Boy, the ebbs and flows of an NBA season really are something else.
Boston began the year with the best offense in league history, while questions about Milwaukee’s scoring prowess lingered.
Since December 1st? The Celtics’ 115.3 offensive rating is only 17th in the league, while the Bucks’ 116.0 ranks 12th.
This is why it’s so important not to overreact to small sample size, and one way to see what’s real and what’s not is by looking at some numbers.
Let’s start with Boston.
What’s up with Boston’s offense?
Up until December 1st, the Celtics had a ludicrous 123.0 offensive rating, and the 4.9-point difference between them and second-place Denver was bigger than the difference between Denver and 12th-place Brooklyn.
The best arbiter that explains such outlier numbers is almost always three-point shooting, which applies here too. Up until December, Boston was only one of two teams that made their threes at a clip better than 39% (41.4%, to be exact), and they also ranked second in terms of the percentage of shots that they took from deep (44.5%).
(Interestingly, Denver was the other team who made over 41% of their threes and yet their offense has actually improved, but that’s a topic for a different day).
Since then, the Celtics have made just 36.5% of their threes, which ranks 18th league-wide and slightly below the average of 36.7%. Their frequency of attempts hasn’t changed much, though, which explains their 115.3 offensive rating from December onwards.
So, what’s changed? Well, I hate to break it to you, but the answer is quite boring: regression to the mean.
The number of wide-open threes that Boston’s taken hasn’t dipped drastically — in fact, it’s gone up from 19.1 from the start of the season until December to 19.6 since. Unsurprisingly, their conversion is what’s brought the Celtics down, as they went from hitting 44.2% of those shots to “just” 39.8%.
Some people (including myself) have also speculated that Robert Williams’ return might have had a negative impact on Boston’s attack due to his lack of shooting, but that hasn’t been the case. Yes, they shoot fewer threes and convert fewer as well, but the Celtics finish so much better around the rim (their fg% improves by 7.9% within 4 feet of the basket) with Time Lord playing that Boston’s overall offensive rating actually improves by a point when he’s on.
So ultimately, the answer’s quite simple. The Celtics were historically hot from deep to start the year, and now they’re feeling the effects of the inevitable regression. The good news is that their recent three-point percentage is likely a bit too low, so this version of Boston doesn’t represent their talent either.
The likeliest outcome is that the Celtics find a middle ground: one where they’re not the best offense in history, but also not below average. If this is the case, then Boston will still have a top-10 offense along with an elite defense, and no one should question their status as a legitimate contender.
As long as Grant Williams doesn’t make any more guarantees, of course.
"I'm gonna make both"— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 7, 2023
Grant Williams before missing game-winning FTs pic.twitter.com/1naXwJOBL9
Fear the deer!!
I picked Milwaukee to win the title before the season so I’m feeling pretty good right now.
Did my faith in them waver when the Celtics were shooting fireballs while they couldn’t hit the side of the backboard? Possibly... but hey, this isn’t about me, right?
In all seriousness, there were legitimate reasons to be concerned about the Bucks a few weeks ago, but their recent 16-game winning streak has rightfully quelled those worries.
With that said, we still need to talk about the three-point shooting. Since the start of their win streak (January 23rd), opponents have only hit 32.8% from long-range, which is the lowest mark in the league and 4.1% lower than the league average. Such a low figure means that luck has definitely played a factor, especially considering teams usually don’t have much control over how well the opposition shoots from deep.
The Bucks, however, have consistently been one of the league’s best defenses since Mike Budenholzer took over as coach, and they have made a concerted effort to stick closer to three-point shooters this season too. Milwaukee was also 6th in opponent three-point percentage (35.1%) before the start of their win streak, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and concede that they’ve at least been somewhat responsible for their opponents’ woes from deep.
With that in mind, I think it’s reasonable to expect the Bucks to end the season with a top 3 defense, and maybe even the best, even when opponents start converting more from downtown.
The bigger question, though, is whether Milwaukee can sustain their recent offensive surge. Over the past six weeks, the Bucks have had the 4th best offense (121.3) when they were 23rd (112.4) up until that point. Much of their success can be attributed to (you guessed it) three-point shooting, as they’ve converted at a 39.5% clip (5th since Jan 23rd) when they only shot 35.9% (19th) before.
Given their lack of elite marksmen outside of Grayson Allen and Khris Middleton, I fully expect Milwaukee’s offense to come back down to Earth sooner rather than later. Even so, Middleton has begun to look a lot closer to his old self, and it’s not a fluke that the Bucks’ hot stretch has coincided with him playing more minutes.
It's impossible to know where things go from here, but Khris Middleton looked like Khris Middleton last night in 30 minutes as a starter against the Magic.— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) March 8, 2023
And that seemed pretty important.
At @TheAthletic: https://t.co/6FW5xaMy2S pic.twitter.com/og0E9xxtIn
Like Boston, I think Milwaukee’s true talent level is that of a borderline top-10 offense with an elite defense. Of course, the rival clubs are currently going in opposite directions, but all bets are off come playoff time.
In my mind, there’s no doubt that the Celtics and Bucks are the two best teams in the league.
Miami just won’t go away
Bill Simmons recently called Miami the “Zombie Heat” on his podcast, and I couldn’t agree more. They’ve been anything but impressive this season, yet I’d still dread playing them if my favorite team faced them in the playoffs.
So far, the Heat are 25th in offense (112.1) and 6th in defense (112.6), which means that they actually have a -0.5 net rating.
Does that sound like an intimidating team to you?
No, but come on — this is the freaking Heat we’re talking about.
Even with their overall struggles, Miami has the 5th best net rating in the clutch at +10.9, and you just know that they’ll make every playoff game a dogfight and drag it down to the final few possessions.
More importantly, everyone knows that Jimmy Butler will somehow morph into prime Michael Jordan whenever the postseason starts. He’ll also play heavy minutes, and the Heat have still been formidable whenever he and Bam Adebayo have shared the court this year: Miami has a +6.5 net rating in their minutes together on the back of a 117.1 offensive rating, which ranks in the 74th percentile.
Assuming those two logs close to 40 minutes a night in the playoffs, no team should take Miami lightly. Bam, in particular, has taken an offensive leap this year. Last season, he only shot 2.5 times per game when taking three or more dribbles and converted 48.9% of those attempts. Those numbers have increased slightly to 3.4 and 51.2%, respectively, this year.
It’s not a big jump, but I’d argue that it’s still of some significance. Gone are the days of Bam failing to punish opposing teams when they give him bundles of space, as he’s improved his mid-range shooting from 42% last year to 48% now on higher volume as well.
Given that Miami’s Achilles heel has been shot creation for years now, having Bam develop his off-the-dribble game is crucial. Unsurprisingly, his defense has remained elite, and he’ll be in the running for DPOY again.
Make a play, Bam Adebayo pic.twitter.com/V6GrM4ZnoC— Nekias (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA) February 28, 2023
I still wouldn’t pick them to beat any of the East’s top-four teams, but they at least have a puncher’s chance.
And even if they don’t beat you on the scoreboard, they’ll still beat you up physically so that your odds of advancing in the next round diminish significantly.
It seems like I missed the memo, because this is Jacob Douglas week! He’s published not one, not two, not three, but four articles, including one on Zach Collins, one on the Spurs’ lineup data, and another on March Madness. Be sure to check them all out!
Take care, as always, and thanks for reading!