Will the Boston Celtics be the Most Improved Team in NBA History?

In 1996-97 the San Antonio Spurs won 20 games. The next season, with the additions of Tim Duncan and a healthy David Robinson, the Spurs won 56 games.  This 36 game improvement stands as the greatest leap forward in NBA history.

Last season the Boston Celtics won 24 games.  This off-season the Celtics added Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. If this team wins 61 games in 2007-08, the new look Celtics will break the record set by the Spurs.  Is this likely to happen?

The Early Returns in Boston

After nine games the Celtics are 8-1.  When we look at point differential, we see that the Celtics have outscored their opponents by 13.2 points per game.  To put that in perspective, the Chicago Bulls of 1995-96 outscored their opponents by 12.2 points per game en route to winning 72 games. 

When we look at Boston’s Wins Produced, we see a team that at the moment (and I emphasize the phrase “at the moment”] rivals the Bulls of 95-96.  To see this point, consider the top trio on that edition of the Bulls.

Michael Jordan: 24.9 Wins Produced

Dennis Rodman: 18.1 Wins Produced

Scottie Pippen: 15.8 Wins Produced

Combined this trio produced 58.7 wins.  With such output from three players it’s not surprising this team won an NBA record 72 games.

As noted, after nine games the Celtics have a better point differential than the fabled Bulls.  And like the Bulls, the Celtics in 07-08 are also led by a dominant trio.  Here is how many wins the Celtics Trio is on pace to produce after just nine contests:

Kevin Garnett: 31.3 Wins Produced

Paul Pierce: 15.3 Wins Produced

Ray Allen: 13.7 Wins Produced

When we add this together, we see the Celtics Trio is on pace to produce 60.3 wins.  And when we look at the entire team, we see a franchise that is on pace to win 76.5 games.

Table One: The Celtics after Nine Game

Now it’s very important to note, this is just after nine games.  Let me repeat this point. The Celtics have only played nine games.  Such a small sample is not enough to tell us the Celtics in 07-08 are the greatest team in NBA history.  Nor would I want anyone to think this team is going to win 77 games.

In fact, one will note that the last two columns in Table One tell a slightly different story.  In these columns I look at how many wins the Celtics could expect if each player Boston employs (except for rookies Glen Davis and Gabe Pruitt) perform as they did in 2006-07 (in the minutes allocated in 2007-08).  This exercise reveals the Celtics could expect close to 65 wins.  

Remember, last year this team only won 24 games.  So if these players maintain what they did last year, the Celtics should expect to post the largest improvement in NBA history. No, they wouldn’t be the greatest team in NBA history.  But they would be damn good.

Again, thus far this team has collectively done better than what we would expect looking at last year.  Where has this improvement come from?  One great benefit from looking at the box score data – the Wins Produced way – is that we can see specifically who improved.  In other words, we don’t have to depend on such arguments as “the team has just come together.”

Now it could be the case this team has “just come together.”  If so, as Table One reports, this “coming together” has manifested itself in the improved play of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Eddie House.  In other words, the “coming together” effect has not really touched the other players on the team.

One suspects that what we see from Eddie House after nine games is not what we will see when the season is over.  House has never played this well in the past.  Still, even if House, Garnett, and Ray Allen return to what we saw last year, the Celtics – based solely on these players did last year – look like a great team.  In fact, they are the class of a weak Eastern Conference.

Boston’s Eastern Competition

Thus far the competition the Celtics face in the East comes from Orlando, Detroit, and maybe the defending conference champion, Cavaliers.  Let’s look at how many wins the leading trios on each team are on pace to produce in 07-08.

The Orlando Magic (after 11 games)

Dwight Howard: 25.7 Wins Produced

Jameer Nelson: 12.2 Wins Produced

Rashard Lewis: 7.9 Wins Produced

This trio is on pace to produce 45.8 wins and the team is on track – again after 11 games (not including the last game against the Hornets) – to win 61 games.

The Detroit Pistons (after 10 games)

Chauncey Billups: 12.2 Wins Produced

Tayshaun Prince: 11.6 Wins Produced

Rasheed Wallace: 7.8 Wins Produced

Detroit’s trio is on pace to produce 31.5 wins and the team is on track to win 51 games.

The Cleveland Cavaliers (after 10 games)

LeBron James: 21.1 Wins Produced

Zydrunas Ilgauskas: 13.0 Wins Produced

Daniel Gibson: 6.9 Wins Produced

This trio is on pace to produce 41.0 wins.  The team, though, is incredibly weak after these three. The entire team – as their negative point differential indicates – is only on pace to win 35 games.

Brian Windhorst – of the Akron Beacon Journal- argued yesterday that the Cavaliers trio of Lebron, Ilgauskas, and Drew Gooden (on pace for 4.4 Wins Produced) rivaled the Celtics Trio.  His argument rested on three stats – points, rebounds, and assists.  When we consider all the box score statistics, we see that Cleveland does not have any threesome that comes close to matching Garnett, Pierce, and Allen.  And that will also be true when Anderson Varejao – part of Cleveland’s top trio in 2006-07 – finally makes an appearance.

When we look at the early numbers, it looks like the only serious competition the Celtics will face will come from Orlando.  And although Orlando handed Boston its first loss on Sunday, right now it looks like Boston is the better team.

So will the Celtics set a record in 2007-08?  Again it’s really early.  Injuries can happen.  But if this team stays healthy, there is a good chance that Boston will beat the record for team improvement set by San Antonio a decade ago.  And there is also a good chance that Boston will defeat the Spurs next June to take the 2008 NBA title.

Okay, just to cover all bases, there is also a chance Garnett, Pierce, and/or Allen will get hurt and this whole prediction will go to hell.  Remember, the Celtics have only played nine games.

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

The Technical Notes at wagesofwins.com provides substantially more information on the published research behind Wins Produced and Win Score

Wins Produced, Win Score, and PAWSmin are also discussed in the following posts:

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

Introducing PAWSmin — and a Defense of Box Score Statistics

Finally, A Guide to Evaluating Models contains useful hints on how to interpret and evaluate statistical models.

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