At 13-14, the Boston Celtics have underwhelmed. No sugar-coating, no excuses, the C’s aren’t playing up to the standard they can with this roster. More importantly, there is a lack of cohesion and unity to their play, particularly on offense, which isn’t indicative of the individual talent that exists scoring the basketball.
When teams struggle, sometimes the causes — and even the solutions — can be found in the numbers. Statistics are powerful indicators at this point in the season because 27 games is a large enough sample to eliminate fluke performances, a singular hot (or cold) streak and give the coaching staff enough time to best figure out their team.
So at the 33 percent mark of the season, let’s dive into the numbers on the Celtics. Individual numbers may point to who can provide more help. Team numbers could illuminate the weaknesses in the group or flaws in play style. It is important to remember, though: the numbers don’t say anything. Numbers don’t speak, they only provide data to the hunches we’ve already known.
As the great coach Rick Majerus once said, “the stats indict, the film convicts.” We’ll follow up this part one of “is this anything” dive into the numbers with a “something or nothing” piece that figures out whether the film agrees with what the data suggests.
In that vein, let’s bring to the surface a few standout numbers thus far for the Boston Celtics.
1. The Celtics are 2nd in the NBA with 10 percent of their half-court offensive possessions ending in isolation
The league-average team only sees about 6 percent of their half-court plays end in isolation, according to Synergy Sports Tech. The Celtics are right at 10 percent, second only to the leaders, the Brooklyn Nets. Part of the reason both teams are at the forefront in one-on-one play has to do with their personnel: the Nets have two of the best scorers in the league in Kevin Durant and James Harden. The Celtics have Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
Tatum, in particular, has seen a major climb in his isolation output. This leads us to stat number two...
2. Jayson Tatum is 3rd in the NBA in iso possessions per game with 5.6
Tatum trails only Harden (7.3) and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (7.9) in isolation possessions. It’s increasingly become a larger part of his game, operating in isolation more each of the last four seasons:
2021-22: 20.8% of his possessions
Tatum’s offensive arsenal certainly commands a sizable chunk of one-on-one looks; he’s just too talented to be told not to play this way. What’s staggering is to see some of the names he’s ahead of on this list: Giannis Antetokounmpo (5.1), Luka Doncic (4.7), Kevin Durant (4.5) and LeBron James (3.9).
3. With 81 assists, Al Horford is fourth in the NBA among centers
The Celts veteran big trails only Nikola Jokic, Domantas Sabonis and Karl-Anthony Towns in the dime department. He’s been a revelation for the Celtics and is fourth on the club in assists per game.
4. Of the 89 players in the NBA with at least 4.8 3-point attempts per game, Marcus Smart is 88th in shooting percentage (28%)
Smart is only slightly ahead of Bradley Beal (sidenote: I couldn’t believe it either), who is shooting 26.3 percent. Other struggling shooters are taking fewer attempts per game. On one hand, the Celtics need a 3-point shooter to provide floor spacing and shoot with confidence. On the other hand, continually taking shots that provide a non-optimal output might be a reason why the C’s are sluggish on offense.
5. The Celtics force their opponents to take a league-high 12.7% of their possessions into the final four seconds of the shot clock
While the C’s are only tenth in defensive rating, their overall switching defense has done a fantastic job at limiting early, easy looks. Switching negates advantages at the point of attack, which can drag out possessions and therefore force plenty of jump shots or isolation looks.
6. When Enes Freedom is on the floor, the Celtics are 16.3 points per 100 possessions better than when he’s off
This is a metric worth investigating. Freedom traditionally plays against other team’s second units, where his size and interior advantage is able to be exploited. While Freedom’s individual scoring metrics and field goal percentage are lower than standard for his career, he’s been just as effective as ever, according to the on-off numbers.
Here’s what makes such a discovery so fascinating... if Freedom is worth keeping in the rotation, what is the impact that has on Horford and Robert Williams? Do we see less of one? Do we see more minutes with both?
7. In 181 minutes together, the Timelord and Horford two-man frontcourt combination have a -1.9 net rating per 100 possessions
Injuries have changed the C’s rotations and kept Williams out for a little while. When he and Horford are together, the defense has been fantastic (98.7 points per 100 possessions) while the offense (96.7 points) is far behind. Timelord returned during the west coast road trip, and in his absence, Ime Udoka was able to toggle between Grant Williams and Dennis Schroder in the lineup to provide different looks based on opponents.
With Jaylen Brown returning this week and Josh Richardson hopefully back soon, the C’s are approaching full health for the first time in a while. If and when that happens, we’ll be curious to see how much Udoka goes back to the two-big lineup.
8. Tatum has taken 21% of his field goal attempts at the rim, and is shooting 62.5% at the rim
Before the season started, we looked at one key improvement area for Tatum: getting to and finishing at the rim more often. Last year, Tatum took only 19.7 percent of his shots at the rim. While only a slight uptick, it’s important to note the aggression in Tatum. He’s also taking more free throws, generally a sign of aggression. His 6.0 free throw attempts are a career-high.
While Tatum is getting to the tin more often, he isn’t converting nearly as well as he used to. His shooting at the rim is listed as below average, according to Synergy (48.6% puts him in the 29th percentile league-wide). We look forward to diving into the tape to figure out if there’s anything to the drop-off if it’s impacted by the spacing around him or is simply an aberration.
9. Payton Pritchard (27.1%) has the second-worst field goal percentage of all players to log at least 200 minutes
Both Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith (35.7%) are struggling out of the gate, and this is far beyond any sophomoric struggle. Pritchard cannot finish at the bucket at all (2-8) or convert on catch-and-shoot looks (6-24). A player whose impact is generally measured by his shooting and ability to be a threat out of the pick-and-roll, Pritchard is rendered ineffective if he’s poor in both areas.
The Celts need some depth and a solution on their second unit. Pritchard and Nesmith haven’t produced the way they should, and it’s led to them being pushed outside the regular rotation.
10. The Celtics are 1-9 when they give up 110 points or more in regulation
Look, this isn’t meant to be like saying the team who runs more in a football game wins. We understand that teams who give up a lot of points have a higher likelihood of losing games. What’s notable about this mark is that there are nine teams who average 110 a game, and the Celtics are 15th, averaging 108.
What this tells a coach like me is that the Celtics need to control the tempo of a game in order to secure victory. Thus far, Udoka’s ball club doesn’t seem able to win different types of contests.