The Boston Celtics are much closer to contention in the Eastern Conference than you might think. In my article last week I implored Boston's front office to make a push for the playoffs, which Eric Weiss accurately expounded on with his piece on Wednesday evening, with both of our points being that the next stepping stone towards Banner 18 could be reached before Thursday's trade deadline.
More on Isaiah Thomas
More on Isaiah Thomas
Well, that's precisely what happened: Boston swooped in at the last minute and acquired Isaiah Thomas from the Phoenix Suns, sending back Marcus Thornton and Cleveland's 2016 first-round draft pick.
Though Boston is only 20-31, they have made significant strides this season. Despite trading both Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, the Celtics have maintained a similar level of production offensively, while their defense has improved significantly. Brad Stevens has the team playing a high-level in recent weeks, which is why they were involved in so many trade conversations and ultimately landed Thomas.
In the last 10 games, Boston has the NBA's 10th-ranked defense with a stout 100.8 defensive rating, according to NBA.com, which is keeping them afloat despite a feeble 99.8 offensive rating. Considering they're only 1.5 games behind a playoff seed it appears this transaction is made with the clear intentions of making a push for the playoffs, though the decision was made for long-term reasons.
The Celtics don't exactly have offensive weapons that give the opponent nightmares, with their poorest performance coming out Synergy's pick-and-roll ball handler play type with only 0.685 points per possession. Boston isn't getting to the free throw line out of the screen game either, and they're also turning the ball over at a high rate.
This is an enormous problem, because there is a strong correlation between winning percentage and pick-and-roll ball handler scoring (r = 0.68). Obviously you'd expect a higher scoring play type to correlate with winning, but every other Synergy play type this season doesn't come close to the same correlation as pick-and-roll ball handler, except for spot up (r = 0.68).
The pick-and-roll is the bread-and-butter play that almost every team uses when they're in need of an easy basket, or when the game slows down in the fourth quarter, so it's really not too surprising that the NBA's best teams happen to excel in both pick-and-roll and spot up situations.
And suddenly the Celtics have found the medicine that will help cure their anemic pick-and-roll attack. Here is what Thomas brings to the table as a pick-and-roll scorer, compared to the other three point guards Boston was reportedly pursuing:
All four of those point guards are pretty good in the pick-and-roll, which of course was the top area of need for the Celtics. It becomes clear that Boston's front office likely felt like they had to make a move if a good one was there, and fortunately it was.
Thomas has been in the upper echelon of NBA players in Synergy's %Score, which measures the percent of possessions a player scored as the pick-and-roll ball handler, whether it's with a field goal or from the free throw line. Thomas' %FT is particularly encouraging, as Boston is starving for a player that can get to the line (%FT is the percent of pick-and-roll possessions a free throw is awarded).
Thomas is scoring 0.845 points per possession out of the pick-and-roll this season, which unsurprisingly blows away everyone else on Boston's roster (Bradley: 0.782 PPP; Turner: 0.668; Smart: 0.448).
In all three plays above, Thomas penetrates with different results, whether it's a drawn foul, a made basket, or an assist. His ability to relentlessly attack the big man will add a brand new dimension to Boston's offense, which they didn't even have with Rondo earlier this season, as he was one of the NBA's worst pick-and-roll scorers (0.576 PPP).
Isaiah Thomas might not be a star player, but he is a borderline-elite pick-and-roll scorer, which is one of the most important gadgets used in an NBA offense. The Boston Celtics may not have a top offense the rest of the season, but Thomas gets them that much closer by giving them something they so desperately needed to make a playoff push, and maybe even a surprising playoff run.