date, the Cs have the league's #2 D, and only the ~#12 O. But the Cs today are not what they used to be. As of January 10, there has been an offensive renaissance in Boston, thanks to the concerted efforts of the coaches and players to fix what used to be their biggest weakness: an anemic offense. Well, it's not anemic anymore. It's downright sanguine now.
  • In their last 15 games, the Cs' average Offensive Rating = 108.3 — equivalent to #4 in the NBA.
  • In their last 10 games, the Cs' average Offensive Rating = 111.6 — equivalent to #3 in the NBA (and only 0.7 away from #2).
  • And btw, in their last 4 games, the Cs' average Offensive Rating = 110.0 (equivalent to #4 in the NBA) while their Defensive Rating averaged 94.8 in that span — equivalent to #1 in the NBA.
Boston's defense has been in the league's top-5 pretty much all season long. No one worries about the D anymore. The big question has been the offense: could they get it into the league's top-10, thus qualifying the team as "a contender"?

Well, they've done it. At least they have in their last ~15 games.

Sure, one can always point to the full-season offensive numbers and say they're not quite there yet. But teams change. They improve and/or decline as the season progresses. We are interested in knowing whether this team can contend, right? To answer that question requires assessing the height of their ceiling, and where they are NOW — not where they were when the season began.

Right now, the Celtics are playing contender-level basketball. The numbers are clear. And what's more…. this team could get even better on offense before they reach their final, pre-playoffs steady state. How do we know that? From the graphs of their Offensive Opponent-Adjusted Ratings (OARs):

Both the full-season-to-date and last-15-games charts show clearly-positive trend lines (green) for the offense (as adjusted for opponents' defenses) — indicating that the best could still be ahead.

Obviously, trends can change at any point. We can't KNOW that the Cs' offense will continue to improve, or plateau, or even that they won't tank tomorrow. But when we look at this team's direction, and its direction of change — we see both pointing clearly north.


Notes & Ruminations:

  • Yes, Avery Bradley went a little nuts, scoring 27 points on 11-20 shooting in addition to grabbing 4 steals. But really, there was no standout carry-the-team-on-my-shoulders performance in this contest. This is a pattern for the Cs now. Everybody contributes, nobody's a hero — and they roll over their opponents. It's the single best recipe for success in the NBA, and the Celtics are mastering it.
  • The league's not really aware yet just how good this team is getting. The Cs are doing it quietly, efficiently (kinda like the Raptors have been skulking about lately).
  • I'd say there are 6 contending teams in the NBA right now: GSW, SAS, CLE, OKC, TOR and BOS. Yeah, the Green are at the bottom (or #5, at best). But the important point is that they're on the list. There's many a slip twixt cup and lip, and miles to go before they slip into the postseason. Things will change.
  • Next up: the Orlando Magic in the Garden, on Friday (and then again on Sunday in Orlando). ORL is currently rated #24 on offense, #12 on defense. Should be fun.

Green Trends is where we analyze the Celtics & identify emerging new trends — before they become obvious. Posts generally run within ~1-20 hours after Cs games.
Efficiency ratings source for comps: Basketball-reference.com. Misc: RealGM.com. (Note: Our formulas for pace and efficiency ratings are similar to those used by these sites, and most others — just a tad more accurate because we don't ignore team turnovers. NBA.com's numbers will differ, as they use different formulas.)

For an intro to the advanced stats used in Green Trends (née Green Stats), see: Green Stats: Intro to advanced stats +...

Photo: Matt West

Follow DRJ on Twitter @DRJ_CsNStats