Brad Stevens instituted a real offensive identity to the Boston Celtics last season. Heavily dependent on ball movement and unselfishness, Boston's offense showed nice improvement as the year progressed. Before the all star break, the Celtics had an offensive rating of 101 points per 100 possessions (23rd in the NBA). After the break they posted a rating of 102.9 (16th in the NBA). This improvement propelled them into the playoffs, and raised expectations for this upcoming year. LeBron James called them one of the most difficult offenses to defend against. One unfortunate stat that remained consistent was Boston's 32.6% three-point shooting. The glaring weakness of outside shooting could undermine the potential effectiveness of the offense this season.
Three-point shooting has skyrocketed over the last decade, and especially in the last five years. In 2011, the league average for 3PA was 1,477. That average has consistently risen, peaking at 1,838 last season. Teams are finally catching on that three points are worth more than two. Boston generated a healthy amount of looks from deep last season. They ranked 13th in three point attempts last year. Unfortunately, they only finished 27th in percentage made at 32.7%. This is a real issue. The top 10 offenses in the NBA, with the exception of 10th place OKC, all shot 35% or better from deep. (per basketball reference)
The Celtics don't need lights out shooting like the Warriors or Hawks. Houston only made 34.8% their 3PA, but the shot volume was high enough to benefit from it. If the Celtics can just move towards league average, the effects would be immense. Converting the league average of 35% would generate an extra 2 points per 100 possessions, based on last year's attempts. That may be too optimistic a scenario, but it shows just how much decent three-point shooting can add to a team.
Boston wasn't entirely without shooting last season though. Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley, and Kelly Olynyk all made around league average from three. Jonas Jerebko shot over 40%, albeit on limited attempts. The problems really came from Marcus Smart and Jared Sullinger. They combined to attempt 456 threes, while only making 31% of them. That's a disaster considering they ranked second and third in 3PA last season for Boston. The Celtics need to see some improvement from them, or find some new players to redistribute those attempts to. Here are some candidates to help assuage Boston's shooting woes this season.
Smart went through quite a turbulent shooting year in his rookie season. He went though two months of unbelievable shooting where he made well over 40% of his threes. Unsustainable might be the better descriptor though, because Smart made just 30% of his threes the rest of the season. But he at least showed that he could turn it on for a brief period. With some work on his shot, we might see more consistency from him in the future, and hopefully avoid another Icarus-like fall back to earth.
The obvious summary of James Young still applies this season: raw as a player, but he has potential. Young showed a few signs of life last year, like lighting up the D league to the tune of 44% from deep. His NBA numbers weren't so hot, but neither sample was especially large. The biggest problem for Young is his wretched defense. If you're too much of a liability on that end, then finding playing time is really tough. This season could be crucial in his development. Hopefully he'll feel the pressure and start draining threes, while playing a little defense too.
Amir isn't known for his three-point shooting. He's only taken 112 attempts over the last two seasons. But, he's shot a respectable 35% from three across that period. He could be an interesting option to stretch the floor a bit. Having a big man who can shoot league average from deep changes how defenses defend. Most of the attention thus far has been on his defensive presence, but his shooting might end up being a sneaky benefit to this team.
Brad Stevens has done a great job with the offense so far. He's not working with the best of tools, but there has been real growth. Without better shooting, it will be hard for that upward trajectory to continue.