The Boston Celtics Aren't Eastern Conference Contenders Just Yet
If there was a poster-child coach for the advanced metrics revolution that is sweeping the NBA by storm, Celtics head coach Brad Stevens' face would be the one smiling at you.
Don't worry about the fact that the face on that poster is indistinguishable from a graduating college senior's yearbook photo. What Stevens lacks in mature appearance, he more than makes up for in his prowess as an innovator of the game.
The term "pace and space" is being thrown around NBA arenas as a tenet of the new-school of basketball philosophy, and a large part of that is due to Stevens. The Celtics coach used that term as bulletin board material for his Celtics team heading into the 2014-15 season, and his team responded by surprising the NBA community to the tune of a 40-42 record and a trip to the postseason.
Coming into the 2015-16, many NBA pundits were chomping at the bit to anoint the Celtics as the team most likely to make a big leap from mediocrity to contention, and Boston was dubbed the "Baby Hawks." Well, the way that this team has started the season is definitely a success for any Celtics believer.
This team appears at number nine on our power rankings.
With a record of 6-5 on the young season, including three very impressive wins in a row in which each contest was decided by double figures, the Celtics appear primed to make that leap into the conversation among Eastern Conference contenders.
Well, sometimes, appearances can be deceiving.
The Celtics are only projected to win 42.6 games this season according to our algorithms, which would place them as the 6 seed in the Eastern Conference.
There are two main reasons that the Celtics are not yet among the upper echelon of the East.
The first one is a lack of offensive efficiency, which is a very much quantitative results based synopsis. The second one is a little more complicated to analyze strictly by the numbers, but this team's void of "star" players almost certainly puts a ceiling on what this team can accomplish in the months of April and May.
Luckily for them, they have more than enough depth and defense to remain in the playoff conversation.
Let's take a look at exactly why some of these teams warts might be a problem for them going forward
Offensive Ups and Downs
The Celtics have the pace aspect of pace and space down pact. Over the last two years of the Brad Stevens era, they have ranked in the top five in terms of pace factor (102.1 for the 2015-16 season), which accounts for the number of possessions a team has per game. Faster play has certainly been used to the advantage of the C's, who implore a roster composed of players with an average age of 24.4 years of age.
The only problem with playing at a pace that fast is that it leaves you susceptible to turning the ball over. The Celtics, at 14 turnovers per game, rank in the bottom 10 of NBA teams. Stevens must be going crazy thinking about all of the wasted possessions.
The main culprit of the turnover problem for the Celtics just so happens to be the player who has the ball in his hands the majority of the game: Isaiah Thomas. With a Usage Rate of 30.7%, the 2.42 assist to turnover ratio he generates per game is a hindrance to the offensive development of this team that is ranked 17th in terms of Offensive Efficiency according to our metrics.
The space aspect of the Celtics offense is really the issue, and a part of that comes from the lack of three point shooters on the current roster. As a team, the C's only shoot 30.1% on three-pointers, ranking them 28th in the Association. What this tells us is that this team does not garner the respect and attention from opposing defenses when it comes to respecting the outside threat, and that in turn allows for the floor spacing to be clogged up for their play-makers to get the offensive rolling.
Where Is the Elite Level Talent?
One of the main differences between the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks (essentially the team they are trying to emulate) is the fact that the Hawks actually have elite, All-Star caliber players who are able to carry the franchise at critical points. The Hawks have two players that are rated in the top 16 of our nERD player rankings: Paul Millsap (10.9) and Al Horford (9.5).
The Celtics, on the other hand, are getting great current production from Thomas and Jared Sullinger who have an 8.0 and 6.7 nERDs respectively, but do not have nearly as much of a proven track record as the Atlanta stars. Sullinger's main issue is the fact that he is constantly injured, having missed 69 of a possible 246 games since he's entered the NBA.
The Celtics can not afford to play 28% of their games without Sullinger because of the impact that he has on the team offensively. When Sullinger is on the court, the Celtics have an Offensive Rating of 105.6 compared to 100.4 when he is off the court.
The one caveat player to this whole equation is last year's number-six overall pick, Marcus Smart. Right now, Smart is not the consistent threat that would make him a current star, but he has flashed a lot of potential over the course of his first season.
Just last week Smart out-dueled MVP candidate Russell Westbrook in a match that even caught the ire of Westbrook when asked about Marcus Smart not backing down from him. Smart brings a defensive intensity that Thomas and Sullinger are not capable of reaching, and he along with Avery Bradley are helping lead this Celtics defense to the third best efficiency, according to our metrics.
The Celtics are in a prime position as far as NBA teams are concerned.
They have the luxury of being competitive on a nightly basis, while not having those championship expectations, essentially leaving them playing with house money. If they are somehow able to make an in-season addition, then that might change the trajectory for this season. If not, the cupboard is full of assets (including the unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick for '16) for general manager Danny Ainge to use and mold this team into an actual contender.