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January 3, 2011
Trend Watch
Celtics Miss KG, Mo Dishes, Divisions Set?

by Kevin Pelton

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Trending Team: Boston Celtics miss Kevin Garnett

The news on Garnett's injury--a strained right calf muscle expected to keep him out around two weeks--could have been much worse for the Celtics. Still, Boston will be hampered as long as Garnett is out of the lineup. The Celtics lost the game at Detroit that Garnett left early, as well as the first game he missed on Friday, when they hosted the New Orleans Hornets. For a team that started the season 24-5, that qualifies as a slump.

While there is not yet enough data to draw any conclusions from the games Garnett has missed, plus-minus numbers from the entire season shed light on just how crucial he has been to Boston this season. According to BasketballValue.com, Garnett's plus-18.7 net plus-minus ranks second in the league behind only Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks.

Most noteworthy about the Celtics performance without Garnett this season is that the team has missed him more on offense than on defense. Boston's Offensive Rating has dropped by 12.1 points per 100 possessions when Garnett hits the bench this season. Lo and behold, the Celtics scored just 81 points in 88 possessions against the Hornets. Even in Sunday's victory over the Toronto Raptors, Boston was subpar on offense, scoring 93 points in 89 possessions against a team that typically allows 112.6 points per 100 possessions.

Though Garnett is no longer the go-to scorer he once was, he remains an efficient offensive player whose True Shooting Percentage (58.0 percent) is far better than that of his primary replacement, Glen Davis (51.8 percent). That's the case despite the fact that Davis is shooting better than ever before in his career, as John Hollinger pointed out last week. Rajon Rondo's return to the lineup should help Boston get more easy scores, but for the Celtics' offense to truly click, it will need a healthy Garnett.

Trending Player: Mo Williams, PG, Cleveland Cavaliers

Give credit to Williams for embracing the season of giving. During the month of December, Williams averaged 8.9 assists per game and handed out at least 10 assists seven times--as many double-digit assist games as he had during his previous two-plus seasons with the Cavaliers. In part, Williams has benefited from ramping up his minutes, as he has returned to full health following a right groin injury that hampered him during the season's first month. More than that, however, Williams' run of assists represents a new style of play for him.

Other than his second pro season, when he was not yet the scorer he has become, Williams has generally looked for his own shot rather than the pass. His assist rate--the percentage of his team's possessions during which he has handed out an assist--has been below average for a point guard throughout his career and dropped even lower when he was dealt to Cleveland to help space the floor alongside LeBron James.

Year        Ast%
----------------
2003-04      4.6
2004-05     10.0
2005-06      6.9
2006-07      7.6
2007-08      7.9
2008-09      5.5
2009-10      7.3

Oct/Nov.     8.8
December    12.0

James' departure for Miami left Williams as the Cavaliers' best playmaker, putting the ball in his hands more frequently than ever before. Williams' assist rate was up early in the season and went through the roof in the month of December. Just five players--Rajon Rondo, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Jason Kidd and Jose Calderon--have posted an assist rate of 12.0 percent or better this season.

Williams has not entirely eschewed his own offense. In fact, he is using a career-high 27.4 percent of Cleveland's possessions this season. That is partly why, as Trend Watch explored last week, the Cavaliers have been fading badly just as Williams has been coming on as a passer. The extra assists cannot entirely make up for the fact that Williams has a True Shooting Percentage of 49.5 percent, down from 58 percent-plus the previous two seasons.

League Trend: Division leaders likely to stay on top

Even though we are not yet halfway through the 2010-11 regular-season schedule, history suggests that the best teams should have already separated themselves from the pack. Over the six seasons since the NBA realigned for the 2004-05 campaign, 83.3 percent of the teams that lead their division as of New Year's Day have gone on to win at least a share of the division title. Via Basketball-Reference.com, all six eventual division champions were on top on Jan. 1, 2010, with the Denver Nuggets starting out in a tie with the Portland Trail Blazers and ending up even with the Utah Jazz, then two games back.

The Jazz were also involved in one of the two biggest post-New Year's comebacks, rallying from a 2.5-game deficit to win the Northwest Division in 2007-08. The Boston Celtics made up a deficit of the same size in 2004-05, surging forward after a deadline deal for Antoine Walker. That history is bad news for the Dallas Mavericks and Orlando Magic, both of whom still harbor aspirations of winning their respective divisions despite trailing the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat, respectively, by four games apiece.

In fact, using 2.5 games as a rough limit on realistic comebacks, the ony team that is apparently close enough to make a run the rest of the season is the Oklahoma City Thunder, who trail the Utah Jazz by a half-game in the Northwest.

Winning a division no longer holds the significance it once did; it does not even guarantee home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. However, the results can also be generalized to other races involving playoff seeding. Most notably, the Los Angeles Lakers have slipped 6.5 games behind San Antonio in the battle for the top seed in the West, a deficit that will be tough to make up. Hollinger's Playoff Odds echo that point, giving the Lakers just a 6.5 percent chance of winning the conference during the regular season.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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