As the end of January draws near, we're coming up on the one-year anniversary of Ray Allen's productive career being prematurely written off. Last Jan. 31, Allen shot 2-of-10 from the field and missed all six of his three-point attempts as the Boston Celtics lost 90-89 to the Los Angeles Lakers on ABC. The effort dropped Allen's season mark beyond the line to 33.9 percent, while he sported a career-worst 56.6 True Shooting Percentage.
The next day, I described Allen's slump as having a "feeling of permanence" as he closed in on age 35. That he was mentioned so prominently in rumors leading up to the trade deadline seemed to indicate the Celtics considered that a possibility. Within four months, Allen would make eight three-pointers in an NBA Finals game against those same Lakers. Now, a year later, Allen is shooting the ball as well as ever during his illustrious career as he closes in on Reggie Miller's all-time league record for three-pointers.
Allen is hardly the only Boston player who continues to thrive at an advanced age. The Celtics may not be the league's oldest team when weighted by minutes played (both the Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Lakers are older in terms of this measure), but Boston's starting lineup features more long-in-the-tooth veterans than any other in the league. Allen, 34-year-old Kevin Garnett, 33-year-old Paul Pierce and 38-year-old Shaquille O'Neal have all exceeded realistic expectations in leading the Celtics to the league's second-best record at the season's midpoint, 32-9.
All four Boston veterans are among 35 players in the league whose winning percentages have exceeded their SCHOENE projection by at least .080. While that could be attributed to SCHOENE being overly pessimistic when it comes to how player ages, the Celtics' starters are also outperforming what they did last season. Let's take a look at their production over the last three seasons in terms of both per-minute win percentage and True Shooting Percentage.
Season Win% TS%
2008-09 .579 .624
2009-10 .506 .601
2010-11 .599 .640
The biggest reason Allen's numbers have jumped back up is his near-unconscious 47.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc, which he is unlikely to be able to maintain. As amazing a shooter as he is, Allen's volume makes it difficult to shoot such a high percentage; his career high to date is 43.4 percent. Allen's rebounding and assists are also up, which is impressive for a player in his mid-30s. Beyond that, the Celtics seem to have perfected the craft of setting up Allen off of curls, which was on display during last year's playoffs. What sets Allen apart in this regard is not so much his shooting as his ability to find the open man when teams switch the screen or send both defenders toward Allen.
Season Win% TS%
2008-09 .603 .563
2009-10 .561 .569
2010-11 .632 .581
Health has clearly been the dominant factor in Garnett's bounceback season. Early whispers that his athleticism had returned were easy to dismiss as optimistic training-camp blather, but Garnett indeed looks more like his prime self than at any time since he battled a knee injury during the 2008-09 season. While it may have as much to do with playing alongside Glen Davis than anything else, Garnett's rebound percentage this season (18.9 percent) is the best of his time in Boston. He's also coming up with more steals than at any other point during his career.
Season Win% TS%
2008-09 .610 .623
2009-10 .515 .565
2010-11 .532 .673
There is actually more recent precedent for O'Neal playing at this level than the Big Three, since he is two years removed from an All-Star berth in Phoenix. O'Neal dropped off rapidly during his lone season with the Cleveland Cavaliers and his signing was widely panned, but a smaller role in the offense and the attention attracted by the rest of the Celtics have turned him into an über-efficient weapon in the paint. Only Tyson Chandler and Nenê boast higher True Shooting Percentages.
Season Win% TS%
2008-09 .549 .582
2009-10 .568 .613
2010-11 .626 .627
Like Allen and O'Neal, Pierce's True Shooting Percentage is the best of his career. His 40 percent shooting from downtown has become fairly routine, but Pierce is making 55.3 percent of his two-point attempts after never previously surpassing 50.3 percent. Meanwhile, Pierce is also taking better care of the basketball than ever before, slashing his turnover rate from 13.6 percent of his plays to 10.7 percent. The combination has made Pierce one of the league's most efficient high scorers.
So what explains all four players turning back the clock this season? One reasonable possibility is that Rajon Rondo's passing is responsible for creating easier looks. After all, Rondo's assist rate has dramatically increased as he has had the ball in his hands more frequently this season. However, the percentage of assisted field goals made by Allen, Garnett and Pierce has actually dropped slightly as compared to 2009-10. The Rondo factor has evidently benefited O'Neal, who has been made into a finisher instead of a creator. Per Hoopdata.com, 80.3 percent of O'Neal's baskets have come off an assist, up from 56.1 percent a year ago. But to the extent that Rondo helps the Big Three, this was probably also the case prior to this season.
What about playing time? Doc Rivers felt that last year's surprise playoff run was sparked by his decision to cut the minutes of his veterans late in the regular season, sacrificing a few wins down the stretch in the name of the bigger picture. That may have been the case, but it's hard to see how the usage of the Big Three has really changed this season. Allen is averaging 36.3 minutes, slightly up from last year and in the same range he's been in since coming to Boston. A healthy Garnett is playing 31.6 minutes a night, down slightly from the 32.8 he averaged in 2007-08 but up from the last two seasons. Pierce checks in at 35 minutes per game, which is up from last year's average of 33.9 (and just 32.0 in the second half of the season) but down from the 37 mpg he once averaged.
It is not altogether surprising that elite players like Allen, Garnett, O'Neal and Pierce--all of them surely bound for the Hall of Fame when they do retire--are aging better than average. If two or even three of them were defying expectations, it would not be much of a story. The unanimity across the board is what makes this notable. For lack of a better explanation, it might be worth checking the home locker room at the TD Garden for the long-lost Fountain of Youth.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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