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Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Updated: October 1, 5:01 PM ET
Hollinger's Team Forecast: Boston Celtics

By John Hollinger
ESPN.com

Celtics
Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce could be celebrating again come June.
GO TO: 2007-08 Recap     Offseason Moves     Biggest Strength/Weakness     Outlook

2007-08 Recap

The interesting thing about overhauling an NBA roster is that you never quite know how the mix will work until the team gets out on the court together. So when Boston rolled the dice on a
Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen-Paul Pierce trio, with two of them being new faces and half the roster swapping out, nobody was totally sure what the net result would be.

Suffice it to say that it worked. Boston made the greatest one-year improvement in league history, rolling to the league's best record and one of the top point differentials of all time behind a suffocating defensive effort. The Celtics then overcame some early playoff jitters to beat the Lakers in the Finals, winning their first championship in 22 years.

HOLLINGER'S '07-08 STATS
W-L: 66-16 (Pythagorean W-L: 70-12)
Offensive Efficiency: 107.6 (10th)
Defensive Efficiency: 96.2 (1st)
Pace Factor: 93.3 (19th)
Highest PER: Kevin Garnett (25.30)

Obviously, they massively exceeded expectations. The hope in Boston was that the new nucleus of Garnett, Allen and Pierce -- one that cost them several quality young players to assemble -- would be able to win the division and make a deep playoff run. Nobody saw this kind of dominance coming.

It happened mostly because the Celtics were a vastly better defensive team than anyone had any reason to expect. Boston had finished 18th in defensive efficiency a year earlier and had the same head coach in Doc Rivers, as well as three of the same five starters. Of the two new stars, one of them was Allen, who had a reputation as a horrid defender in Seattle and Milwaukee, leaving Garnett as the only positive on paper.

But that analysis didn't account for the esprit de corps that overtook the entire team like a tidal wave, led by Garnett's manic example. Allen and Pierce in particular defended with a spirit they had never previously shown, with Pierce taking over as the team's perimeter stopper and doing quality work in that role.

In addition, the supporting cast was way better than expected. In his second season, point guard Rajon Rondo solidified what had been an iffy position offensively while playing superior defense, and Kendrick Perkins overcame an injury-plagued 2006-07 season to provide the needed interior beef in support of Garnett.

Behind them, the bench wasn't supposed to be much and, well, it wasn't great. But they all defended, and when P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell joined the team with approximately a third of the season left, Boston had a lineup that went 12 deep.

Boston also hired defensive guru Tom Thibodeau away from Houston and essentially put him in charge of the defense, something that head coach Doc Rivers deserves massive credit for -- not many head coaches would be willing to cede this much control, but it couldn't possibly have worked any better. Between Thibodeau's schemes, Garnett's ferocity and everybody else pitching in, Boston was one of the best defensive teams ever (see chart).

All-Time Defensive Efficiency Leaders, Relative to League*
TEAM YEAR DEF. EFF. LEAGUE AVG. DIFFERENTIAL
San Antonio 2003-04 92.31 100.84 -8.53
New York 1992-93 96.77 105.07 -8.20
Boston 2007-08 96.16 104.14 -7.98
New York 1993-94 95.85 103.72 -7.83
San Antonio 2004-05 95.80 103.09 -7.29
*Since league began tracking turnovers in 1973-74

The Celtics didn't just lead the league in defensive efficiency, they led it by a mile. Boston finished more than two points ahead of the next-best defensive team, and relative to the league they were the third-best defensive squad of all time. The suffocating D was pretty much the entire story behind the championship, because the Celtics were only 10th in offensive efficiency.

Digging deeper, the Celtics were first in opponent shooting percentage, opponent total shooting percentage and opponent turnover rate. Even their bad numbers were good -- Boston gave up an above-average number of 3-point attempts, but that's because so many of them were contested heaves at the end of the shot clock. Celtics opponents shot only 31.6 percent from downtown, another league-leading performance.

But it wasn't just forcing missed shots -- it was the difficulty of getting any kind of shot at all against the Celtics. Between the high rate of forced turnovers and the Celtics' strong performance on the defensive boards -- they grabbed 74.4 percent of opponent misses, ranking eighth in the league -- Boston gave up the second-fewest shot attempts per possession of any team (counting a free throw as 0.44 field-goal attempts; see chart).

In fact, even when compared against other top defenses, the Celtics' domination stood out (see chart) -- they were first or second in every important category except defensive rebounding.

Defensive Efficiency Leaders, 2007-08
TEAM OPP. FG% OPP. TS% OPP. TO RATE DEFENSIVE
REBOUND RATE
OPP. SHOTS*
PER 100 POSS.
DEFENSIVE
EFFICIENCY
Boston 41.9 50.8 17.0 74.4 94.7 96.16
Houston 43.3 50.8 14.3 74.8 97.4 98.84
San Antonio 44.4 51.7 14.2 77.1 96.2 99.49
Detroit 43.7 51.7 15.0 73.7 96.7 100.04
Orlando 44.6 52.6 13.7 74.8 97.7 102.71
League avg. 45.7 54.0 14.2 73.3 96.7 104.75
* "Shots" = FGA + (FTA x 0.44)

Garnett won Defensive Player of the Year honors for his efforts, but he wasn't alone. Rondo gave them a second dominant defender at the point of the attack while Pierce and Perkins were also worthy of All-Defense consideration. Off the bench, low-cost free-agent pickup James Posey and Tony Allen provided strong wing defense, as did Brown up front after he signed with 27 games left to play. In fact, relative to the league, Boston's defense played better after the All-Star break, even though it had home-court advantage sewn up.

Offensively, the Celtics were only slightly above average, mostly because they suffered from the same inability to generate shots that they were so good at engendering on the defensive end. Boston had the league's second-highest turnover rate, narrowly trailing Sacramento for the league lead by committing miscues on 16.3 percent of its possessions. The Celtics were also a very poor offensive rebounding team, pulling down 24.4 percent of missed shots to rank 27th in the league (their bigs mostly focused on getting back and cutting off the transition game instead of crashing the glass).

Between those two factors, Boston averaged only 94.57 shots per 100 possessions -- even fewer than the league-leading total their defense gave up. Though this wasn't the worst mark in the league (three teams were slightly lower), it was amazing that the Celtics could win a title in dominating fashion even while struggling so much to generate shots.

Again, it all got back to the defense. So while the Celtics hit some hiccups on the road in the early rounds of the playoffs and, truth be told, were lucky to survive a second-round tussle with Cleveland in which they were outscored over the seven games, it was the D that saved them in the end.

In their two biggest wins of the season -- the Game 6 victory over Detroit in the conference finals, and the Game 4 win over the Lakers in the Finals -- the Celtics slammed the door in the second half, and both times they did it on the road. The Celtics held Detroit to 13 points in the fourth quarter of Game 6 to turn an eight-point deficit into an eight-point win, while the Lakers mustered just 33 in the second half of Game 4 as Boston rallied from 24 points down to win.


Biggest Strength: Teamwork

The Celtics have a lot of good players, but I don't think anybody who watched last season's Finals thought they were more talented than the Lakers. What they had instead was cohesion, hunger and effort. Boston operated on the San Antonio model of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, except in this case the model was on steroids, figuratively speaking.

OFFSEASON MOVES
What roster moves did the Celtics make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider Insider

It all starts with the three stars: Garnett, Pierce and Allen. It seems they found each other at the perfect time, when they'd already received all the individual accolades they could hope for, and each bought in completely to what Thibodeau and Rivers were selling. With a hustling, committed group around them, Boston's defense turned ferocious overnight.

It helps that all the pieces fit so well. Perkins isn't a major talent, but his brute force made him a perfect frontcourt partner for the hyper but not terribly physical Garnett. The ability of Allen and Garnett to hit long jumpers made it that much harder for defenders to focus on containing Pierce, while Rondo's inability to shoot from distance was less of an issue because of all the shooting surrounding him.

And although the bench players weren't strong individually, as a unit it was a basketball Noah's Ark. Rivers could look to his bench and find two shooters (House and Posey), two wing defenders (Posey and Allen), two point guards (House and Cassell), two scorers (House and Leon Powe), and two post defenders (Brown and Glen Davis). He could play small, big, offense or defense at the snap of a finger, and often did.

Subtracting Brown and Posey changes that picture a little, but keep in mind that other veterans will look to sign with Boston at midseason again this season. Additionally, Powe seems ready to take on a greater role after playing extremely well in limited minutes the previous two seasons, and Tony Allen also seems primed for improved results.

As a whole then, this team should once again vastly overachieve what might be expected by looking at their individual numbers.

Biggest Weakness: Inside scoring

If Boston has a weakness, it's that it doesn't generate much post offense. Garnett is the closest thing they have to a post player among the starters, but his post-ups tend to be from 15 feet and end in a turnaround, and by the end of last season nearly all his shots were coming on midrange J's from near the foul line. Perkins is another post option, but his game is very raw on the blocks.

The best true post player on the roster is probably Powe, who scored in bunches in his limited minutes a season ago but didn't play often due to his defensive and ballhandling shortcomings. Pierce is a decent post scorer too, but last season Boston called his number on the blocks less than in past seasons.

It would be fantastic if either Powe or Perkins emerged as a more consistent threat on the blocks, because with the shooters Boston can put around them in House, Ray Allen and Pierce, it would be virtually impossible (or at least unwise) to double-team. For now, though, Boston can contemplate this one minor chink in its armor.


Outlook

The Celtics had the point differential of a 70-win team last year -- that's how good they were, and that's also indicative of how far they would have to slip just for the other best teams in the league to pull even with them.

That said, another season like last season is highly improbable. For one, age is a concern since Boston's star triumvirate of Pierce, Garnett and Allen is 31, 32 and 33, respectively. For another, there's the concept of regression to the mean, which basically states that it's extremely difficult for a team to maintain its performance at an all-time great level for very long. In other words, while the Celtics are likely to lead the league in defensive efficiency again, they're unlikely to do it in such an other-worldly fashion.

Losing Posey will hurt too, but the Celtics should be able to offset much of his contribution with great output from Allen and possibly some minutes from Giddens or Walker, as well as continued improvement from the likes of Rondo, Perkins and Powe.

All told, then, they shouldn't slip too far … and even if they do, there's a long way to go down before they're on par with the rest of the East. You can't construct a model pessimistic enough to have the Celtics missing out on the conference's best record; the only real question seems to be whether they have enough left in the tank to survive the LeBrons and Kobes in the playoffs and repeat as champions.

While it will take the same sacrifices that the star trio made a year ago, and one always wonders whether players will be willing to do those things a second time once they've reached the top of the mountain (see Heat, Miami), all the indicators are in Boston's favor for another Duck Boat parade this June.

Prediction: 60-22, 1st in Atlantic Division, 1st in Eastern Conference

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him,
click here.