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Boston Celtics: A roster in transition seeks to solve its transition woes

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The Celtics struggled to score in transition last year. There is plenty of reason to think that could change in the upcoming season.

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Boston Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Boston Celtics finished the season with the league’s eighth most efficient offense last year (per Basketball Reference), primarily by embracing the principals of modern basketball: side to side ball movement, consistent motion, valuing the three-point shot, and searching for opportunities in transition.

In the aggregate, they were quite successful. The 111.2 points per 100 possessions mark they posted for the year is proof enough of that fact (per Basketball Reference). To suggest that Boston struggled offensively would be unfair, but in diving into the numbers a bit deeper, there is one area for improvement that becomes abundantly clear.

The Celtics managed just 1.06 points per possession in transition, a mark that tied for the sixth worst in the league (per NBA.com). Points are supposed to be easier to come by on the break than in any other context, but Boston was actually significantly more efficient scoring the ball in the half court than on the run.

Some of that was probably tied to philosophy. The Celtics didn’t abandon attacking in transition, but they didn’t prioritize it either. Boston finished the year in the middle of the pack with regards to pace (13th per Basketball Reference). Most of the issue at hand, however, was tied to the the team’s limited personnel. Take a look at the transition scoring numbers for the Celtics main rotation players lat year (per NBA.com):

Individual Transition Scoring

Player POSS PPP EFG% TO FREQ PERCENTILE
Player POSS PPP EFG% TO FREQ PERCENTILE
Isaiah Thomas 4.1 1.16 57.6 9.7 65.0
Jae Crowder 2.1 1.15 63.8 13.5 62.4
Al Horford 0.7 1.13 72.1 20.8 56.3
Kelly Olynyk 0.7 1.07 60.4 12.5 44.9
Amir Johnson 0.6 1.07 59.7 10.9 43.7
Jaylen Brown 1.4 1.06 61.7 18.6 43.2
Terry Rozier 1.2 0.99 52.9 12.5 31.7
Avery Bradley 2.1 0.96 50.5 9.4 26.8
Marcus Smart 1.5 0.81 43.5 19.7 9.6

Boston employed a lot of players that just weren’t good in transition. They fell, roughly, into two camps. The first of which was players that struggled to make shots. Terry Rozier, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart being prime examples. Not one of those players is particularly effective finishing at the rim, a primary component of scoring on the break.

Smart’s ultimate destruction at the hands of Lebron James in the clip above is a result of an inferior level of athleticism. Bradley and Rozier struggled to score at the basket for their own reasons, but the general result of the ball not going in the hoop as frequently as desired tended to remain the same across all three. Only Bradley had the requisite shooting ability to attempt to overcome his limitations off the dribble by spotting up for transition threes. Suffice is to say, he failed to do so.

The second camp consisted of players that turned the ball over frequently. That grouping included Al Horford and Jaylen Brown, who were very effective when they could maintain possession, and, once again, Marcus Smart, who was just bad in every facet of running the floor.

There is plenty of hope for the former two players. Brown is young. He should throw the ball away less as he adjusts to the pace of the game and tightens his handle. Horford is more established, and it may be the case that the Celtics will have to live with fact that he makes some careless passes when he’s bringing the ball up the court at full speed.

He’s got a 72.1 effective field goal percentage in transition to fall back on though, and the fact that a player as big as Horford is can move so fluidly with the ball in his hands is a constant threat that opponents need to account for.

Reasons for optimism on Smart are less clear, though his recent weight loss should help him get up and down the court, and if it does improve his explosiveness, as he hopes, Smart’s difficulty finishing may reduce.

We probably shouldn’t hang our hat on that just yet though. Smart isn’t likely to turn into John Wall anytime soon. He does a lot of other things well. The Celtics just need him to get to respectable in transition.

The real reason for hope here lies with the players that Boston has added to its roster. Take a look at the individual transition scoring numbers of the Celtics outgoing players, as they compare to the players that are likely to fill their minutes this year (per NBA.com). We’re using Brown as a replacement for Bradley, with the assumption that he will take on a larger role.

Individual Transition Scoring

Player POSS PPP EFG% TO FREQ PERCENTILE
Player POSS PPP EFG% TO FREQ PERCENTILE
Isaiah Thomas 4.1 1.16 57.6 9.7 65.0
Kyrie Irving 3.7 1.14 61.6 12.9 59
Jae Crowder 2.1 1.15 63.8 13.5 62.4
Gordon Hayward 2.1 1.38 75 10.7 92
Kelly Olynyk 0.7 1.07 60.4 12.5 44.9
Marcus Morris 2 1.22 63.3 7.6 72.8
Amir Johnson 0.6 1.07 59.7 10.9 43.7
Aron Baynes 0.3 1.35 68.4 4.3 89.9
Avery Bradley 2.1 0.96 50.5 9.4 26.8
Jaylen Brown 1.4 1.06 61.7 18.6 43.2

With the exception of the Isaiah Thomas, Kyrie Irving swap, Boston should expect to see major improvements in transition scoring ability from every single one of its incoming players. Here’s what the impact should look like in the aggregate (per NBA.com).

Aggregate Transition Scoring Averages

Grouping POSS PPP EFG% TO FREQ
Grouping POSS PPP EFG% TO FREQ
Players Out 1.92 1.082 58.4 11.2
Players In 1.9 1.23 66 10.82
Difference -0.02 0.148 7.6 -0.38

That’s a huge leap, and it should go a long way to improving the Celtics efficiency in transition. They’ll still have to find a way to make major minutes from Rozier and Smart work, and might see some of their new, established players’ impact in transition muted should they find themselves in rookie-heavy lineups, but there is plenty of reason for optimism.

There is also the tiny consideration of whether or not Boston can score as effectively in the half court with its new pieces. Getting buckets in transition is great, and it can seriously boost the bottom line of a team’s points per 100 possessions mark, but it pales in comparison to the importance of being able to put the ball in the hoop when defenses are set.

I’m a believer in the Celtics’ offensive potential. There’s a universe in which Boston harnesses a new competence in running the floor, scores at a higher rate in the half court with the benefit of two offensive hubs in Irving and Hayward, and vaults itself into one of the top three spots in offensive efficiency.

That’s not a particularly far-fetched idea. They finished eighth last year, and they’ve got more firepower to work with now. The greater concern is defense. The Celtics just lost two of their three best perimeter defenders and their most impactful rim-protector. They need to stop opponents in order to leverage everything they should be capable on offense.

That’s a discussion for another day. For now let’s bask in the likelihood of an improved transition attack.