At this mid point I thought it would be interesting to look at how the core of this team has been doing. Because of injuries, suspensions and personal family-matter absences, the roster of the C's has been somewhat in flux. Because of that, it can be difficult at times to see through the noise and see how the heart of the team is doing.
Why is this important? Because in the odd chance that the team DOES make it to the playoffs, at that point, nothing becomes more important than how your top 5-man unit performs. Rotations shrink. Coaches go to 8 man units to get through entire games and the lion's share of minutes will go to the best 5-man unit. All concerns about how good your bench is, how to rest your starters, developing youngsters for the future - all that stuff goes right out the window. You win in the playoffs with your best unit.
With the Celtics, Danny famously gambled last year that he could put any good big man in the post behind the "Big 4" of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo and that they would still be a dominant unit. That gamble fell short behind injuries to not only the big men he planned to replace Perk with, but also to Rondo.
Many feel that the core "Big 4" is now past it's window and that they can no longer get the job done. Most of the complaints posted on this board are criticisms of the starters. KG is too old and slow and has no hops. Pierce has no legs. Ray can't get open off screens anymore. Both Paul and Ray are accused of turning the ball over like a greased bowling ball. Rondo is inconsistent, moody, and a mis-matched gazelle on a unit of beached manatees. And so on.
If all that is true, then they must suck, right? Well, I thought it worthwhile to take a look at how the "Big 4" is performing in isolation from the rest of the Celtics. Numbers after the jump.
In a recent FanPost, drza44 posted a very interesting article that illuminated the simple stark difference in how this team performs with both KG & Pierce playing (15-10) versus how they perform with one or both missing (0-6). Anybody who has been paying attention to the last week should be painfully aware of how poorly we have played in the games without KG. If nothing else, these facts suggests that perhaps the members of the Big 4 are not completely worthless yet.
In particular the idea of needing BOTH KG and PP together - either missing was killer - reminded me that this team is all about synergy. I decided to use data from http://www.basketballvalue.com to see how the Big 4 are playing when they are on the floor together this season. Here is their data with the various 5th men they have been combined with:
|unit||minutes||Poss For||Poss Opp||Pts For||Pts Opp||Off Rtg||Def Rtg||Overall Rtg|
|Big 4 + O'Neal, Jermaine||177.6||327||326||325||298||99.39||91.41||7.98|
|Big 4 + Wilcox, Chris||16.38||31||30||39||30||125.81||100.00||25.81|
|Big 4 + Stiemsma, Greg||15.15||32||31||40||33||125.00||106.45||18.55|
|Big 4 + Johnson, Jajuan||6.5||11||13||14||12||127.27||92.31||34.97|
|Big 4 + Bass, Brandon||59.8||108||105||110||124||101.85||118.10||-16.24|
|Big 4 + anyone||275.43||509||505||528||497||103.73||98.42||5.32|
|Big 4 + (JO,CW,GS,JJ)||215.63||401||400||418||373||104.24||93.25||10.99|
|Big 4 + (CW,GS,JJ)||38.03||74||74||93||75||125.68||101.35||24.32|
Some things to observe in this. First and foremost - Jermaine O'Neal gets a bad rap. That 91.41 DefRtg that the starters have posted with him is wicked stingy. And while the 99.39 ORtg is not great, the net rating of almost +8 is solid. Unfortunately, since Jermaine cannot be counted on to give you more than about 20 minutes (and that's assuming his latest injury isn't lasting) what may be even more important is how the Big 4 have been doing with the OTHER big men.
As you can see from the above, the results are mixed. Let's talk about Brandon Bass. On one hand, as exciting as it has been to have his dependable scoring off the bench - he has not really produced great results when inserted with the Big 4. The reasons are not too hard to figure. When he is added, KG has to go to the 5 and play in the post on defense because Bass is too short to defend 7 foot centers. This is bad. KG is the premier high paint big man defender of this last decade - maybe one of the best all time - and making him stay down low to guard a 5 is a misuse of his talents. KG is not a bad big man defender, but his true value is in using his horizontal game to deny passing lanes and access to the paint. The other effect of this is that when you put Bass on the floor with the Big 4, that means going against the best unit of the other team. And many other teams starting units feature PFs that are 6' 10" or taller. Basically, Bass creates a big fat defensive problem for us and that is painfully obvious by that horrid 118.1 DRtg.
Note carefully that this does not mean Bass is not a great bench player for us. His overall rating for us is positive. When deployed with our bench units against the other teams' bench units, he has been great. But the way rotations work, when our Big 4 are on the floor you can predict that other coaches are also going to have their starters on the floor. And Bass is simply not tall enough to play defense against premier starting bigs. So he should not really be deployed with our starters unless we know the match ups favor him.
Because the individual minutes for each are so small, I don't think we can say anything definitive about how well the Big 4 perform with Chris Wilcox or Greg Stiemsma or JaJuan Johnson individually. However, collectively, the trend is pretty clear - so long as the extra big man has legitimate length - and is not creating a huge hole in our defense - they are doing pretty damn well! Their collective 101.35 DRtg, while nowhere near the shut-down defense that we've been getting with JO at the 5, is still very, very good. And conversely their superior athleticism is resulting in much, much better offensive output. The sample size collectively is still small at just 38 minutes, so I don't want to claim that the net +24.32 is sustainable. But it is a very promising sign that the Big 4, as a unit, are not yet done.
To give you some perspective on these numbers, in 2007-2008, this Big 4 posted a +19.47 net rating with Perk and +11.28 as a team overall. That was the highest net rating the Celtics historically have ever posted, slightly better than even the '86 team. Most Celtics teams that have made the final have had at least a +5 rating.
2010 was an interesting case that bears remark. Because of numerous injuries during the season, we went through long stretches without all of our Big 4 healthy and on the floor so our regular season overall team rating was not that impressive. But as many of us noted - the 5-man unit numbers were strong and bode well, if the team could just get healthy. Sure enough, the team that hit the playoffs was healthy and made an amazing run that came up just short.
So, all that sounds rosy and wonderful. The problem is - despite all that evidence that the 'Big 4' are (collectively) fine, the Celtics overall are currently stuck below .500 and looks decidedly mediocre. That is because this team is having serious problems generating offense when we don't have the Big 4 on the floor. Specifically, in units dominated by our bench guards and wings (AB, KD, EM, MP, MD & SP) our offense basically has sucked. Our defense from those units has been okay - but the offense has been atrocious. In several of our recent 'big games' our starters will have all posted positive +/- numbers (out playing the other team), but the bench will have given it all up, posting massively negative numbers.
I suspect some of the blame falls on Doc's shoulders (for not coming up with offensive schemes that 'Non-Big 4' personnel can execute) and some on those players for simply not executing well the things that they SHOULD be able to execute. That discussion is for elsewhere (feel free to offer ideas below).
Going forward into this second half, THIS - the offensive performance of our bench - has got to be our number one priority for improvement. Even if it becomes less important in the contracted rotations of the playoffs, the simple fact is that if we don't get better production there during the regular season, we may not MAKE it to the playoffs.