The Celtics have now played 10 games this season in which Rajon Rondo sat out but Avery Bradley played. With the All-Star break upon us, this gives us a good time to take a 10-game benchmark test of how our current team looks: what has been accomplished? How has it been accomplished? And can we start making quantitative estimates about our potential?
What has been accomplished?
10 games: Celtics have gone 9 - 1 with a scoring margin of +6.9. The 10 teams they've played have an average SRS (measure of team strength) of +0.0...this is exactly at league average, which is an SRS of 0. Thus, the Celtics' strength of schedule over these 10 games is just about average, making it a reasonable cross section. Among the nine victories have include wins over the Heat, at the Knicks, the Bulls, the Nuggets, and the Clippers (minus Chris Paul). The loss was a last-minute defeat to the lowly Bobcats on the second half of a back-to-back in which the first game was a triple-overtime victory that saw Pierce (54 minutes), KG (47 minutes) and Terry (45 minutes) play ultra extended sessions.
So, on first blush, the team looks very strong 10 games in. This has to be tempered because 10 games is still not long enough to know for sure...the sample size is still too small. However, at this point it can at least be considered a trend worth investigating further. So the next question is, how has this success been achieved?
How has this been accomplished?
On a team-wide level, the average offensive rating (points scored/100 possessions) over those 10 games was 105.9. Similarly, the average defensive rating (points allowed/100 possessions) over those 10 games was 98.5. That defensive rating would be #1 in the NBA at this point in the season (Pacers currently #1 at 99.3 pts allowed/100 poss), while the offensive rating would be 13th (right at league average). So clearly this team is winning with defense first, but with enough offense to get the job done. This is a formula that has worked in the past, as the 2008 championship squad (1st in defense, 10th in offense) and 2010 Finals squad (5th in defense, 15th in offense) operated in exactly that manner.
With a defense led by Kevin Garnett and bolstered by the Bradley/Courtney Lee backcourt with Paul Pierce and Jeff Green doing good work on the wings, the defensive success was predictable and appears sustainable. The offensive results are perhaps the least intuitive, but thus far the motion-based offense with the larger team involvement focus centered around Pierce and Garnett has proven successful...this is the side of the ball where the jury is still out, though.
Is team asking too much of KG and Pierce?
A key concern with the rash of injuries (Sully and Barbosa down as well, along with Rondo) is that in order for the team to be successful it might now be asking for too much out of the veterans. Garnett and Pierce have shown that they can still ramp it up, and in the postseason they will be called upon for more minutes, but it doesn't seem like a good idea to ask them to heavy lift for the rest of the season and then the playoffs as well at ages 35+. So, what has their minutes burden been in these 10 games?
Garnett: 31.8 mpg (including 5 OT sessions...minus theOTs, he's been at 29.5 mpg)
Pierce: 35.6 mpg (33.1 mpg without the 5 OTs)
This is actually extremely encouraging, because it tells us that the Celtics aren't having to burn out their star vets in order to build this level of regular season success. Outside of the flukishly high concentration of OTs, KG and Pierce are playing the same minutes now that they were all year and still managing to lead this team to victories. To me, this suggests that at a minimum the squad could probably get by with adding some minute-eating role players to the bench just to help the starters keep minutes down but that the team could still maintain a strong level of success.
The Celtics are 9 - 1 with a scoring margin of +6.9. The win/loss record isn't actually the biggest predictor of postseason success, the scoring margin is. Generally, teams with a scoring margin in the +6 - +8 range are the contenders (this year, that's currently the Thunder (+8.8), Spurs (+8.4), Clippers (+6.8), and Heat (+6.4)). In '08 the Celtics had a scoring margin up near +10, which was the highest mark since Jordan's Bulls.
Note of interest, in the last few seasons the Celtics have consistently out-performed their regular season scoring margin expectations in the playoffs, highlighted by the 2010 run in which their scoring margin suggested 1st/2nd round knockout but they went to game 7 of the Finals instead. They usually outperform because in the postseason their best players, especially Garnett, play a lot more minutes. Thus, the fact that the current squad has a contending scoring margin with Garnett and Pierce still playing managed minutes is actually an extremely good sign for the current team's playoff expectations.
10 games in, this team looks like legitimate contenders. Their playing style is proven, their performance appears sustainable, their minutes and veteran expectations are reasonable, their current scoring margin is consistent with contending teams, and there is still plenty of room for the postseason bump when their best players start playing more minutes. The injury rate for their rotation players is concerning, but still manageable with replacement level role player minutes eaters. All told, this is a dangerous team as we move towards the close of the season and into the playoffs.