Moore: The Celtics Might Be a Sinking Ship, But Their Odds to Win the East Are Way Off

Moore: The Celtics Might Be a Sinking Ship, But Their Odds to Win the East Are Way Off article feature image
Credit:

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Kyrie Irving

  • A month ago, the Boston Celtics had won 10 of 11 and were 35-19 overall. Now, they're supposedly in shambles.
  • Matt Moore explains why the hysteria is a little overblown, which is creating value in their odds to win the Eastern Conference.

I’m not going to give you the Celtics think piece on what has happened this season.  Our own Wold Wide Wob has you covered with the meltdown recipe.

There are conversations to be had about the future of the Celtics, their offseason, Kyrie Irving’s free agency, Al Horford’s under-the-radar free agency (as the Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor noted), the ramifications for a potential Anthony Davis trade, those ramifications on LeBron James and the Lakers, those ramifications on other free agents, on down the line.

The problem with Boston is you can’t actually diagnose any of the specific symptoms of the disease. It’s like when you feel terrible, but you don’t have a cough or runny nose, you’re not aching or fevered, you just feel like garbage.

Look at the Celtics’ statistical profile for the season (NBA rank):

  • Offensive Rating: 10th
  • Defensive Rating: 5th
  • Net Rating: 3rd

The Celtics have the No. 1 half-court defense per possession via Synergy, the 15th-best transition defense per possession, and the 11th-best half-court offense per possession.

You want spot-ups in the modern NBA. The Celtics generate most of their shots from spot-ups (22%) and rank seventh in points per possession off those.

They create the second-most catch-and-shoot points per game of any team in the league. Their expected record based on pythagorean expectation is 44-20, a full four games better than their actual record.

That would put them third in the conference, just two back of the Raptors in the loss column for the 2-seed.

More numbers for you:

  • After-timeout points per possession: 1st
  • Pick and roll possessions including kick-outs: 3rd
  • Defending spot-up shots: 1st
  • Defending pick and rolls including kick-outs: 7th
  • Points off turnovers per 100 possessions: 7th
  • Points allowed off turnovers per 100 possessions: 3rd
  • Opponent fast-break points per 100 possessions: 10th
  • Opponent points in the paint per 100 possessions: 4th

Boston has the No. 1 clutch-time offense (inside five minutes with the score inside five points), but just the 22nd defense. Still, the Celtics’ net rating is No. 1. They outscore opponents in those situations by 17.3 points … yet their record is only 17-15 in these games, 13th best in the league.

They’re not even collapsing; the Celtics are 33-3 when ahead after three quarters.

What about Kyrie Irving, the clear source of so much tension and unhappiness?

boston celtics point guard kyrie irving 2018
Photo credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Kyrie Irving

How about this: Irving’s assist rate is up and is the highest of his career. Year-over-year, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris, and Jayson Tatum are all shooting better from the field off Irving passes — and all except Brown are receiving more passes. When you combine Brown and Gordon Hayward, those numbers are up, as well.

I’ve just given you the profile of a great team. The Celtics should be fine.

They are not fine.

How can both be true?

Well, for starters, the Celtics have banked a lot of early success. For example, the slide for Boston started on Feb. 7 vs. the Lakers right before the trade deadline. Without getting into the possible ramifications of what the Anthony Davis trade saga did to Boston, looking at the differential over this past month shows us a lot.

Before the Lakers game, the Celtics had won 10 of 11 and were 35-19.

Before the Lakers game, Marcus Morris had shot 41 percent from 3-point range in what was a vintage contract year performance. Since the loss to LA, Morris has shot 25 percent from 3.

Before the Lakers game, Marcus Smart, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, had a 103 defensive rating. Since then he has a 113 defensive rating. That’s not heavily weighted by the Rockets game, either. He has seven games with a defensive rating north of 110 (truly horrible, for perspective) out of the ten games since.

Now, those two aren’t the only ones, all the Celtics have seen this same problem, but Morris and Smart have had the worst drop-offs.

Irving’s defensive rating has gone from 104 to 111, though it’s better without Smart and Morris (106.4).

What does all this mean?

It could mean that Smart and Morris are just both hitting slumps at the worst time, together. It could mean something happened that week that triggered all this (both Smart and Morris have been two of the most vocal about the Celtics’ struggles over this last month). It could be random noise.

But when you siphon down the issues, the minutes with Morris and Smart stick out, which is odd for two players who pretty consistently give great effort.

Trying hard just isn’t enough right now with Boston.

THE MATCHUP

Here’s why I’m hesitant to pile the dirt over on Boston: I’ve seen teams go into the playoffs with terrible chemistry, but because of they have matchups in their favor, they win … and then win again.

And when you win, you start to feel a little better. Then you get into a really serious battle and the competitive juices start flowing. You feel differently about the obnoxious leader hitting a huge shot to give you Game 3 on the road than you do about a random game in February.

Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Brad Stevens

Here’s a tangible example for you: If Boston winds up in a 4-5 matchup vs. the Sixers, that’s a matchup decidedly in their favor. They have owned the matchup. OWNED.

Joel Embiid specifically struggles against the Celtics’ bigs, and Philly’s defense can’t contain Boston’s various weapons. Get past the Sixers and you feel differently.

What about the Bucks? Mike Budenholzer’s teams have not fared well in the playoffs and Giannis Antetokounmpo has an exploitable weakness in his jumper.

Over a series, Kyrie Irving is right that the Celtics can figure out the ways to counter guys.

THE FUTURES VALUE

So is it time to start buying on the Celtics, especially if you got a great preseason position on the Bucks at 15-1?

Yeah, I’d buy them low to win the East, for sure. Here’s some context: They’re currently +325 to make the NBA Finals (via Westgate). The day before that aforementioned Lakers game, Boston was +160. Have Boston’s chances really decreased that much in the span of a month? Absolutely not. They have the profile, they can win the matchups.

The price we’re seeing in the marketplace right now is a reaction to the sky-is-falling narrative.

With that said, I’d be careful with the Celtics on a game-by-game basis over this next month. They’re 4-8 against the spread since that Lakers game. Notably in that time? They’re 2-1 as a dog.

They’ve just been horrible as a favorite. There’s probably some value on them vs. the Warriors with a market again inflated by panic about the Celtics’ chemistry.

But listen: There’s no life raft. The Celtics aren’t getting off the boat. No one’s bailing. They’re stuck together and they have no choice but to play together. They’ll either figure out how to get the boat to land, or when they sink, they may bring down what was once thought to be the brightest future for any franchise with them.

Either way, be cautious with trying to get ahead of a Celtics regular season resurgence, but you can find value with their long term prospects for the first time since the season started.

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