During last weekend's MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, I felt for Boston Celtics analyst Mike Zarren. An unofficial social host of the conference and a fixture on the Basketball Analytics panel, Zarren normally soaks up the excitement as NBA peers descend upon his hometown. Over and over last weekend, however, Zarren had to answer the same question over and over again: Just what were the Celtics thinking when they traded starting center Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder along with Nate Robinson in exchange for forward Jeff Green and center Nenad Krstic?
"The mandate from our owners was very clear," Zarren explained during the conference, as quoted by Sam Amick. "We want to win a championship this year. In this city, we're very lucky to have a tradition where that's what it's about. If we're not hanging a banner, it's not a good year. And so we think that we're a better team this week than we were a week and a half ago. That's just how we feel. For a bunch of reasons, we like the guys we got.
"Not to say we won't miss Perk. Of course we'll miss him, but we wouldn't have done the trade if we didn't think it was better for us this year. It was an agonizing trade to make, but I think it makes us better."
A few hours later, Green and Krstic made the Boston front office look genius when they combined for 32 points in a win over the Golden State Warriors at the TD Garden. The opposite perspective was provided last night, when the Celtics lost at home to the Los Angeles Clippers. Though Krstic was effective on offense, finishing with 20 points on 7-of-10 shooting, Boston was torched at the other end by L.A. Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. Jordan exploded for 21 points--two off his career high--and missed just one of his 10 shot attempts.
Those extremes sum it up: No matter your perspective on the trade, and everyone has one, the last two weeks have provided evidence to support it.
I was there at the Garden on Friday for Green's coming-out party as a Celtic, which demonstrated how he gives Boston a different dimension on offense. Green effectively ran the floor and beat opponents downcourt when he moved to power forward while also showing instant chemistry with point guard Rajon Rondo.
Although Green and Krstic were part of a vastly more effective offense in Oklahoma City, the Celtics' offense figures to better suit their skills. The biggest difference is a simple one: Boston relies on structure and ball movement while the Thunder depends on stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook to create offense, usually for themselves.54.2 of Oklahoma City's baskets are assisted, one of the league's lowest rates. Meanwhile, Rondo leads a Celtics attack that hands out assists on 64.4 percent of its baskets, tops in the NBA.
Last Friday, Green was on the receiving end of five of Rondo's 16 assists. Ray Allen set him up for two more scores, leaving only one of Green's eight field goals unassisted. The quality of Green's shots was evidently superior to the attempts he was getting with the Thunder. According to Hoopdata.com, Green is attempting as many shots at the rim as he was in Oklahoma City despite his total field goals dropping by more than 40 percent. Until taking three of them against the Clippers, Green had essentially taken the three-point shot out of his repertoire, which is a good idea given he's shot just 30 percent beyond the arc this season.
Krstic has seen an even more dramatic change in his shot chart, more than doubling his at-rim attempts in Boston by rolling instead of popping after setting screens. It's no wonder, then, that both Green (57.1 percent) and Krstic (59.6 percent) have seen a boost in their two-point shooting since joining the Celtics. As a team, Boston is historically accurate inside the arc thanks to Rondo's ability to set up his teammates and the entire roster's crisp execution.
If their performance with the Thunder understated what Green and Krstic might contribute to Boston on offense, it was more accurate at the other end of the floor. One of the key reasons Oklahoma City slipped defensively this season was its starting frontcourt duo. Both Green and Krstic are subpar in terms of rebounding and help defense. Neither has rebounded at all since the trade (Green has just nine rebounds total in six games). The Celtics' other newcomer, backup big man Troy Murphy, is also defensively challenged. Add in heavy doses of smallball due to injuries and Boston has broken down defensively at times, both against the Warriors and in the loss to the Clippers. Los Angeles put up three 30-point quarters and shot 52.0 percent from the field.
Because Glen Davis and Shaquille O'Neal are sidelined, we're seeing the Celtics' frontcourt at significantly less than full strength. When Boston is fully healthy, Krstic should return to a more appropriate reserve role. Green's eventual spot in the rotation is less clear. He will continue to back up Paul Pierce, but to keep Green on the floor for more than 10-12 minutes a game, Doc Rivers will have to find time for him at power forward.
Despite the intriguing possibilities Green presents, it is not yet clear based on the numbers from BasketballValue.com that such lineups are effective. In the very limited sample to date (not counting last night), the Celtics have been outscored by 15 points in 76 possessions with Green at the four, allowing a 119.7 Defensive Rating. With Green alongside the Big Four, Boston has played even, which is troubling given that lineups that feature the entire Big Four are on average 14.5 points better per 100 possessions than the opposition. (Krstic plus the Big Four has been even more effective, outscoring opponents by 21.8 points per 100 possessions.)
Though it's the Celtics' front office that will ultimately have to answer for the deadline trade, it's up to Rivers to figure out how to use his new weapons. During their first two weeks in Boston, Green and Krstic have shown both their strengths and their weaknesses. As the postseason approaches, Rivers will do his best to put them in position to succeed and help the Celtics do the same.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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