I’ve been watching unhealthy amounts of basketball my whole life. Never has this been truer than in the last five seasons, since the 2007-08 season. A big part of this had to do with the coincidence of my relocation to Boston and the formation of the Celtics’ Big 3 in 2007. This also marked the first time I had cable :). Because of this, the Big 3 Era will hold a special place in my basketball-heart. And now that the Big 3 era has ended, I’m here to review this special chapter in Celtic History. Part I (linked here) will go over the hiccups, highlights, and history of the Big 4. Part II (this post) will offer some thoughts, feelings, and questions on the Big 4.
Part II: Thoughts, Feelings, and Analysis
Thought 1: The Mystery of Rajon Rondo
Rajon Rondo is a mystery man. He has a unique style of play, he was the lone youngin’ of the Big 4, and effuses a guarded image to the media (one that Dooling shed light on in this great article). Starting with Rondo’s play: despite his notoriously horrid shooting-ability (for a guard, no less!), he is unbelievably coordinated and creative–this translates into great handle, creative passing, and unreal ball-fakes.
Regarding his attitude and role in the locker room, Rondo can come off as confident bordering on arrogant; he was fortunate to have the guidance of veterans and Doc Rivers. I’m not saying he wouldn’t have thrived in a different context, but it’s a worthy question. Some feel he is aloof–even antagonistic–and has been rumored as a cause for Ray Allen’s departure. But that isn’t Keyon Dooling’s understanding (courtesy of Ball Don’t Lie):
“It’s funny because there were a lot of people who didn’t necessarily talk before the game. John Stockton was a guy who never talked before the game, never signed autographs or anything like that and he was known as a gentleman and a saint so the spin that Rondo has is definitely a misconception. If you ask the guys in the locker room, I’d tell you that everybody is with him. If I have to go down a dark alley, I want to go down there with him. As a matter of fact, behind him because he’s a great leader…I mean, the guy plays through everything…He’s tough as nails…He’s a reserved guy. Don’t allow people to tell you that this guy is a jerk or an a**hole because he’s quiet and he doesn’t want to talk before games or he doesn’t have this superman personality, this Dwight Howard personality.”
The enigma of Rondo extends to his varied ranking among the league’s elite point guards. He lept into the conversation for top 3 point guard in the second season of the Big 3 Era (2008-09). Some metrics liked his game a lot–since ’08-’09, he was ranked 3rd, 4th, 3rd and 3rd in those four seasons in WP/48 among point guards. PER, on the other hand, saw him as 8th, 4th, 15th, 21st in those same seasons. It’s true that more PGs emerged in the past couple years (e.g., Rose, Westbrook, Irving), but Rondo’s value nowadays probably lies somewhere in between the 21st PER sees him and the 3rd that WP/48 sees him.
Thought 2: Paul Pierce and Ray Allen were Professionals (usually)
Much has been made of Ray Allen being the “consumate professional” over the years, tirelessly honing is jump shot and keeping in tip-top shape. And all those things remain true, but Allen did go out on a bit of a awkward note. He was rumored to be unhappy playing behind Avery Bradley (rather than not sweating it) and he chose to go to the Miami Freakin’ Heat, which from an image point of view, is just as “bad” as the Lakers. But those are mere details–we’ll still remember Allen as the “consumate professional” because he was 99.9% of the time. It showed in his play–his best shooting years were on the C’s–and it showed in his character.
Paul Pierce probably doesn’t get enough credit for his professionalism. Pierce barely missed any games over the past 5 years, a testament to his commitment to getting in better shape as he aged. Pierce was candid with the media, true to his team, and quietly played great defense on the perimeter while carrying a heavy offensive load. Like Allen, Pierce also had some of his seasons in the Big 3 Era despite his advancing age. Pierce’s lone misstep might be the time he allegedly flashed the “Blood” sign at Al Horford. Regardless of the truth or the motives behind this claim, it was a temporary knock on Pierce’s image. Nonetheless, his professionalism and dedication remain underrated, and it is a big reason for his impact and success.
Thought 3: Kevin Garnett, Teammate Extraordinaire and Legitimate Crazy-man
Over the years, players consistently have said there is no better teammate than KG. It’s astounding the number of times I have heard/read a traveled journeyman say that–it’s no wonder that year after year veterans would come to play with the Celtics for their final season before retiring. Celtic teammate Keyon Dooling said this about KG (again, courtesy of BDL):
“I guarantee you if you did a poll of everybody who has played with Kevin Garnett, I guarantee you he would probably be 98% of people’s favorite teammate…Words can do him a disservice, because he means that much to our locker room. He’s the guy. He’s the guy who’s willing to have the tough conversations. He’s the guy who’s willing to accept responsibility. He’s the guy who’s quick to lift his teammates up. He’s the guy who’s quickest to divert attention or the praise from himself and praise others. Kevin Garnett is the best teammate in the history of the NBA. You’ve never seen a superstar teammate who truly loves and cares about every guy on the team. It’s such a pleasure…He’ll be missed when he’s gone from this game. You won’t appreciate what he does night in, night out, in practice, in the locker room. He’s a once-in-a-century player.”
It also bears mention that Kevin Garnett is insanely passionate about winning, to the point where he may be insane on every level. He is tough on himself (see below), his teammates (see below), and his opponents (see below).
Thought 4: Character Make-up
The Celts were a team whose constituents fit together perfectly, from a strategy and personality point of view. Doc Rivers could manage the personalities and command respect, in addition to being good with the X’s and O’s. KG was the heart of the team and the anchor of the defense. Paul Pierce was the heart of the city and a do-it-all player on offense and defense. Ray Allen was the “consummate professional” and as good a shooter the NBA has ever seen. Perkins was the enforcer who embodied the blue-collar Boston personality that we associate with the Celtics. And Rondo was both the engine that kept the team going (with his energy), as well as the oil to keep the engine running functionally (with his distribution of the ball).
Thought 5: Big Picture for the the Big 3
As far as individuals, the Big 3 (the veterans) were all able to get their championship, and all proved crucial throughout the process. Their legacies, if not over, are at least validated in the eyes of the masses. But how do they stack up in the bigger picture?
- Garnett will retire as arguably the greatest PF of all time, and is certainly in the class of Malone, Barkley, Duncan, and Nowitzki. His defense is better than all the aforementioned players, except perhaps Duncan, but Garnett’s defense has aged better than even Timmy’s. He also may be the best passer among the bunch.
- Ray Allen is arguably the greatest shooter ever, maintaining absurd percentages into his later years (his career-high 45.3 3pt% was during his last season in Boston, at age 36). After Kobe and Wade, Ray ranks as the the third best SG of his generation.
- Pierce’s ageless game allowed him to be the second-best SF of his generation, the only better player being rival LeBron James (I am considering Durant as a part of the next generation). We have never seen a SF defend LeBron so well while shouldering the offensive load the Celtics required of Pierce.
Thought 1: That Celtic Defense!
The Celtics defense was stunning all five years and without a doubt was the best defense over that time span. They finished 1st, 2nd, 5nd, 2nd, and 1st in DRtg in their five years. This is a testament to many things–Tom Thibodeau and the system he put in place; Pierce’s improved defense and Rondo/Perkins’ decent-to-strong D; the team’s one-for-all and all-for-one mentality; and, of course, the fact that KG consistently played like a top 3 defender. Here is their D from a defensive four-factors point of view. (Season-ranking is in parenthesis, where 1st is always “best”.)
Year in and year out, the Celts forced turnovers and missed-shots with the best of them. They slowly became worse at rebounding, and their defensive kryptonite was a propensity to foul.
Thought 2: What happened to the Celtics’ offense?
Confusingly, the Celtics’ offense regressed over the five years in a way their defense didn’t. They finished 9th, 5th, 15th, 18th, and 25th in ORtg in their five years. This is especially confusing given the following facts: (a) Pierce’s best seasons in terms of TS% were, by far, ’09-’10 and ’10-’11. (b) Allen never dropped off either; in fact, his final four years on the Celtics marked his 1st, 5th, 2nd, and 4th all-time best seasons in TS%. (c) KG remained at a constant-ish efficiency, too.
Rondo’s offensive efficiency did regress as the years wore on (likely due to higher usage), but not enough to explain how they fell from a top 5 offense to the 25th-best offense (especially when considering the other Big 4 members’ elite offense). So what gives? A look at their offensive four factors can perhaps shed light on the roots of their regression. (Ranking is in parenthesis, where 1st is always “best”.)
There are a number of interesting pieces of information here. It first bears mention that the Celtics were awful at taking care of the ball. Why this is the case remains elusive to me. After all, they had world-class players led by a distributive point guard. My theory has to do with pace: The Celtics played slow basketball and drew out possessions, rather than getting quick shots, which means they had more time each possession to turn the ball over.
In terms of eFG% they started out elite, but regressed with age despite remaining very good. This was somewhat due to diminished 3pt% (they finished 5th, 1st, 18th, 12th, 7th over the years), but they likely got fewer easy looks at the hoop, too. This theory fits in with the last two aspects of the offensive four-factors–the C’s steep drop-off in OReb% and FT/FGA. Fewer offensive rebounds means fewer easy buckets, and fewer free throws indicates a difficulty in getting to the rim. Add all of these issues up, and the Celtics’ regression on offense makes more sense.
Thought 3: Big Picture for the Team
Although each of the Big 4 remain in the league, the era is over. Did the Celts overachieve or underachieve as a team? Although I’m sure there are objective, statistical ways to approach this question, I’ll hold off on making a fool of myself and simply remind everyone of the following points.
- The Celtics made two Finals and won one of them. For the second one (2010), they were severe underdogs not only in the Finals, but even in preceding rounds against the Cavs and Magic. That they pushed the Lakers to a Game 7 and nearly won without Perkins for a game and a half is nothing short of amazing.
- The Celtics second-best season was their second season, 2008-09. If not for KG’s season-ending injury in the regular, they could have repeated as champions.
- The Celtics starting 5 of the Big 4 and Perkins, when healthy, never lost a playoff series.
- The Celtics last two seasons did not end in a Finals appearance, but that has much more to do with age and the Miami Heat’s dominance than it does with underachievement.
- I will mention again that the 2007-08 Celtic defense, by my measure, is the second-best defense of all time (since the merger…that’s out of 960 teams). When I say “my measure,” I mean to say that while there has been more than one team with a better DRtg since the merger (34 teams to be exact), only one team was better on defense relative the offensive/defensive ratings from its respective season. In other words, given their era/league averages of the season, the C’s defense was factually as good as any we’ve ever seen.
Add it all up, and I think it’s safe to say the Celtics lived up to expectations–if anything given their success, age, and injuries, the Celtics overachieved.
Final Thought: Goodbye
I’ll miss you, Big 4 Era Celtics. Thanks for all the memories.
How do you feel about this chapter in Celtic history? Comment on the article or e-mail us at AGRbasketball (at) gmail (dot) com. Don’t forget to follow @AGRbasketball on Twitter and to like us on Facebook.