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The Celtics don’t move the ball as much as you think

The Celtics have some great facilitators this year, as they do every year. That doesn’t mean the ball is moving more than usual.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

One of my favorite Tommy Heinsohn-isms is his insistence on turning every missed shot by an opponent into an outlet pass. “You know what we used to do is catch the rebound, look down the floor, and throw it to the furthest guy down there.”

Based on how many times he’s said it, I’d have to think that this is Tommy’s favorite Celtics season in a long time. It’s been a heavenly experience for lovers of the outlet pass thanks to Marcus Smart.

Smart’s expert passing, which earned him ten assists last night, has contributed to what seems to be a misleading narrative about how the Celtics’ collective ball movement is vastly improved since last season. The quality of the passes are great, but the quantity did not increase. In fact, the decrease is one of the most pronounced changes in the team’s DNA between the last two seasons.


As you can see in the bottom ‘year-over-year’ row, a lot of these offensive categories remain relatively unchanged from last year. The two biggest changes, free throws made (and attempted) and assists, are tied one another.

In Jayson Tatum’s rookie year, he was assisted on about 92% of his 105 made three-pointers. This season, he’s been assisted on exactly 60% of his 135 three-pointers. Jaylen Brown was assisted on 57% of his two-point field goals last season, up from 48% this season. These smaller data points help to draw the bigger picture.

As a team, the Celtics have been vastly more efficient in isolation. Per Synergy, ISO plays made up seven percent of the offense last year, in which they ranked 28th in efficiency. This year, still making up 6.5% of the offense, the Celtics are up to seventh in efficiency in isolation.

As much as we appreciate the perceived “better flow” of the offense, the game plan hasn’t been much different in some respects. For what it’s worth, the team is running a ton more pick-and-roll offense, but that hasn’t led to more ball movement either. The difference is that they’re really good at the pick-and-roll now.

I mean, they were pretty good last year as the seventh most efficient PnR team (in large part to Kyrie Irving), but they’re really on another level now, up to second in efficiency.

My theory is that Smart’s great passing has understandably misled people into thinking the Celtics have evolved into an elite ball movement team. They haven’t, and there isn’t always a link between frequent passing and scoring. Right now, the Golden State Warriors (second worst offense) lead the league in total passes by a landslide with 333.1 per game, with the New Orleans Pelicans (17th ranked offense) behind them at 314.1 per game.

At 282.9 passes per game, the Celtics are ranked 21st right now. Last year, they ranked 16th with 296.5 per game. They’re passing about 10% less, and that’s fine, especially with an offensive style that tends to work in slow, grindy playoff games.

Frankly, the talent level of Boston’s Big Five has afforded them the luxury of not moving the ball as much to generate offense. There are plenty of ways to explain Boston’s excellence. I don’t believe ball movement is one of them.

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