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Why the Celtics’ recent winning streak is unprecedented in the modern NBA

Kyrie Irving has averaged 32 minutes per game.Mary Schwalm/AP

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Although the Celtics lost for the second time in four games on Monday, there’s a pretty sizable forest evident beyond those trees. Boston possesses the best record (18-4) in the Eastern Conference thanks to a 16-game winning streak that ranks as the third longest by the team since the introduction of the 3-point line.

Yet this run is drastically different from the ones that preceded it. Whereas this Celtics team is marked by far-reaching turnover, the previous ones that enjoyed such steady streams of victories were characterized chiefly by continuity.

In 1981-82, the Celtics reeled off 18 straight wins with a team whose nine leaders in minutes — Larry Bird, Cedric Maxwell, Tiny Archibald, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, M.L. Carr, Gerald Henderson, Chris Ford, and Rick Robey — all were in at least their second year with the team. Then-rookie Danny Ainge, who averaged 10.6 minutes a night in his 53 games, saw the most court time by a newcomer.

And in 2008-09, as the Celtics marched through 19 consecutive wins, they did so with a team that had taken shape over a two-season span. Of that team’s 10 players who played at least 500 minutes that year, all 10 had also been part of the team’s roster during the previous championship season.


It makes intuitive sense that teams capable of such lengthy runs would feature considerable year-to-year roster continuity. Theoretically, such a characteristic should permit players to execute their team’s strategies in a fashion that would minimize the sort of sloppiness that could cost a team an occasional game.

Yet this year’s Celtics defied such notions. Of the 15 players who have suited up this year, 11 are new to the team this year — a 73 percent representation that is the highest by an NBA team in the 3-point era (since 1979-80) that had at least a 16-game winning streak.


Holdovers Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, and Terry Rozier have accounted for less than half (46.3 percent) of the team’s playing time. The team’s 11 new players — led by Kyrie Irving (32 minutes a night) and rookie Jayson Tatum (31 minutes) — have taken 53.7 percent of the team’s minutes.

Winning streaks of 16-plus games in the 3-point era (1979-80)
Team Win streak New players Total players % new players % Minutes to new players
2017-18 Celtics 16* 11 15 73.3% 53.7%
2012-13 Clippers 17* 9 15 60.0% 45.3%
2003-04 Spurs 19 11 17 64.7% 41.2%
2014-15 Warriors 16* 7 15 46.7% 30.9%
1999-00 Lakers 19 6 15 40.0% 30.6%
1999-00 Lakers 16 6 15 40.0% 30.6%
1990-91 Lakers 16 6 13 46.2% 26.3%
2007-08 Rockets 22 11 21 52.4% 24.2%
2006-07 Mavericks 17 8 16 50.0% 22.6%
1995-96 Spurs 17 8 15 53.3% 20.2%
1995-96 Bulls 18 6 15 40.0% 19.1%
2012-13 Heat 27 5 18 27.8% 17.7%
1990-91 Trail Blazers 16 3 13 23.1% 12.3%
2014-15 Hawks 19 4 16 25.0% 12.1%
2008-09 Celtics 19* 5 16 31.3% 6.0%
2006-07 Suns 17 5 14 35.7% 4.9%
1981-82 Celtics 18 3 14 21.4% 4.9%
2015-16 Warriors 24* 4 16 25.0% 4.8%
SOURCE: basketball-reference.com; * - Winning streak took place before Jan. 1.

No other team in this sample has had a winning streak of such a length with more than half of its court time entrusted to players who didn’t play for them in the previous season. By contrast, four of the other 17 teams with winning streaks of at least 16 games — including the 2008-09 and 1981-82 Celtics — had no more than 6.0 percent of its minutes going to newcomers.

Only two teams have been able to run off wins with the frequency of this year’s Celtics while undergoing anything remotely resembling the extent of their roster makeover.

The 2012-13 Clippers had a 17-game winning streak early in the season despite a roster on which nine of 15 players hadn’t been there the year before, with 45.3 percent of their minutes going to new players. However, of the seven players who averaged at least 20 minutes a night for that team, just two hadn’t been with Los Angeles in 2011-12.

Eleven of the 17 players on the 2003-04 Spurs (19-game winning streak) were new to the team, and 41.2 percent of its playing time went to those new players. But all three of San Antonio’s minutes leaders (Bruce Bowen, Tony Parker, and Tim Duncan) were holdovers, and the team’s offense continued to run through returnees Duncan, Parker, and Manu Ginobili.


In other words, in the nearly 40 years since the introduction of the 3-pointer, no team has managed a winning streak like the one the Celtics just forged while enduring as much raw year-to-year change. Nor is there any team that has had such a long winning streak during this era in a year where it reshaped around a new offensive focal point as Boston has done around Irving — and in which it had to reconfigure its offense on the fly at the start of the season due to a season-ending injury to another anticipated key in Gordon Hayward.

A 16-game winning streak inherently suggests a remarkable degree of consistency. That this year’s Celtics proved capable of such a run at the start of a radical roster transition is unprecedented in the modern NBA.

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.