The talk began around Thanksgiving, after the Celtics destroyed the Philadelphia 76ers by 24 points on Nov. 28. It picked up last week when the C’s were beating Orlando by 19, Indiana by 18 and an up-and-coming Portland team by 15 in game that wasn’t really that close.
It came to a head after they escaped Indiana, this time with a five-point win in overtime. It was their 12th consecutive victory—the franchise’s longest streak since the famed 1986 crew won 14 straight—and it left them with a 20-2 record, equal to the best start in team history. All that stands between this year’s Celtics and a piece of franchise lore is the lowly Wizards tonight in Washington.
So, with that list of heady accomplishments in front if them, the question that everyone has been asking is: Are the Celtics better than they were last year?
The short version of a very long answer is no. They aren’t better at this point in the season than they were last year.
“We should be careful not to underrate last year’s Celtics in the race to praise the new squad,” said Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus.
I asked Pelton late last week if he would take a look at the numbers to try to answer that question, and it just so happened that he was already beginning to examine the three teams everyone has on their list of the NBA’s best: the Celtics, Lakers and Cavaliers.
Of those three, the Celtics rank third in a variety of sabermetric numbers, which Pelton helpfully breaks down in his story.
The easiest, and most obvious, number to understand is point differential. Last year’s Celtics team had a point differential of +14.2 after 22 games, which is off the charts. This year’s team is +9.2, a significant difference when comparing teams of this caliber.
The Celtics’ 2008 season can be broken down into two parts—the first 10 games, in which they struggled offensively, and the last dozen. During their 12-game winning streak, the Celtics’ point differential is 12.3, which is fantastic, but still not as good as last year.
To a man, the Celtics say they don’t really care about all this talk, and that’s certainly the right attitude for a team to have. “We’re just worried about getting better,” Doc Rivers says every time the subject is broached.
But there is reason to believe that the Celtics might wind up being better than last year at the end of the season.
The big number that jumps out for Pelton is minutes played by Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. All three are down significantly from last year, especially Allen, who went from logging over 39 minutes at this point last year to a more reasonable 36 this season. That was a point of emphasis for Rivers in the preseason and he has consistently stuck with the bench, even without James Posey.
“When you look at the slump of sorts they went through in the Eastern Conference playoffs, I think there’s reason to believe that might have had something to do with the heavy minutes the starters played last year,” Pelton said. “You should see them fresher in the postseason.”
Allen’s play, in particular, has been held as evidence that the Celtics are better this year, and that part, at least, is true. Allen has been better than last year, but it’s not his 3-point shooting that has been the difference.
“From a statistical perspective, Allen has been more valuable this year,” Pelton said. “He’s shooting 58.9 percent on two-pointers, as opposed to 48.4 a year ago. Two-point percentage can be fluky, especially over portions of the season, but the stability in the rest of his numbers is a good sign that Allen isn’t showing any slippage due to age.”
Here’s another factor to keep in mind when comparing the two Celtics teams. After their 29-3 start, which had some people legitimately wondering if they would wind up being one of the greatest teams of all time, the Celtics came back to the pack a little.
There were a number of factors for their slight drop, but a big one was the lack of competition at the top of the Eastern Conference. That should not be a problem this season because the Cavaliers are very good.
There is a strange tendency in Boston to write off the Cavs as a legitimate challenger. Maybe it’s because the Celtics beat them in the playoffs. (Of course, it was the most competitive series they played, as Brian Scalabrine reminded everyone in his surreal post-championship press conference.) Maybe it’s because they conjure up images of a motionless offense that relies too heavily on LeBron James taking jump shots when the shot clock hits zero. It’s worth noting, however, that the Cavs’ offensive situation has changed dramatically.
Cleveland ranks as the top team on Pelton’s list, and the Cavaliers lead the NBA in offensive efficiency and are second in defensive efficiency (the Celtics rank eighth and first, respectively). The Cavs offense hasn’t just improved, it has improved by a historic margin.
“The backcourt has played much better with a full season (presumably) of Delonte West and the addition of Mo Williams,” Pelton said. “That’s allowed them to use LeBron James differently. He’s playing a lot more up front in ‘small’ lineups—and with James I use that term loosely—and playing in the high post instead of isolating on the perimeter. The shooters have also opened things up for Zydrunas Ilgauskus who is off to a great start.”
If the Celtics care about their record at all, it’s in the context of gaining homecourt advantage and there’s no reason to believe Cleveland won’t push them for that honor all season.
Stepping outside the numbers for a second, there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that the Celtics might be better-positioned this year than last. The players say they trust each other more this season. The starters are clearly more comfortable with each other (see Rajon Rondo and Allen offensively and Kendrick Perkins and Garnett defensively), and their roles are more clearly defined. Remember, Tony Allen, Leon Powe and Big Baby Davis had to scratch and claw for minutes and turf all last season.
So, while the answer to the question—are they better than last year—is still no, the final answer might be amended to say, not yet.
Thanks to Kevin Pelton for his insight. Be sure to check his work out at Basketball Prospectus.
Paul Flannery is a regular contributor for WEEI.com.