At first glance, the Celtics offense looks to be among the NBA’s best. Entering Saturday, the team had scored 103.8 points per game, the seventh-best mark in the league, trailing only four championship hopefuls out West (Dallas, Golden State, LA Clippers, and Portland), the best team in the East (Toronto), and Phoenix. If it holds up, this will be the highest-scoring Celtics team since 1992.
But diving deeper into the numbers reveals serious problems with Boston’s offense.
■ When adjusting for pace using NBA.com’s stats tool, the offense falls to 17th. Pace-adjusted numbers account for how a team does with the possessions they have, as opposed to a per-game average. The Celtics play at the second-fastest pace in the league, a shade under 100 possessions per 48 minutes, which inflates their per-game scoring averages. So Boston, which puts up a league-high 87.8 shots per game, is playing a quantity-not-quality style.
■ Boston is terrible at getting points from areas where the best teams are able to thrive: beyond the 3-point line and at the free throw line. The woes from deep can be traced to a roster that doesn’t feature many shooters, and as a result, Boston’s 32.7 percent mark ranks 26th in the league. The Celtics are a much better team from the charity stripe — at 75.6 percent they are in the middle of the pack — but getting there has proven difficult. Using free throw rate, which averages a team’s number of free throws per field goal attempt, Boston ranks as the third-worst team at .230.
■ Transition basketball has been kind to the offense this season — only three teams get a higher percentage of their points from the fast break than Boston’s 16 percent. But at the end of games, when transition opportunities dissipate and timeouts, fouls, and a general increase in defensive intensity grind things to a halt, Boston is unable to create offense in the halfcourt. In fact, no team is worse with the score within 3 points and less than two minute remaining. The Celtics are a league-worst 8 for 41 from the field (19.5 percent) in this situation, turning the ball over 11 times, tied for the most in the league.
One might think Rajon Rondo’s departure means these numbers lack value, as the star point guard was the one most responsible for the offense’s peaks and valleys. But according to NBA.com/stats, the Celtics were a better offensive team when Rondo was on the bench in the 23 games before he got traded. Boston had an offensive rating of 103.8 — or points scored per 100 possessions — when Rondo sat, and an offensive rating of 101.7 when he played. And Rondo’s flaws mirrored those of the offense as a whole: poor outside shooting with an aversion to the free throw line.
The offensive style is likely to fluctuate, but it’s because of who won’t be here more than who has already left. Jeff Green, the team’s top scorer enjoying his most consistent season since arriving in Boston, is an attractive trade target for contenders, as is fellow veteran Brandon Bass. Green leads the Celtics with a 24.1 usage percentage, and even Bass uses over one-fifth of the team’s possessions when he’s on the floor, so their exits would force even more of a change.
Going forward, coach Brad Stevens is hoping Marcus Smart can learn to run an offense and Kelly Olynyk can add a dynamic quality as an emerging offensive option. Jared Sullinger has had his struggles this season, but the 22-year-old is still exploring his skilled game. The team’s 3-point problem will have to be addressed if it wants to open up the floor — the top shooters, Marcus Thornton and James Young, have battled injuries and struggle defensively when healthy. New additions Jameer Nelson and even Jae Crowder should help stretch defenses a bit, but neither are going to instill much fear. The lack of an elite one-on-one scorer who can break down the defense hurts the Celtics, but the same can be said for many teams, particularly rebuilding ones.