Ten games into the season might be too soon to draw any big conclusions, but there is one positive development so far in the Celtics' season: the offense doesn't suck.
As of today, Boston's is ranked eighth in the league in points per possession, comfortably ahead of the 10th place team. For a team that ranked 25th in the league last season and was league average or worse the previous two seasons, this is marked improvement, and a cause for much celebration. You don't win championships when your offense is ranked 25th in the league, no matter how all-world your defense is.
Before the season, I thought that if the Celtics could improve their offense league average, they would, with their all-world defense, have a puncher's chance of contending; if they ranked in the top 10, they would have to be considered legitimate contenders. Mission accomplished, so far.
(Of course now the defense has taken several steps backwards, but I'm less worried about that, for several reasons: Kevin Garnett is only playing 28 minutes per game; there are lots of new players learning the schemes; and we don't have Avery Bradley. Even so, the Cs just this week moved from 25th to 19th in defensive efficiency; it seems safe to say that by the end of the seasons they will be a top-five defense.)
So why is the offensive suddenly so efficient and effective? Well, in part that's due to a slight increase in the team's effFG% and TS%, which are both up a couple of percentage points from last year. This is somewhat surprising to me, given that the offense lost Ray Allen's highly efficient three-point shooting and that Jason Terry and Courtney Lee started the season not shooting the ball particularly well. But still, despite the uptick in percentages, the team's league rankings in those categories are nearly identical to where they were last year. Which means the increased efficiency ranking comes from elsewhere.
But where? Well, from what I can tell, after some quick poking around the stats sites, the sources of the increase seem to be in two areas: free-throw shooting and turnovers. Fortunately, these two areas would seem to be both sustainable and indicate an offense that is working to the strengths of its personnel. This is very encouraging.
First, free throws. Last year, the Celtics ranked near the bottom of the league in FTAs per game, FTAs per possession, and, despite having a roster full of great free-throw shooters, FTMs per possession. This year the team ranks in the top five in each of those categories. For a team that doesn't have a dominant post presence (well, except for Paul Pierce, who doesn't go there enough) and that doesn't shoot many three-pointers, getting easy points from the free-throw line is essential. Last year the team didn't get many; this year, they are getting a lot. My quick, unscientific calculation is that the Cs are getting about 3.5 more points per 100 possessions from free throws than they were last year. That's a huge jump.
Where does the difference come from? I can't speak authoritatively because I haven't dug into the shot charts or lineup differentials yet--hopefully later this week--but logic would indicate two things: the offense is relying less on jump shooting and Ray Allen three-pointers and more on the work of slashers and drivers like Terry, Pierce, and Rondo, which means more fouls drawn. Again, that's based on intuition, not logic, but either way, five more free-throw attempts per game for this offense is huge.
Second, turnovers. In the Garnett era, turnovers have been a problem for the Celtics. Even in the years in which the offense was humming, they usually were at the bottom of the league in the percentage of turnovers. This year so far they are eighth-best in the league. For a team that shoots as efficiently as the Celtics do, this is a huge turnaround. Five fewer possessions wasted per game on turnovers means about three points more per game for the offense.
It's hard to tell why the turnovers are happening less they have in the past, but it seems fewer offensive fouls are at least part of the reason. It also helps that both Pierce and Rondo, our two biggest ball handlers, have lower TO percentages than last season, the former quite a bit lower, the latter a little bit so. Whatever the cause, this trend feels sustainable to me.
So there you have it. The PPP differential between this year and last is almost wholly attributable to more free throws and fewer turnovers. This would seem to be great news for the Celtics, as the increased efficiency seems to be due not to some unsustainable thing like high long-range-shooting percentages. The team seems to be playing to the skills of its roster and is making a conscious effort to keep a hold on the ball, two things that should be sustainable for the rest of the season.
Now, if we could just get the defense to catch up.