Well, it’s that time of the year again. We’ve reached the All-Star break, the a little more than midway point of the season where nobody plays for a week and NBA junkies like myself are compelled to analyze teams strengths and weaknesses thus far. Problems that teams experience now don’t magically go away by the postseason, especially if they stem from a flawed roster. Although the Boston Celtics have defied expectations this season, especially considering the blow they took when Gordon Hayward broke his foot six minutes into the season, there is one glaring deficiency that could hinder their title run: their offense.
The Celtics stumbled into the all-star break, losing three straight and 9 of the past 15. They’ve struggled offensively all season, averaging only 103.1 points per game with a 106.8 offensive rating, 25th and 21st in the league respectively. What’s interesting is that last season they were 8th in offensive rating and averaged 108 points per game, the seventh highest mark in the league. They accomplished all of this despite not having offensive juggernaut Kyrie Irving or rookie sensation Jayson Tatum, so it’s unexpected to see them decline on the offensive side of the floor.
It seems impossible that a team with Irving on it could be struggling offensively. We’ve seen how he can turn a basketball into a yo-yo, dangling it in front of hapless defenders on its invisible string, or how his intimate knowledge of backboard angles spawn some of the most ridiculous finishes since prime Allen Iverson. Although his scoring and assist numbers are actually down since last season, he’s running the offense like a true floor general, averaging 1.0 secondary assist per game, up from 0.7 last season. When he steps on the floor, the feeling of control he has over the offense is palpable; he could get his shot up anytime he wanted. In Irving’s brilliance, however, a problem arises. With him off the floor, the offense sputters without a dynamic playmaker. When Irving is on the court, the team’s offensive rating is 110.6, compared to 102.4 without. Irving averages 24.7 points per game, the next highest on the team is Jaylen Brown with 14 points per game; a 10 point drop off from first to second highest scorer is steep. Jayson Tatum, who was an absolute weapon offensively earlier in the season, has hit the rookie wall hard. In the past 15 games, his effective field goal percentage has dipped from 53.9% to 46% and from the eye test, his confidence has waned. The Celtics bench has lacked scoring all season, producing only 32.1 points per game, 23rd in the league.
Brad Stevens has embraced the open-floor, uptempo style characteristic of the NBA over the past couple years, basing his offense on pace, space, and three pointers. We saw it work for him last season, but this year the Celtics just aren’t playing with the right urgency on the offensive end. They’ve dropped from 13th to 22nd in pace of play and from 12.4 fastbreak points per game to 9.7. The newfound importance they’ve placed on half court defense may be to blame, but they need to find a happy medium if Stevens’ offense is going to be effective. What’s even more peculiar is the ineptitude of the Celtics to make wide open shots. On three pointers, the Celtics are 6th in attempts at 31.4 and 7th in percentage at 37%. Pretty good, but when you consider they’re 26th in wide open three pointers percentage, they could be doing significantly better.
One of the most fundamental concepts in basketball is that a teams offense can come and go, but its defense can be the same throughout. The problem with the Celtics, however, is that the offense has been lost all season. Their defense has kept them close enough to pull out close wins; they’re 3rd in the NBA in win percentage in close games. Come playoff time, however, they won’t be able to keep up with offensively sophisticated teams like the Raptors and Cavaliers. If the Celtics want a chance at a title this season, they need to start making open shots and push the pace, without sacrificing their half court defense. Easier said than done, but so is winning a championship.