NBA 2016 at nine weeks: Who’s hot, who’s not – and who can’t decide?

It wasn’t that long ago that the old Basketball Association of America seemed to consist of the Western Conference and the NBAD-plus league, otherwise known as the “(L)East” – the ultimate suspense of playoff time was whether the survivor of the Wild West Tussle would have enough left in their tank for LeBron and (whatever) Company, who’d generally not have broken a sweat until the third round.

A close look at the topsy-turvy opening nine weeks of the NBA’s 2016-17 schedule may have us longing for the stability and serenity of those good ol’ days.

While the usual suspects – the Cavs, Dubs and Spurs at one extreme, the Sixers, Nets and Suns at the other – still cluster on the fringes, the bulk of the league has been on a two-month search for consistency – if not identity.

Through 63 days of play (through last Monday), only 12 teams sport a winning record. There are 17 teams who have lost four or more consecutive games. More optimistically, 17 teams have also won four or more games in a row.

The new-look Atlanta Hawks, one of six squads who’ve been on both sides of such stretches so far, enjoyed a Dr. Jekyll 7-2 opening three weeks to their season but transformed into Mr. Hyde over the next 21 days while dropping 10 of 13. Despite owning the league’s second longest losing streak (7 games), Coach Mike Budenholzer’s troops hold the sixth-best record in the conference. (The surprising Knicks stand fifth.)

When we analyze the season in three-week segments, we’ll find that eight teams – Cleveland and Toronto the only representatives from the Eastern Conference – have played winning ball in all three sub-seasons. The Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Rockets, Thunder and Jazz round out this elite group.

Contrarily, the Heat, Mavs, Nets, Pels, Sixers and T’wolves have yet to achieve a .500 tri-mester.

Like the Hawks, Terry Stotts’s pesky and playoff-tested Portland Trail Blazers have degenerated from a solid 7-4 start to a putrid 1-10 during Weeks 7-9. Even Doc’s Clips slipped from their torrid 10-1 to a couple of mediocre 6-5’s.

On the other hand, the Wizards and Kings each posted a 7-4 record during the third session, after coming out of the starting blocks 2-7 and 4-7, respectively. John Wall and the Wiz (14-16) have a couple more teams to hurdle in order to claim a playoff seed. Boogie’s West Coast Monarchy, despite owning the Association’s 20th-best won-loss record (14-17), although another of the six team with both four-game winning and losing streaks, would be a playoff team – over four East teams (Indiana, Washington, Detroit and Orlando) that have a higher winning percentage.

The Celtic Slant

On the heels of a 105-95 victory in Miami a week or so ago, a game in which the struggling Floridians both out-shot (.522 - .456) and out-rebounded (42 – 37) his team, Coach Brad Stevens opined, “We need to keep finding ways to become the best version of ourselves.”

Of course, it’s not really possible to measure a team’s progress against that standard – but let’s compare the East’s third seed to Average NBA Team Performance through nine weeks and 470 games.

Avg. Performance        --         Celtic Data         --        Opponent Data

FG%: 1209 - 2677, .451   --   1197 – 2684, .446 (No. 18)   --   1164 – 2623, .444 (No.8)
3FG%: 296 – 834, .355    --   341 – 975, .350 (No. 18)   --   278 – 812, .342 (No. 6)
3FG usage: 834 – 2677, .312   --   975 – 2684, .363 (No. 4)   --   812 – 2623, .310 (No. 14)
FT%: 558 – 728, .766   --   526 – 664, .792 (No. 5)   --   598 – 782, .765 (No. 15)
Reb (Off-Tot, OR%): 322 – 1374, .234 -- 293 – 1298, .213 (No. 23) -- 354 – 1439, .260 (No. 29)
TO (Tot-Pct): 442, .129   --   379, .113 (No. 4)   --    451, .132 (No. 14)

The C’s challenge shots well, indeed Top-Ten strong, are a little better than average in forcing turnovers, relatively weak off the glass. On offense, they take care of the ball well, utilize the three-point stripe much more than most, but struggle to make shots. Nonetheless, their 105.2 points per game rank No. 12; their +1.84 per-game point differential is ninth-best.

From the data we have at hand, we can calculate a team’s “empty possessions” (that is, the other team’s “stops”) quite simply – add the missed Field Goal Attempts and Turnovers, then subtract the Offensive Rebounds. By this formula, Boston was stopped 1,573 times and stopped the opposition 1,556 times, a 17-possession deficit in 31 games. That’s a per-game disadvantage of 0.55 possessions (No. 20 in the league).

The team’s impressive ranking in the matter of scoring – they were No. 10 in Points per Possession through eight weeks – is earned at the stripes. The Celtics’ 138 missed free throws are more than compensated by their 341 successful treys, 203 points better; their opponents gain only 94 points. This represents an advantage of 109 points, or 3.52 per game, second only to Harden playing D’Antoni ball in Texas. (Or should that be D’Antoni coaching Harden ball in Texas?)

[The 2015-16 Celtics left a similar numerical footprint.]

It appears that Coach Brad and his brain trust have devised a version of the game that fits the skills and limitations of his squad. That post-game sound bite from Miami sounds like Coach-speak for the old line about the “Whole” that’s “greater than the sum of its parts.”

But when push comes to shove, so to say, those individual parts become more exploitable – hence, Coach Brad has yet to taste his first road playoff victory.

Unlike his predecessor, whose Celtics won a championship and were never swept from the playoffs, Stevens didn’t inherit a roster that included a Paul Pierce-type who could single-handedly ensure you a victory each and every playoff series.

In a season where so many teams have shown the capability of extended poor play …

In a season where even favorites like the Spurs (no Timmy), Warriors (no interior D) and Cavs (is that a distracting chip I detect on the shoulder of one, LeBron James?) reveal potential vulnerability …

Before the body of the under-sized over-achiever who’s become the face of the franchise and heart and soul of the team begins to feel the effects of all that over-achievement …

… is it time for Danny Ainge to go all in and acquire, at fair market value, the young star who fits the culture and can grow into a candidate for Springfield, all while raising two or three banners to the Garden rafters?

I will not presume to say I know who this “perfect fit” is – but I will presume that the General Manager is paid to know such things.

Coach Brad’s prestidigitation over the past season and a half or so has crafted a pretty darn good version of this team.

But I’m reminded of something Wilt Chamberlain – a guy who knew a thing or two about coaches – once said:

A great coach can help a team win six or seven games a year. A good coach doesn’t cost his team any games; a bad coach does.

It’s as true as it’s ever been that talent ultimately separates the winners and runners-up.

Stevens/Ainge, Schroder/Budenholzer images: USAToday