After last season's strong finish, we had all hoped that they could carry that momentum into this year. Over the summer, Ainge added two reliable vets and three promising rookies to the returning cast and everything looked on the up and up. Going into Media Day and training camp, we all had something to believe in and after a 7-1 preseason, what started as faith had started cementing itself into confidence.
Unfortunately, the team has stalled in the first two weeks and they're an underwhelming 3-4 so far. Defensively, they're certainly better. They finished last season tied for 12th in defensive rating at 102.1 and through seven games of 2015-2016, they're only allowing an impressive 95.3 points per 100 possessions. That's good for 5th in the league behind teams like the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
It's the offense that's been anemic. After last February's trade deadline, the team finished strong at 20-10 and posted an above average offense of 103.1 OffRtg. So far this season, they're down to 98.2. They're third to last in eFG% at 46.2%, just ticks above the Brooklyn Nets. They're the third worst offensive team in the first quarter which has forced Brad Stevens to shuffle the starting lineup (due in some part to injuries).
But there's hope.
Before the season started, one of the narratives coming out of training camp was the effectiveness of a potential pick-and-roll pairing of Isaiah Thomas and Amir Johnson. Before ever playing a minute together, the two had been analytics darlings at their position in the PnR. So far, the results have been mixed.
Of pick-and-roll ball handlers with a minimum of 50 possessions, Isaiah Thomas ranks 19th in PPP at 0.64. To put that into perspective, Steph Curry is first at 1.30, Dwyane Wade is second at 0.95, and Rajon Rondo is 22nd at 0.66. It's a small sample size, but this has been Thomas' career worst season to date. The career 43.9% shooter has dipped more than 6 points on his average to 37.5%; he's average a career high 20.6 ppg by making up for his abysmal three-point shooting (25.6% on 5.6 attempts) by getting to the line more than he ever has (7.1 FTAs). With Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley coming back from injury, Terry Rozier receiving minutes, and a mini-renaissance of Evan Turner, there's hope that Stevens can scale back Thomas' minutes and increase his effectiveness.
Of pick-and-roll roll men, Boston has two of the best and they're not Amir Johnson. With a minimum of 10 possessions, Jared Sullinger and David Lee rank 3rd and 5th in PPP at 1.54 and 1.46 respectively. It's a very small sample (both with only 13 possessions under their belt with guys like Anthony Davis and Chris Bosh at +35), but that production could be something that Brad Stevens and company could take a serious look into. In fact, the Celtics rank 1st in the NBA at points per possession at 1.27.
What's surprising is how little Amir Johnson has found himself in the pick-and-roll and there's also the disappearance of Tyler Zeller. If Sullinger and Lee's numbers seem small with only 13 rolls each over 7 games, Johnson with only 7 and Zeller with 6 is almost negligible. The Celtics aren't exactly a big PnR team, but it does make up nearly a quarter of the team's offensive plays (17.3% ball handler, 6.8% roll man).
It seems simple enough: just run more pick-and-roll and we'll win more games, right? Well, like most statistical analyses, so much of this is anecdotal. These are just small little moments in the fabric of a game that's dozens of plays long. It doesn't take into account the PnR's that go nowhere or the shots that were taken two or three passes after the original pick. The numbers are deceptively efficient because the Celtics are an extremely smart team. If a PnR doesn't look promising, they bail out of it and rotate the ball. You can't just multiply by two and expect twice the results.