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The Boston Celtics and Analytical Blind Spots

Ben Dowsett explains why the Boston Celtics haven’t played as well as projection models predicted.

Ben Dowsett

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The Boston Celtics entered this season as a token guinea pig for what’s become a yearly game of tug-of-war between “analytics” people and “old-school” members of the business – a microcosm of which side is “winning.” As silly as this practice has always been (since the incredible majority of real NBA movers and shakers aren’t split along such contrived party lines and use some combination of all information available to them), the Celtics were honestly something of a perfect proxy for the Twitter wars that seem to build around a couple players or teams every year.

Many numerically-inclined observers viewed Boston as the team that differed most from popular consensus for preseason expectations. Where more traditional analysts saw a pretty similar team to last season, a well-coached outfit that wouldn’t be an easy nightly out but wouldn’t make any serious waves in the East, many predictive models saw a budding power. The Celtics were projected in the high-40 win range by multiple popular projection systems, including at fivethirtyeight and Nylon Calculus, two of several models that had them as a top-three seed in the conference.

Roughly a quarter of the way into the season, the mathematicians are coming up short – but not by as much as the raw standings would indicate, and perhaps not in the ways some would expect. The factors that led many analysts to project gaudy totals have held true in some cases, but have fallen well short in the ones that may define the larger picture.

Much of what drove the positive end of projections was depth. The Celtics entered the year with a minimum of nine guys on the roster who did well in at least one major predictive metric, and this aggregation drove the way models viewed them. And in a broad sense, this has been at least partly correct. Boston may only be 14-11 and occupying the same seventh seed they ended up with last season, but their underlying metrics indicate a stronger cumulative team – the Celtics are seventh in the NBA for adjusted net rating, per basketball-reference.com, and sixth for both margin of victory and the same site’s Simple Rating System (averages point differential and strength of schedule).

Depth is nothing if used incorrectly, and the Celts may only be keeping things close due to coach Brad Stevens. A regular chess master at work, Stevens is already one of the best in the game at identifying the exact niche his players will best occupy, then fitting them into it in concert with game context and situational awareness. A quick glance at his most frequently used lineups on the year reveals the degree to which he’s been comfortable mixing and matching – you have to go scroll down to Boston’s ninth-most used five-man unit to find one that’s been outscored per-possession on the year, but nine different players are present in at least one of these top eight groups.

Finding even a minor misuse of talent on Boston’s roster is a chore. Isaiah Thomas operates optimally with the ball frequently in his hands and savvy screeners on the floor; he plays most in these exact alignments (Marcus Smart’s injury shook things up a bit here, to be fair). Kelly Olynyk has defensive limitations; he almost never sees time in units that could expose these to too great an extent. Shoot, Stevens has made a near-capable swingman out of Evan Turner, written off in many NBA circles more than once over the last few years.

The Celtics play smart ball that leverages their advantages and works to minimize their weaknesses. Their percentage of assisted baskets is among the highest in the league, a nod to Stevens’ precise scheme that does its best without anything even approximating a true offensive centerpiece. They’re not a good rebounding team overall mostly due to personnel, but crash the offensive glass smartly and selectively – they “chase” the sixth-highest percentage of their own misses in the league, per Nylon Calculus data, but allow the fourth-fewest transition points against, a sign that they’re conscious of the trade-off and not being destroyed by it.

Boston is a bad shooting team, plain and simple. They’re dead last in the league for shooting percentage on open jumpers outside 10 feet (no defender within four feet), per NBASavant, even trailing the Philadelphia 76ers. There’s only so much Stevens, or any coach, can do to mitigate this, though he has his team at a defensive level one can hardly imagine possible for this group of players, which helps a lot.

The shooting issues, and really any areas of individual deficiency up and down the roster, are where cracks started to form in the predictive analysis of the team. Models can account for the fact that the Celtics don’t cumulatively have great shooting, of course, but it’s much tougher for them to define the way specific pieces will combine in ways that can help make up for that kind of issue elsewhere. It’s the entire crux of many folks’ issue with the numbers revolution in the first place: You can never totally quantitatively account for the way a group of pieces fits together.

The common line of thought goes that Boston hasn’t hit pay dirt until they land a true star, but this is backward. In reality, the question ought to be, “Can the Celtics beat star-driven teams?” Can the unique makeup of their roster that saw so many projections high on them be effectively molded into an incarnation that can challenge the LeBrons, Stephs and Durants of the league?

This is where they’ve been underwhelming to this point, and where it becomes realistic to wonder about placing a team like this in the same category as some of the elite teams, or even close. A collection of good to great talent is nice, but only five guys can be on the NBA court at one time – in a more specific context with a smaller sample, that depth starts to matter much less than the advantage a guy like LeBron brings over any of the five Boston can put on the floor.

A few games shouldn’t define this theme, but some recent results have given opponents of the predictive models a lot of ammo. The Celts were the more disciplined and often better team in a process-driven sense Tuesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, but were still run off the court by a group with a level they just couldn’t get to. Losses to the Golden State Warriors (by five) and the San Antonio Spurs (by three) in the last couple weeks have seen similar trends. The Celtics have underachieved their Pythagorean win expectation by two already on the year – a sign that they’ve lost a couple games their overall point differential indicates they should have won. Boston is 9-1 against sub-.500 teams and just 5-11 versus winning ones.

Look, this isn’t any kind of condemnation of any predictive modeling, or these models in particular. Their creators would all be quick to say that nothing in their projections was so outlandish as to suggest the Celtics were title contenders, or that they should regularly be butting heads with the elite teams in the league and coming out on top. As the smart statisticians they are, the makers of the above-noted models even went to lengths to note the possibility of this sort of gap between projections and reality. It’s also still easily early enough for small sample to be mentioned.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way Danny Ainge has assembled this team, especially given that his greatest assets in the chest aren’t even on-court ones. The Celtics would be as well-positioned as any team in the league if, say, DeMarcus Cousins became available for a gigantic package. This current iteration is by no means the final result of the work Ainge and his team have done in recent years.

Still, should some of these underlying trends continue over a longer stretch with the current group, they’re a convenient reminder to all of us that basketball is much more than a collection of assets that accumulates to one final tally. The models can struggle with items like chemistry and roles, among other details. While there’s a gigantic chasm between this reality and the “analytics are useless” garbage only clowns are still spewing, it’s good to be reminded every now and then that even the most expertly curated stat-based analysis will have blind spots.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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NBA Daily: Nassir Little’s Climb Back up the Draft Boards

Nassir Little’s measurements and personality shined through at the Combine, leading many to believe he may be better suited for the NBA than he was for the NCAA, writes Drew Maresca.

Drew Maresca

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From highly-touted prospect to reserve player and back, Nassir Little’s path to the pros has been an unusual one.

Little was a McDonald’s All-American and five-star prospect. And yet, he didn’t start a single game in his lone season at North Carolina.

He demonstrated the ability to take over a game at times – averaging 19.5 points per game through UNC’s first two games in the NCAA tournament. He also broke the 18-point barrier in six games this past season. But he also scored in single digits in 18 of the Tar Heels’ 36 games, resulting in him being labeled inconsistent by many professional scouts.

Luckily for Little, his skillset is highly sought after by NBA personnel. He is a 6-foot-6, 220 pound forward. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.6 rebounds per game as UNC’s sixth man, demonstrating the versatility to switch between both forward positions fairly seamlessly.

And he very well may be one of the few players better suited for the modern NBA game than he was for the NCAA.

Little told reporters at the NBA combine that much of his struggles can be attributed to the hesitancy he developed in his own game through the lack of clarity provided to him by the North Carolina coaching staff.

“The coaching staff didn’t really understand what my role was, especially on offense,” said Little. “So it created a lot of hesitancy, which didn’t allow me to play like myself.”

But Little assured reporters that he’ll look more like the five-star recruit we saw when he was a senior at Orlando Christian Prep.

“Throughout the year I didn’t feel like I played like myself. The guy that people saw in high school is really who I am as a player,” Little said. “And that’s the guy that people will see at the next level.”

Not only does Little expect to be back to his old self, he sees greatness in his future.

“I feel like I am going to come in as, like, a second version of Kawhi Leonard and be that defensive guy,” Little said. “Later on in the years, add [additional] pieces to my game.”

And while a Leonard comparison represents a tall order, Little’s physical tools have fueled discussion about his defensive potential – which has resulted in his climb back up draft boards. Little measured in with a 7-foot-1 wingspan and posted an impressive 38.5-inch vertical jump (second amongst all 2019 participants), a 3.09-second shuttle run (third) and a 3.31-second ¾ court sprint (fourth) – all of which translates perfectly to the NBA.

While his physical prowess will certainly help him gain additional visibility throughout the draft process, Little claims to possess another attribute that everyone else in the draft might not necessarily have, too.

“A lot of guys talk about skill set, everyone’s in the gym working on their skillset. But me being able to bring energy day in and day out is something a lot of guys don’t do.”

To Little’s point, he projects extremely well as an energetic, defensive pest. He is an aggressive and physical defender who has drawn comparisons to guys like Marcus Smart and Gerald Wallace – both of whom are/were known for their high-energy play and dedication on the floor. While his athleticism and potential can open doors, his personality will ensure that teams fall in love with the 19-year old forward. Little came across as extremely likable and candid, which should factor into the overall process, especially when considering that other prospects with less personality project to be more challenging to work with. Moreover, the fact that he was named to the Academic All-ACC team speaks volumes to his discipline and dedication.

Little alluded to the fact that he already sat through interviews with 10 teams as of a week ago, including one with the San Antonio Spurs, which makes the Leonard comparison all the more intriguing.

“Each team has different needs,” Little said. “But they like my [ability] to score the basketball in a variety of ways and my defensive potential to guard multiple positions, they really like that. And my athleticism to be on the court and finish plays.”

If Little is lucky, he’ll be selected by the Spurs with the nineteenth pick. And if that happens, he would be wise to pay close attention to the advice given to him by Coach Gregg Popovich – and not only because he sees similarities between himself and former Popovich-favorite, Leonard. Coach Popovich has a long history of developing lesser known draft picks into borderline stars – Derrick White being the most recent example.

Considering Little’s physical tools, academic achievements and easy-going personality, he has everything one would need to have a long NBA career. Just how successful he ends up being is mostly up to him.

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