We're talking about six preseason games (two against European teams) vs. an entire 82-game that was constantly interrupted with trades and lineup changes, but nonetheless, you can see how the concerted effort to be more efficient bear out in the numbers.
2014-2015 regular season
Avery Bradley has talked about taking less long-2's and instead, turning those into 3's and you can see how not just him but the entire team has responded. Last season, the team shot 21.8% of their shots behind the arc at a clip below the league average. Brad Stevens has talked about the importance of also shooting the shorter corner 3's and you can see why. So far, the Celtics are 17-of-33 in those pockets with Avery Bradley accounting for 7-of-12 shooting. With drivers Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart, Evan Turner, and Terry Rozier, those looks are going to become more frequent. Boston won't be able to maintain that average, but with more perimeter shooting on the roster this season, the Celtics could take a giant leap in eFG%.
It's not shown in the shot charts, but the Celtics have also been getting to the line (26.8 FTA) more than they did last year (20.5 FTA). Much of that can be credited to a more aggressive Marcus Smart in pick-and-rolls and swing men like Jae Crowder and Jonas Jerebko and even Kelly Olynyk playing downhill rather than shooting from the mid-range.
The conventional wisdom coming into training camp was to surround Thomas with shooters so that he could drive-and-kick out of the pace-and-space offense and that's certainly improved the aforementioned three point shooting, but we're also seeing improvements attacking the paint. Last season, the Celtics shot 31% of their FGA's at the rim, but after six preseason games, we've seen those numbers jump up to 37%.
A little tweak here and there has seen a big jump offensively. The team is averaging 108.2 points per game, up from 101.4 last season. Their eFG% and TS% have seen slight upticks, but with depth as their strength, they're playing quicker and averaging over 5 possessions more each game. While they're only averaging a 104.4 offensive rating (up from 101.7 last year), they biggest difference has been defensively where they're now defending at a 93.9 defensive rating vs. 102.1 last season. Again, the caveat is that this is preseason ball, but they're ranked 4th in the league in offense (behind the Wizards, Thunder, and surprisingly, the Pacers) and 6th in defense (behind the Grizzlies, Hawks, Hornets, Knicks, and Thunder). Their net 10.5 rating is second only to OKC.
Check out this piece from Ian Levy at SI.com's The Cauldron where he talks about the power of average. Here's a snippet:
FiveThirtyEight's win estimates are based on player projections (a 50/50 blend of Box Plus-Minus and ESPN's Real Plus-Minus). By their estimates, Marcus Smart stands to be the Celtics' best player this season, worth about 2.8 points per 100 possessions. That's just below the level of what most plus-minus practitioners would consider a star.
The reason the starless Celtics are projected to win 48 games is because nine of their other 14 players have a projected value of -0.5 or better. That essentially means Boston can build an entire rotation of average-to-above-average players. A completely average team would project to win about half their games over the course of a season. If you throw in the few slightly better-than-average players Boston boasts— Smart, Johnson, Lee, Isaiah Thomas, Kelly Olynyk —tacking on six or seven extra wins suddenly doesn't sound so farfetched.
For this squad to be more than the sum of its parts, Stevens will have to utilize all the little improvements each player has made over the summer and make all those parts fit. Consider what we've seen over the last three weeks that the team didn't have at the close of last season:
- Marcus Smart in the PnR
- Avery Bradley's improved shooting and shot selection
- Jae Crowder's lock down defense
- David Lee's playmaking ability
- Isaiah Thomas' efficiency and role as a point guard with the second unit
- Kelly Olynyk's confidence coming off his experience with Team Canada
- Amir Johnson being a threat inside and out
- rookies R.J. Hunter and Terry Rozier showing they can contribute immediately
Of course I miss Mr. Reliable Brandon Bass and the unexpected contributions of Gigi Datome, but this team is demonstrably better, more versatile on the offensive end, tougher on defense, and deep deep deep. Skeptics might scoff at the analytics that have Boston finishing higher than expectations, but even a simple eye test will tell you how much improved the Celtics will be in 2015-2016.