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Realistic Optimism part 1: KG and Pierce

Well, this feels familiar.

Last year over the last four months of the season, when the team was losing and not seeming to play very inspired ball, a schism developed on CelticsBlog.  There were the "optimists", those that were sick of all of the negativity about the Cs that they were subjected to every time they came on the site.  And there were the "pessimists", who usually called themselves realists, who were irritated that the optimists wouldn't take off their rose-colored glasses and realize that this team was done.  It got heated, and even after the season played out like it did with the Cs just a few minutes from a title, the "bad blood", if you will, never really went away.  Many of the "realists" still felt that both the Celtics and the "optimists" got lucky, that they caught lightening in a bottle and that no one could have really expected them to be able to (so-called) flip a switch and do so well in the postseason with the way they were playing.

This year, same song different day.  The two most recommended articles on the main board are 1) a plea for the pessimists to stop being so negative, and 2) a note from the blog boss emphatically stating that opinions of all kinds are welcome, both optimistic and pessimistic.  The Celticsblog "Capulets" and "Montagues" are back at it again this year.

But, here's the problem:

Just like last year, there is a third category between blind "don't talk bad about my team!" optimism and "the sky is falling" pessimism: realistic optimism.  I suppose the overall message here will be positive in bent, but it will be backed with both anecdotal and quantitative evidence.  In short: right now, despite the (now outrageously overblown) Perk trade, despite the recent losses, despite the huge (and familiar) shift of the national basketball media/public off the Celtics bandwagon...despite ALL of that, there are very real and very tangible reasons to expect the Celtics to do extremely well in this postseason.  I can think of several, and if life permits I'll post some of them over the next several days.  But for today, let's start at the top.

The first reason to be realistically optimistic about the 2011 Cs winning #18 this year is: Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce are really good.

No.  I mean, they're really, REALLY good.  And for some reason, I don't think many have really noticed it.  Because in all of the "Big 4" hype, and all of the talk that Rajon Rondo might really be the most important player on the team, KG and Pierce have quietly gone about turning in a huge impact season.

Consider: if you mosey on over to basketballvalue.com and, on the home page, click on the "1 Year unadjusted overall rating: on" link, you'll find that out of EVERY player in the NBA, the player whose team played the absolute best in the league with him on the court this year is: (drum roll) Kevin Garnett.  And you won't have to look far to find the next familiar name, because Paul Pierce is third on the list.  So, what does this tell us?  It tells us that in the 2,220 minutes that KG has been on the court this year, the Celtics are a whopping 12.93 points better than their opponents per 48 minutes played.  That is a huge number, especially considering the circumstances: because KG plays only 31 minutes/game and his minutes are heavily concentrated at the beginning and ends of halves, almost every minute that he's been on the court has been against the starters of the opposing team.  So in those 2220 minutes with KG (almost all of which have also featured Pierce), the Celtics have been crushing the starters of their opponents.  Keep this in mind.

Now, while you've already got your basketballvalue link open, under the "1 Year unadjusted overall ranking" heading, now click on "Net".  This will give you a listing for the biggest differentials between how a team performs with and without a certain player on the court for this season.  And, once again, you'll see two very familiar names at the top, with Paul Pierce leading the NBA with an absurd +18.84 per 48 minutes, closely followed by KG in second place with +16.8 per 48 minutes.  So, what does that tell us?  It means that not only are KG and Pierce SUFFICIENT for the team to thrive (which the on-court numbers gave us above), but it also means that they are NECESSARY for the team to thrive (for both KG and Pierce, the Celtics are well into the net negatives when they are off the court). 

Now, before I drive home my punchline, I'm going to pause and allow some of you to speak your mind before you burst.  In fact, I'll say it with you, "YEAH, BUT MOST OF THOSE NUMBERS CAME BEFORE WE TRADED PERK AND GAVE UP OUR IDENTITY AND STARTED GETTING BLOWN OUT SO WHAT YOU'RE SAYING DOESN'T MATTER!!!!"  There, doesn't it feel better to get that out?  But here's the thing: KG's and Pierce's on- and on/off-court +/- are still staggering post Perk trade.

I've been keeping track of the weekly +/- for the Cs for most of the year.  Perk was traded after the first game during the week of Feb. 21.  Well, from that week up until yesterday's starter shut-down, Garnett and Pierce were still a cool +10.9 and +8.9 respectively per 48 minutes on-court, and the team is a massive +23.9 and +22.4 respectively with them on the court as opposed to off.  Hmmm.

And if you look at the last few weeks, the numbers are even more stark.  The Celtics have lost 7 of their last 13 games.  Yet, over that 3 week period, they are a whopping +14.6 with KG on the court (+9.7 for Pierce), and an unreal +36.8 points better when KG's on the court than when he's off (+32.7 for Pierce, +35.9 for Ray, and +23.8 for Rondo).  Interesting.

So, if our KG/Pierce led line-ups are so dominating, how is it that the team is losing so much?

I'm glad you asked. 

I've given you a lot of numbers here, so let me now give you the meat of the matter.  The upshot is, when Kevin Garnett is on the court the Celtics have bar-none the best defensive starting unit of any team in the NBA.  It's not even particularly close.  The Bulls make up ground with their 2nd unit being so stingy and our 2nd unit lagging, but strength-to-strength the KG-led Celtics defense is the best.  And it's still our identity.  Likewise, the offense with Pierce and KG on the floor together is still sick as well.  Now, Rondo and Ray are also offensive keys as well, don't get me wrong.  That's not the point.  The point is, when you put Rondo and Ray together with KG and Pierce our offense is still powerful as well.

But.

Where we've had trouble this year has been with the players outside of the core group.  Injuries and chemistry have taken huge tolls on our frontcourt and depth, so when KG and Pierce haven't been on the court to stabilize things, the team has struggled.  It's led to many of these losses that we've seen in recent weeks.  But you know what else happened in the last month or two, besides Perkins getting traded?  Doc has started to rest Garnett more.  Perk got traded at the end of February, and in March/April KG has played less than 30 minutes per game ... only 60% of his team's minutes.  Now, follow me here.  The team trades it's starting center...the two other starting caliber centers are injured for most of this period...even the 3rd center, Krstic, has been in-and-out of the line-up.  And during that period, the all-world big man on the squad has been sitting for 40% of the game action.  You know what that's a recipe for?  A squad getting torched, especially in the paint, for almost half of every game.  Now, go back and notice that the team is +11 with KG on the court and -13 with him off the court in that stretch...and maybe the team's struggles start to make a bit more sense when taken in context.

Now, for the final punchline: KG's minutes go WAY up in the postseason.  While he was around 29 minutes per game during the last couple of months of both the 2008 and 2010 seasons, when the playoffs came around that all changed.  So, even barring any other team improvements (which, realistically, should be forthcoming) and barring any other returns to health (which, realistically should be forthcoming), the Celtics will soon be playing their 2 best players together for 36 minutes/game for the first time since...well, since the playoffs of their last two Finals runs.

In summary, KG and Pierce are really, really good.  When they both play, the Celtics have played the best of any unit in the NBA this year.  And once the playoff start, they'll be playing together a LOT more than they have since the last time the team was in the championship.  Taken together, this is a very realistic, very quantifiable reason for Celtics fans to be very optimistic about this postseason.

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