In 1814, Jean-Pierre Laplace theorized that if a being existed that could know the exact location and speed of every atom in the universe and could process all of that information instantaneously, it could predict exactly what would happen at any given place or time. The name for this fictional being was Laplace’s Demon, and it was intended to illustrate the application of physics. Since that time, ideas like thermodynamics and chaos theory have been provided as contradictions, opposing that idea that such structure exists in the universe. It’s a thought experiment about the idea of something being random and to what extent information becomes useful as a predictor for future events.
204 years later, the Boston Celtics have installed a Laplace’s offense; a system based on the idea that if you can produce open and wide open looks, your offense will predictably score more points than your top ranked defense will allow to opponents. That has not been the case for the 24th-ranked Boston Celtics offense this year, despite the fact that they lead the league in both open (closest defender 4-6 feet) and wide open (closest defender 6+ feet) field goal attempts per game as per NBA.com tracking data (current as of the morning 11/15/2018).
Thermodynamics and chaos theory are not to blame for the failure of the Celtics “Laplace” offense, however. Rather it is the fault that not all open shots are created equal, and the idea that shots taken from closer tend to go in more. The Celtics are currently dead last in the NBA at shots taken within 10 feet, taking only 32% of their shots from inside that range. More over, the Celtics are currently fourth in the NBA in two point shots longer than 10 feet. with more than a quarter of their shots coming from that range. They trail only the Spurs (armed with mid-range specialists DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldrige), the Warriors (armed with Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and Klay Thompson) and the Cleveland Cavaliers (armed with being very bad at basketball right now).
Perhaps a large number of mid-range shots isn’t the precise reason the Celtics are struggling so mightily to score, but it’s probably a contributing factor. Seven of the Celtics first 14 games came against top-eight defensive units. In fact, the only top defenses that the Celtics haven’t played are the Memphis Grizzlies and the Celtic’s own top-ranked unit. That, admittedly, makes it a little difficult to figure out exactly where the Celtics regular season offense is. However, a largely universal truth is that playoff teams have good defense (recent Cavs teams not withstanding). With that in mind the Celtics laying against eggs against top defensive units, while excusable in the bigger picture of winning enough games for first-round home court, isn’t very encouraging for their playoff aspirations.
After this weekend’s back to back against Toronto and Utah, the Celtics will enjoy a stretch of games where seven of the following nine games will be against teams that did not make the playoffs last year, including six games against teams currently in the bottom fifth of the league in the next 11 games. It stands to reason that the Celtics will probably (hopefully, please) exit that stretch with a considerably better record than their current 8-6.
On top of that they will see a chance to pad their low (by “contender” standards) point differential of +3.6; currently good for ninth in the NBA. More 29-point blowouts like the one that the Celtics enjoyed against the Bulls on Wednesday will allow the Celtics to creep towards the top five of the league and there’s a good chance they will have a record and point differential that are more consistent with what Celtics fans may have expected coming into the year.
Should the Celtics blow both games this weekend and fall to 8-8, however, it could be an indicator that this team has deeper problems that may require a lineup or ever roster shakeup. The Celtics are currently 5-5 against teams that are .500, and 2-4 against teams with a positive point differential, hardly an encouraging number given that most playoff teams tend to have both a winning record and a positive point differential. Three of the Celtics five road losses were against teams currently in the top five in both record and point differential, but if the Celtics want to win a championship, they will need to win on the road against good teams with good defenses.
Anchored to all of this is the number one defense in the NBA and the 24th ranked offense label that hangs over the Celtics’ head. Should the Celtics flounder through the weekend, it will be hard to banish the idea that the 2018-19 Celtics are bullies, handling the weaker teams while struggling against their top competition. Bullies don’t win NBA championships, and I think it’s fair to say that that should be the Celtics’ goal at this point. In order to reaffirm themselves as a top team in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics need to win these two games and demonstrate that they can handle top opponents at home.
The Celtics need to prove that their “Laplace’s offense” is actually as valuable as the shots that they are taking. Not only that, but they need to do while maintaining their top defense and not getting frustrated in the PnR defense like they did in their previous match up against the Jazz.
There’s plenty of excuses to be found for the Celtics and their shaky start, and that’s one of the main reasons I’ve been an advocate for holding back on hitting on the panic button. However, more than one seventh of the season is already gone, and the Celtics will need to turn it on at some point. This weekend would be the perfect time to do so.