Sunday Column: Analytics and the Boston Celtics season preview

Talking about life in an analytic world. 

There was a time in my life where I used to work in Amazon. I was 18, a big warehouse opened and they were hiring EVERYBODY. Being the Criminal Justice major that I was, I loved the idea of this because since it gave ex-cons who probably weren’t getting hired anywhere else a chance to make $10 an hour. Working there was not a fun experience. The labor was intense, the hours moved like months, and it was such mindless work I tried to compartmentalized my own thoughts to make them last throughout the day. I’ve never been in jail or prison before, but I have to imagine that I got a glimpse during that experience. Another factor that frustrated me was the use of the statistics. Every so often one of the managers will come up an employee and tell them to work quicker because “Your stats were kind of low”. One of my co-workers was having a rough week, she found out her son was suffering from a drug addiction and was stealing from her on a daily basis. After four notices that her stats weren’t up, she was quickly fired, and a new person was their the following week. 

I have to imagine that life for a professional athlete shares some commonalities. Yes they’re playing a game they love, and are getting paid well to do so. But they’re also being critiqued now even more so with the use of statistics or better known as advanced analytics. For writers and fans, it gives us extended information to get a more clear view of a player. For a player, it’s an uncomfortable evaluation. Passing wizards like Rajon Rondo and eventually Ben Simmons will be attacked for their high usage rates and horrible shooting percentages. Bigs who have stretched their range to just a step inside the three-point line are now scolded, bigs who can score in the post but not defend in the perimeter are attacked without mercy, killing their defending Defensive Plus-Minus. Even for coaches the idea of analytics can have it’s warts. Because guys have so much new information of players, outside voices are now louder than ever in their criticisms of how to run their team. This season Mike Malone was critical of media and adamant that he knew his team better than the media. Can you blame him? While writers are going on basketball-reference, and synergy, he’s taking the time to travel to Italy to meet up with Danillo Gallinari and establishing real connections with players. While pundits analyze a slow shooting month, coaches may know that the player was just suffering from some family issues, and so on and so forth.

Players have gotten defensive about their analytics too. When David Lee was interviewed last season about his impact on the court has had a negative impact on all teammates he played with, he replied by reminding the media that when he was scoring 20 points per game, his analytics were bad too. When Ben Simmons was interviewed by Chris Broussard and was asked about his low shooting percentages, he replied by pointing to how many points per game he scored in college. 

Being critiqued by one person about bad statistics doesn’t feel great in any setting. For players, they are constantly hearing it from the most causal observers to the team owners. So many have labeled the anti-analytics camp as those of old-school guys who are too afraid of change. Those do exist, but the other side of their argument are the former and current players who may not feel as appreciated being reduced to a certain statistic that that may not be an accurate interpretation of their abilities. Analytics will always be apart of the game, fans and outside viewers should have the most information they can on a player. Being a heavily evaluated employee can be daunting, and players are in that category. We’ll never know when Player X had a rough day at home, but it’s something that we should keep in the back of our mind when measuring players. 

Now on to the fun stuff..

The NBA season is on its way, so now seems like the best time to get started on NBA previews. First up, the new and improved Boston Celtics..

To understand where the Celtics could go, it’s important to realize what were there biggest weaknesses. For Boston, that was clearly the lack of another go-to scorer. A midseason trade for Isaiah Thomas went from a nice potential 6th man, to an all-star point guard who put the Celtics back onto the map. Last season his 22.2ppg, 6.2apg, and 3.0rpg on a 21.54 PER, led the Celtics to a 48 win season and a 5th seed. But once again, when it came down to facing playoff teams, coaches were able to game plan around stopping Thomas, and allowed the other Celtics chuck brick after brick. Though many have now been quick to throw the Celtics in the “can’t get out of the 1st round” category, it’s important to remember that in 2015 they were just a surprise team that snuck in the postseason and got matched up against the vastly more talented Cleveland Cavaliers. Then last season, they were without Kelly Olynyk, Avery Bradley, and Jae Crowder was still hobbled by a leg injury he got at the end of the year. Realistically, this is the first year under the Stevens era where it’s not a question of whether the Celtics will make the playoffs or not, but how far in the postseason they’ll go. 

By plucking Al Horford, the Celtics gave themselves another go-to option who fits the image that Boston wants to portray. His ability to shoot, pass, and defend inside and out gives Boston a shot of star power. By essentially replacing Jared Sullinger with Horford, the Celtics add a matchup nightmare that can head both their defense and offense. Despite his rebounding percentage dipping over the last few years, I’ve written how that may have actually been a matter of scheme rather than ability. In Boston, he’ll be asked to be the 1B on offense, and quarterback a defense that was already in the top 5 last season. Boston will be swimming with versatile bigs between Horford, Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, Kelly Olynyk, and Jordan Mickey. However, the Celtics still will still have one hurdle to watch for.

Despite my personal feelings on Evan Turner, he was a consistent force for the Celtics that was a guy who create a bucket on his own, and defend multiple positions on the wing. In order to replace his versatility the Celtics will have to rely on two things. One, is Marcus Smart is going to have to be trusted to run the second unit. He won’t be alone, with Terry Rozier set to join the rotation as well, but Smart is a lottery pick, and the Celtics need to find out whether he could become the point guard of the future. His ability to run the offense could have huge implications for what the Celitcs will be able to do. Because he’s already one of the best defenders at his position, just being an okay point guard could allow the Celtics to run monster defensive lineups that can score such as Smart-Bradley-Crowder-Johnson-Horford. Next, the Celtics will have to make sure Jaylen Brown is ready for a rotation role. Though Rozier will probably be given a big chunk of Turner’s old minutes, Brown will have a big role as one of the most versatile defenders on the team. In the summer league, Brown showed promise as a guy who can get to the line, create for himself a bit, and defend just about anyone on the court. His offense will probably be limited to spot-up attempts and cuts without the basketball, but if he can bring some of that defensive potential to the second unit, he could find himself playing a big role on a winning team.

This Celtics team is packed with versatility, youth, a great coach, and a bright future. But the time of being the nice up-and-coming startup is over. People have bought the stock, and real expectations have been set, it’ll be a fun ride to see where it ends up.

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