On the Celtics, Slow Starts and Defensive Inefficiency

After last night's loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Boston Celtics are just 4-8 on the season. Their struggles against Oklahoma City, and in general in 2011-12, led me to ask this question on Twitter last night.

The majority of the responses I got were in the affirmative, and I think I'd have to agree. 12 games represents 18 percent of this shortened 66-game season, which is probably beyond the amount of season we can reasonably label as the "start". More tellingly, start or not, this matches the worst 12-game stretch at any point in any season for the Celtics since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived.

What's more shocking about the Celtics stting where they are in the standings -- currently on the outside of the playoff picture and closer to the bottom-feeding Wizards than the East-leading Bulls -- is that in the "Big 3" era, the Celtics have been a fast-starting team. The Celtics opened 29-3 in 2007-08, 27-2 in 2008-09, 23-5 in 2009-10 and 23-4 last season.

Coincidentally, Boston's hot starts for each of the last three seasons have ended on or around Christmas. Last year, a Christmas Day loss started a 5-5 run for Boston after that 23-4 start. In 2008-09, the Celtics lost seven of nine, starting with a Christmas Day loss to the Lakers. In between, Boston managed to win on Christmas Day 2009, but then lost eight of the next 12 -- the same record Boston has over the first 12 games of this season, which started (as everyone knows) on Christmas Day.

But the calendar isn't the Celtics problem -- well, aside from the fact that the last number on the date keeps getting bigger, which means Boston's stars keep getting older. That plays into the real problem for the Celtics: defense. A suffocating defense was the trademark of Boston's teams for the last four seasons, never ranking outside the top five in the league in points per possession (defensive rating). This year, the numbers tell a different story.

Season DRtg Opp PPG Win Pct
2007-08 1st 2nd .805
2008-09 2nd 3rd .756
2009-10 5th 5th .610
2010-11 2nd 1st .683
2011-12 21st 9th .333

On the surface, things don't seem too bad for the Celtics. Boston is only giving up 92.5 PPG, 1.4 PPG more than last year. But scoring is down leaguewide, and Boston is playing at an even more glacial pace than it did last season (which was already its slowest pace of the Big 3 era). It's easy in this season to blame everything that goes wrong on the lockout, but Boston made a lot of changes outside of its core players, and those new additions had very little time to learn Boston's defensive system. The shortened training camp and reduced practice schedule also adds to any timing problems the Celtics may be having. That reflects in Boston's defensive efficiency, which is currently 21st in the league. To find the last time the Celtics ranked that poorly, you have to go back before the Big 3 era... WAY before. Boston finished 25th in the league in 1996-97, the year a tanking team trying to get Tim Duncan went 15-67.

This year's Celtics aren't going 15-67, for plenty of reasons. First, there aren't 82 games (obviously). More to the point, though, is Boston has too much talent to be that bad all season. The schedule hasn't exactly been kind to them so far this season. The eight teams the Celtics have lost to (counting the Pacers twice) have a combined record of 67-38, and their only truly "bad" loss came against the Hornets, on the back-end of a back-to-back (and as the end of a three-in-four stretch). On the flip side, Boston hasn't beaten a single team with a better than .300 win percentage, with its four wins coming against the dismal Pistons, Nets and Wizards (twice).

Before the season, I projected the Celtics as the sixth-best team in the East, which was lower than most people, but doesn't seem too far off right now. I definitely think Boston will improve from its current ninth-place position, but how much (or how little, to be more accurate) may surprise people. Nearly a month into the 2011-12 season, it may be time to reassess what we thought about this Celtics team, and accept that they are what they are: an aging team that will beat bad teams, lose to good ones, and end up somewhere in the middle of the pack.