Hollinger: Are the Boston Celtics the NBA’s new future? + Sloan Conference takeaways

BOSTON — So … are the Celtics the anomaly, or are the Celtics the future?

I spent this past weekend in Beantown for the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and while I was there, I watched Boston shred Dallas and utterly embarrass Golden State. The Celtics are 48-12, rank first in offense and second in defense and seem likely to end up with one of the top scoring margins of all time. The only thing stopping people from showering this team with more praise are its last four postseasons, but right now, the Celtics seem completely unstoppable. Anointing any other team as the title favorite right now requires either wishful thinking or willful ignorance.

Having an analytics conference as the backdrop for these butt-kickings seemed oddly appropriate. The Celtics’ dominance is in part a result of the analytics revolution, and in equal part their being a peculiar outlier compared to what that revolution has done to the rest of the NBA.

Let’s start with the basic thing with which analytics impacted the NBA most heavily: Three is more than two. Basketball teams were incredibly slow to realize this and fully take advantage of it. As a result, for several years, a simple life hack stood available to any team interested in seizing it: increase 3-point attempts, and move up the offensive charts. Take away 3s, and move up the defensive charts. Three-point frequency correlated heavily with success at both ends.

Not anymore. We’ve now escalated to the point that the relationship has completely broken down. Everyone is launching 3s and spacing the floor now; if they’re not bombing away, it isn’t because of Neanderthal math; it’s because they suck at it. There are no more Brook Lopezes or Marc Gasols to suddenly unleash as 3-point shooters.

Teams are taking more 3s than ever, making up about 39.2 percent of total field goal attempts, but diminishing returns have hit hard. With league averages of 36.7 percent on 3s and 54.5 percent on 2s, we’ve roughly hit the threshold where a typical 3 no longer has a higher expected return than a typical 2. (A paper at this conference argued that, once we account for the much higher free-throw rates on 2s, teams have actually already sailed past the equilibrium point here.)

In a related story, the relationship between frequency of 3s and overall offensive efficiency has broken down. The Memphis Grizzlies are third in 3-point rate and last by a mile in efficiency; on the flip side, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers are second and third in offense, respectively, with below-average 3-point rates. (They still shoot 3s at rates that would have led the league as recently as 2016, mind you; they just haven’t needed to push the envelope any further.)

The more interesting story, however, is on the defensive end. The thing about stopping opposing 3-point attempts is that it turns out you literally can’t. Or at least, nobody has figured out how without opening the floodgates in other areas. While a few teams have had success with low opponent 3-point rates — Denver, Orlando and Minnesota — most of the teams at the top of this category are getting cooked.

The most notable example is Indiana, as any Pacers fan can attest; the Pacers have sold out on preventing 3s and give up just 28.6 per 100 possessions, by far the fewest of any team. They also rank 25th in defense, allowing a hailstorm of rim attempts and free throws as part of the bargain despite employing an elite rim protector in Myles Turner. Against most NBA teams, this strategy seems likely to backfire; protecting the basket remains the most critical part of defense, and even the best shot blockers can only “limit” an opponent to 65 percent or so shooting on rim attempts. Better to take those attempts way and surrender the rest surrendered to the whims of the 3-point variance gods.

This takes us back to the Celtics, because it turns out Boston is breaking this strategy. While the Celtics’ utter annihilation of the league this season gives them dominant stats on several levels, the kernel of it is that everybody can shoot, and thus, opponents have no help defense. Boston’s top eight players all shoot over six 3-point attempts per 100 possessions, and all shoot at least 35 percent from distance; as a team, Boston has by far the highest 3-point rate (nearly every other shot) and ranks fourth in accuracy at 38.6 percent.

Thus, the core strategy against every other team — deny the rim, live with the 3s — is basically a death sentence against Boston, a 58 percent effective field goal percentage proposition. The distributed nature of the threat is the other problem and stood out in stark contrast to the Warriors on Sunday. While the Warriors surrounded two generational shooters with much more ordinary perimeter skill, Boston rotates eight guys who can burn you.

Ironically, the teams that seem to give Boston the most trouble are the ones that make the gamble on taking away 3s; a losing bet against everyone else, it gives you a fighting chance versus the Celtics. The Pacers, for instance, beat Boston twice; Detroit gives up the second-fewest 3s and has been pasted by everyone else but took the Celtics to overtime in Boston in their only meeting this season. Denver is third on the list and won in Boston (the two teams meet again Thursday in a potential NBA Finals preview, by the way); Minnesota is sixth, and both meetings with the Celtics went to overtime.

Otherwise, more desperate strategies come into play, such as Golden State’s first-quarter approach Sunday. To get their best help defender, Draymond Green, engaged in the play rather than marooned at the 3-point line, the Warriors adopted the radical strategy of putting Green on Boston’s worst 3-point shooter (Jaylen Brown, who would be the best shooter in a few other team’s lineups but is shooting a mere 35.2 percent from 3 this season) and having Green sag in the paint while letting Brown fire away. If he missed the first few, this Jedi mind trick might have worked; instead, Brown made five 3s in the first seven minutes, and the rout was on.



Leave Jaylen Brown open? Jrue Holiday says Warriors tried ‘mind game’ on wrong person

The result of all this shooting and spacing isn’t just a splash fest from 3, however; it’s also a runway to the rim. Boston is third in the NBA in 2-point percentage at 57.6 percent precisely because of all the room.

Watch this play from the second quarter Sunday. Steph Curry picks up Jayson Tatum on a switch and is getting mashed by the bigger Tatum in the paint but manages to hold him up for four dribbles, normally more than enough time for a help defender to come.

But the help never comes, because it’s stationed in a perimeter outpost many leagues from the action. The other four Celtics are outside the 3-point line, and all of them can shoot. Kevon Looney is worried about Payton Pritchard at the upper wing, and Lester Quinones doesn’t want to leave Brown in the corner and finally makes a late, lame effort. (Had it been stronger, Tatum very likely spots Brown in the corner anyway.) An annoyed Curry motions for somebody, anybody, to come to his rescue as Tatum lays the ball in.

“That’s what we used to do to teams,” Curry lamented after the game. Indeed, it did feel a bit like a tactical changing of the guard. In terms of this past weekend’s nerd convention and where the game is going with 3s and spacing, Golden State brought a Commodore VIC-20 to a supercomputer fight.

What’s amazing is that the Warriors themselves are third in 3-point frequency. But because more than half of them come from two players, their spacing doesn’t stress defenses beyond their breaking point the way Boston’s distributed attack does. Curry is still amazing, and Klay Thompson can still make it rain, but Golden State is league average or worse in 2-point shooting, free throws and turnovers.

This takes us to the final question: Is this what the league will look like in five years? Or is it just too hard to build the kind of talent base Boston has, where eight guys can shoot 3s and switch on defense? I mean, by definition, only half the guys in the league can be above-average shooters, right?

In any case, look for imitators to spawn soon. The Celtics are awesome, and stopping them is an impossible question — especially with Kristaps Porziņģis around to mash the switches that have occasionally vexed Boston in previous postseasons. Finding an entire rotation of shooting threats is hard, but if the Celtics’ stampede continues through June, I’d expect plenty of their rivals to try it.

Travel Geekery: The Analytics State of the Union

As I mentioned, I attended the Sloan Sports Conference this past weekend and wanted to comment briefly on the state of the union in analytics and get in a brief rant. Technologically, two things stood out to me: First of all, artificial intelligence is coming to sports, and having it trained on reliable data from sporting events rather than the cesspool of the internet is likely to make it much more reliable than in some other realms.

Second, and more unfortunately, the complexity of the problems and data we now have in sports make it much more difficult to summarize what’s happening in a one-hour presentation at a convention. Twenty years ago, “analytics” was me and an Excel spreadsheet; now entire companies staffed with hordes of programmers and analysts have sprung up to help teams in every sport manage the tsunami of data they’re collecting. You’re not summarizing all this in a TED talk.

That said, let me get to a rant. First, the good news: We’re doing all kinds of things with cameras and tracking to get very specific information as to A) the quality of the NBA players and B) the optimization of tactics (foul up three, etc.). However, it feels like most of the current research effort is in these two places, and that it has been for many years.

In contrast, there are two areas in analytics that I don’t think get enough effort right now. First and foremost, we remain mostly in the dark on how to keep players healthy, both in the NBA and in sports in general. While some exciting advances have been made in performance science, especially in soccer, the NBA is currently in the midst of a holy war on the utility of load management and the analytics world (myself included) has had remarkably little to say about it.

Secondly, I get back to a really boring, low-tech thing that probably doesn’t get enough attention. Virtually every pro league at this point is impacted by some kind of salary cap, especially in North America. Thus, the formula for winning is basically to allocate your salary dollars better than other teams.

While we have a lot of fancy ratings to value players, figuring out who is good generally isn’t the hard part here; it’s allocating the dollars over a period of years to extract maximal value in the forms of wins. (Indeed, go over the last decade-plus, and you’ll see a big chunk of the advantage that the so-called “analytics” teams had was that they were just better at managing the cap.)

Despite that, I don’t think nearly enough research is being done on optimization, or what mathematicians sometimes call “knapsack problems,” of trying to stuff as much talent as possible into a given space. It’s not as exciting as working with Hawkeye cameras, but I’m wondering if it would have a greater return on investment on winning.

OK, carry on…

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The Sydney Kings’ Jaylin Galloway rises for a layup against Cairns in a National Basketball League game in December. (Mark Evans / Getty Images)

Cap geekery: Two-way roulette

Hard-core NBA observers may have noticed a rush of end-of-roster transactions this past week, and there are two good reasons for that. First, there is the March 1 deadline for players to be waived and still be eligible for a playoff roster; this is effectively the “buyout deadline” because, after this point, any waived player is not playoff-eligible.

However, the other impending deadline is the March 4 buzzer for signing two-way contracts. As a result, some teams have churned their final two-ways in search of more talent or to get eligible players if their current two-ways had used most or all of their active days. (Memphis, for example, waived Jacob Gilyard after all 50 of his active-roster games had been used.) All told, 15 two-ways have been signed since the All-Star break ended, and we’re likely to get a couple more before the deadline. (As I wrote this, four open two-way spots remained in the league.)

Even more commonly, several teams have promoted a player from a two-way to the active roster in the past week, knowing they would need to sign a replacement two-way by March 4. Kudos to Atlanta’s Trent Forest, Dallas’ A.J. Lawson, Detroit’s Stanley Umude, Golden State’s Lester Quinones, Chicago’s Onuralp Bitim, San Antonio’s Dom Barlow, Brooklyn’s Jalen Wilson, Indiana’s Kendall Brown, Toronto’s Javon Freeman-Liberty and Washington’s “Eugene from Eugene” Omoruyi, who are now active roster players.

As far as the new two-ways, league execs have long lamented that the extra two-way spot added in the new CBA drains the available talent pool in the G League even further, and that it’s almost become a pointless exercise.

The one interesting addition to watch is in Milwaukee, which signed 6-6 wing Jaylin Galloway out of Australia after his season with the Sydney Kings ended. Fun fact: The Bucks needed Sydney to lose a play-in game to have Williams complete his season by the March 4 two-way deadline; otherwise, he wouldn’t have been cleared and would have only been able to sign a roster contract.

Galloway is a 21-year-old Aussie who was auto-eligible for the 2022 draft because he played high school basketball in the Atlanta area before returning to Australia; our Sam Vecenie wrote about him in the fall. He’s an athletic wing whose shooting is a question mark, but this is a really strong upside play for Milwaukee compared to what is available in the G League at this time of year. Don’t be surprised if a few talent evaluators schlep their way up to Oshkosh, Wis., next month to get eyes on him ahead of the offseason.

Prospect of the Week: Yves Missi, 6-11 freshman C, Baylor

(Note: This section won’t necessarily profile the best prospect of the week. Just the one I’ve been watching.)

Early in the fall, one of my spies who had seen Baylor practice told me Missi was going to be a lottery pick. I responded by telling him he was out of his mind; I had seen Missi practice and play at the Hoop Summit, and he looked miles away from being a good college player, let alone a pro.

Fast forward to this weekend, and my friend’s prediction doesn’t seem so crazy. With NBA execs fanning out to big college games as part of their annual post-deadline cram session, few dates on the calendar were bigger than the Kansas-Baylor matchup Saturday. And here’s what Missi did on the Bears’ first possession of the game:

Missi summoning the ghost of Tom Chambers to detonate on Kansas’s K.J. Adama was the opening salvo in a strong overall performance — finishing with 17 points — in No. 15 Baylor’s 82-74 win over No. 7 Kansas. In particular, Missi flashed the ability to attack bigs off the dribble, something he’ll likely need as a skinny big without elite length (he measured with a 7-2 wingspan and 9-1 standing reach at the Hoop Summit).

Born in Belgium and raised in Cameroon, Missi has developed his raw tools relatively quickly — he’s already gone from a scoreless Hoop Summit outing to one of the best players in the best conference in college basketball.

Scouts will want to ask where he can go from here. Missi is a 63.7 percent foul shooter, but adding range on his jumper is likely the next step to better weaponize his game off the dribble. He also needs to see the game better, with just 12 assists all season. He still fouls too much and underwhelms as a rebounder in part because his thin frame gets pushed around. Finally, Missi isn’t quite as young as most one-and-dones, turning 20 in May. For all those reasons, analytics models might not like him quite as much as the eye test.

All of those nit-picks will keep him out of the top 10 on draft night, most likely, but after that, anything is possible. In a weak draft, Missi’s raw tools are likely to be a more compelling draw than in other years, and he’s capable of playing as a switchable five right now. With his dribble game and background story, some may see a Pascal Siakam-type post-draft trajectory for him.

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(Top photo of Kristaps Porziņģis: Kamil Krzaczynski / USA Today)

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