Nichols and Dimes

Innovative Basketball Research

How Did Those Guys Do It

The Boston Celtics were discussed ad nauseum last season, so I feel bad bringing them up, but they still baffle me.  I think many people don’t realize how dominant their defense was last season.  Their 98.6 defensive efficiency was three points better than the next closest team, a sizable margin.

Even more confusing is the fact that many of the players that made up their squad did not have stellar defensive reputations.  Paul Pierce, who ranked 6th in Defensive Composite Score last season, had not ranked higher than 94th in any of the previous four seasons.  Ray Allen, who ranked 34th last season, never previously topped 183rd.  Eddie House ranked 38th in 07-08 after finishing as one of the worst defenders in the league in 2004, 2005, and 2007, and not too great in 2006.  In limited minutes, Tony Allen ranked 4th last season after finishing 89th in the previous year.  The list goes on and on.

The Celtics did have Kevin Garnett, the Defensive Player of the Year.  Unlike the previous players, Defensive Composite Score has always loved Garnett, so his year was no fluke.  Because Garnett is a big man who does a great job guarding the paint but also has the quickness to extend his D, he certainly makes everyone around him better.  Still, I’m sold on his defensive abilities having this large of an impact.

After some extensive soul searching, I’ve learned that the reason I can’t figure out last year’s Celtics is because the differences can’t be seen in any specific numbers.  As much as I hate to admit it, the stats don’t tell the story here.

Garnett’s abilities had an impact on the team, but his mindset had might have been the key.  There’s simply no way to explain someone such as Eddie House becoming a good defender other than figuring he changed his attitude.  Like the rest of the Celtics, House appeared to give maximum effort on every defensive possession, something he hasn’t been known for.  Defense has a lot to do with natural ability, but it also requires effort.  The Celtics displayed unreal amounts of effort for all 82 games and then kept it going in the playoffs.

The players don’t get all the credit here, though.  The Celtics coaching staff clearly got messages through to the players.  Tom Thibodeau has been known as a defensive expert, and he did more than enough to cement that reputation last season.  Mike D’Antoni and Vinny Del Negro have many positive qualities, but if I were running the Knicks or Bulls I would not have passed on hiring Thibodeau in the offseason.

If you look at the numbers for Doc Rivers and Thibodeau, some things start to stand out.  The average defensive rating rank of the previous three Celtics teams that Rivers coached was 16.67.  Prior to that, he coached four full seasons with the Magic, and those teams ranked 13.5.  Although those numbers aren’t terrible, it’s clear he did not lead the turnaround on his own.

Thibodeau, on the other hand, has an excellent track record as an assistant.  In his two seasons with the Spurs, the teams ranked on average 9.5 in defensive efficiency.  The next two years he helped coach a terrible 76ers team, and their defensive numbers were quite poor.  However, after that, his numbers were stellar.  The Knicks’ average rank during his tenure there was 8.57.  After seven seasons, Thibodeau followed Van Gundy to the Rockets, who had a rank of 4.5 during those four seasons.  Thibodeau’s best years came with Van Gundy, so it’s impossible to pinpoint how much credit belongs to each.

It’s unclear how much credit Thibodeau deserves for the Celtics’ resurgence, but struggling teams should at least be giving this guy a shot at being their head coach.  If you could drastically improve your defense (which, we must not forget, is half of the game) by hiring just one man, how could you pass that up?

NBA teams ought to be doing their homework right now and trying to figure out how the Celtics became such a defensive powerhouse.  The next team to replicate that strategy will also be a force to be reckoned with.

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October 27, 2008 - Posted by | Commentary

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