The Celtics are struggling. That is something that is overly obvious, and something that is frustrating a lot of Boston fans. The reasons behind these struggles aren't immediately known, but there are a lot of things that are necessary to consider when trying to understand exactly why Boston is having a hard time.
The first thing to consider is this -- the Celtics are still integrating a ton of new players into a complex system (both on offense and defense), and two weeks of training camp and two preseason games are not long enough to figure those things out. At this point during last season (9 games into the season), Boston had stormed out of the gate. They were winning games at a spectacular rate, and had even beaten the proclaimed "world-beaters" from Miami. This year, though, things are different. Players endured an extended lockout, and are now having to cram 66 games into a season. While many people argued that the shortened season would bode well for the Celtics it is quite evident that this is not the case. This team has yet to jell together, and it is showing in almost every aspect of the game. The second unit is sporadic at best, and the first unit is terribly inconsistent at times. Rajon Rondo hasn't quite picked up a feel for all of his new teammates (save Brandon Bass), and seems to be having a difficult time understanding when to turn on the "passive Rondo" switch and be an all-out facilitator, or turn on "All-Star and aggressor Rondo" switch and drive the Celtics to the point that they need to be in during a game.
Another obvious factor impacting the Celtics this season is age. I have denied it for far too long, too. Kevin Garnett is fantastic as a player. He will always have a special place in my heart as a fan of the Celtics, and a fan of basketball in general. However, he is not anywhere close to the Kevin Garnett of even 2008 or 2009. He is struggling (massively at times) defensively, and was downright abused by Dirk Nowitzki during the recent game against Dallas. He still talks a lot, and he still rebounds decently well, but he is no longer the post player that he was in the past. His forte at this point is the pick-and-pop jumper that used to make his offensive game so lethal. Kevin is averaging his lowest percentage of made attempts at the rim per game during his entire time in Boston (1.7), and is averaging a career low amount of attempts at the rim (2.2). The bulk of Kevin's shots are still coming from 16-23 feet (4.9 per game), and he is making a 5-year low from that distance as well. He just doesn't have the lift, the agility, or the fierceness that made him such an intimidating player in the post and on defense. As for the rest of the team's aging? Well, I've already written about how well Ray Allen is shooting. He is shooting well, and the numbers are what tell that story. But what numbers don't tell are how many fewer chances he is being able to create for himself, how many times he is having to run off of multiple screens to get even the slightest bit of space. Ray is aging, too, guys. Paul Pierce has been the most consistent Celtic over the past few years, and you would expect that from your captain. Still, his injury at the beginning of the season slowed his progress, and he is having to get into shape on the fly. It's happening, but perhaps not as quickly as we would hope.
When digging deeper into some statistics it seems easy to understand why the Celtics are having troubles. Have they gotten better since they were ranking near the bottom of the NBA in defensive and offensive efficiency ratings? Sure. But for Boston the numbers that are being put up are nowhere near where they need to be in order to be competitive enough to go the distance in a tough Eastern Conference. First, let's look at pace. Pace is the average possessions used by a team in a single game per 48 minutes. The league average for pace is 94.1. Boston is dead last with a 90.3 pace. Yes, their slow offensive pace has been very typical during Doc Rivers' years in Beantown. But at the beginning of this season Doc made the statement that this team was going to likely run the floor more, and get out into more fastbreak opportunities. Obviously, there have been some injuries and other factors that haven't allowed the C's to do this with regularity, but being dead last in pace for a team that already is struggling to find ways to score enough points to keep games close is very disheartening. The Celtics also have a very high turnover rate (TOR). This is simply the percentage of possessions per game that end in turnovers. The NBA average TOR is 14.30. Boston's is third highest in the league at 16.08.
While Boston is definitely struggling in many areas of the game there are quite a few places where the team is picking up the production, and performing at a very decent rate. The Celtics most effective play so far this season has been plays resulting in shots for the roll man in the pick-and-roll. Out of 57 of these plays 50 of them have resulted in shots. The C's are scoring 58% of the time (1.21 points per play, fourth in the NBA) when these plays are executed. It seems like this has resulted in attempts for Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett more times than not, but still, the fact that this is still a productive area for Boston is a definite positive. The C's are also the second best team in the NBA in plays resulting in shots off of screens. Boston is scoring 1.15 points per possession on these plays, and shooting 48.6%. 31 of the 82 plays have resulted in three-point attempts, and the Celtics are converting 54.8% of those shots. It helps to have guys like Ray Allen on the floor for these occasions, since, you know, he specializes in being the NBA's greatest three-point shooter of all-time.
Boston leads the league in 3P% shooting 44.6% from beyond the arc. That's 11 percentage points above the league average of 33.6%. The C's also have the fourth highest true shooting percentage (TS%), shooting 55.4% -- while the league average is 52.0%. Likewise, Boston is fourth in the league in field goal percentage (FG%) shooting 46.9% from the floor. The league average is 44.2%. These are fantastic numbers. If you were judging the C's based on these statistics alone you would think they were at the top of the league (the teams around them in the rankings are Miami, Denver, Philly, OKC -- all good teams). But the Celtics just aren't scoring at a frequent enough pace. The opportunities are there. There players are there. Now, it's a matter of jelling together and finding a way to fit the pieces all of the pieces together.
The Celtics certainly have displayed some deficiencies so far this season, and they will without a doubt remain with the team until the end of the season. The Celtics are an old squad searching for a way to stay competitive in an increasingly youth-dominated league. But don't lose hope just yet. The Celtics have proved time and time again that although they may struggle at times they will make the proper adjustments to be competitive when it is crunch time. Will Boston be a 1-4 seed in the playoffs this year? They way the team is playing right now I would have to say that is unlikely. There are far too many teams that are playing better and more consistent basketball. However, with time, I think that the Celtics will begin figuring things out and start to take advantage of the opportunities they have been missing during the first nine games. This season is still young, but this team is not. But champions find ways to produce despite adverse circumstances. This season, more than ever, we will see what this championship core can do to produce given the adverse circumstances they are already facing, and will continue to face during the shortened season.
As a Celtics fan, though, I encourage you to not get too upset. Yes, that's a tall task. Celtics fans have become so accustomed to winning that struggles just don't sit well with the majority of the fan base. But take a step back and realize the task at hand for this team. Try to leave the expectations at the door, give the team and coaching staff time to figure out what they do well and then what they can do to use those strengths to be effective, and enjoy every single win. These days are the end of a glorious era in Boston -- an era that brought one banner, and with a little luck and skill could bring another. Regardless, the Celtics will inevitably fight on, and work through their struggles. And we as fans will be right there behind them every step of the way.