Break up the Celtics! It's a reprise that hasn't quite reached the status of "The redcoats are coming" in old New England, but it's a cry that has gained sudden resonance for fans of one of the NBA's most hallowed franchises.
Boston president of basketball operations Danny Ainge started the rumor mill churning last week comments made to the Boston Globe, saying that he wants to avoid a repeat of the long dark age of Celtics basketball that enveloped the franchise after the end of the Bird-McHale-Parish era in the early 1990s. Really, Ainge merely stated the obvious: If this Celtics team can't win another title as constituted, he's ready to move core parts in an effort to get younger and more sustainable. As Ainge himself pointed out, that's easier said than done.
Through Sunday, the Celtics ranked 19th in offensive efficiency this season, which is certainly no cause for celebration. However, Boston was 17th last season, so the struggles on offense are nothing new and wouldn't be noticed so much if not for the red flags that have sprung up at the other end of the court. Stingy defense has been the hallmark of this version of the Celtics ever since the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen core was established before the 2007-08 season. In the four full campaigns since, Boston has ranked first, second, fifth and second, respectively, in defensive efficiency. Even last season, when the granite statue known as Shaquille O'Neal played center and rim protector Kendrick Perkins was injured and then traded, the Celtics still rated as an elite defensive unit.
That's no longer the case. Boston ranks 10th in the league on the defensive end and even that sounds better than it really is. Just three teams have played an easier schedule than the Celtics. Three of Boston's six wins have come against the Washington Wizards. The Celtics also have beaten the Pistons, Nets and Raptors. The Nets rank a lofty 18th in offensive efficiency, but the other three Boston victims have been the league's worst trio of offensive clubs. Yet the Celtics have their ugliest defensive numbers since Garnett still played for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
So if we fix the Celtics' defense, we fix the Celtics, right? Maybe, but the real question here is whether that's even possible.
Average ATH Ratings: Boston's Big 3
Here's a quick primer. There is a metric I use, called ATH, that seeks to measure a player's applied athleticism. The statistic evaluates how a player does in categories most associated with the athletic abilities of a player, things like rebounding, drawing fouls, blocking shots and steals. The average rating is 16.0. It's just a tool -- the metric doesn't have any real-world meaning in terms of points or wins. The "applied" qualifier with my original description is key since the metric doesn't care how fast a player runs or how high he jumps; it only cares how he turns those physical traits into on-court production.
These Celtics haven't relied upon raw athletic ability to succeed, so we're not concerned with the actual ATH scores of Pierce, Garnett and Allen. We're really watching for sudden dips. So far this season, it appears that's what we're seeing. There is a fine line between being a team that relies on savvy to win games and one that just physically can't get it done. With the ATH scores of the Big Three dipping well below league average for the first time, Boston's core group might have crossed that line.
Garnett's ATH score has been in decline ever since he hurt his knee in 2008-09, an observation that you don't need an obscure statistical metric to make. Allen is a marvel of conditioning but he, too, has had a steady downward trend in ATH and is all the way down to 11.1 this season. While it's been awhile since Allen has relied on pure athleticism, this season we've seen his opportunities drop because he's no longer as able to shake defenders off screens.
Pierce might have joined his older teammates in declining ATH. He's been remarkably consistent over the last four seasons (20.1, 20.4, 19.6, 20.4). This season, he's at 17.5, but he's been hobbled by a heel injury, so it's possible he will rebound as he gets healthier. His 34-point, eight-rebound, 10-assist performance against Washington on Sunday is encouraging.
Nevertheless, unless there is a specific injury-related reason for a long-term decline, the trend is more or less irreversible. Once you're athleticism goes in basketball, you don't get it back. There are no exceptions. The Celtics might get in better shape as a team the further removed we are from the lockout. Pierce might continue to improve. But Boston's core is not as athletic as it was yesterday. Tomorrow it will be worse. And on it will go.
The Celtics' core players started from such a high place that throughout the erosion of their skills, they've remained a contender. It was inevitable that the day would come that this was no longer the case. Folks, that day has arrived, and Ainge indeed needs to blow up this roster. One thing to keep in mind is that no matter what happens the rest of this season, the Celtics have almost no committed salary beyond this season except for Pierce and Rajon Rondo. So even if no attractive trade opportunities come Ainge's way, he's still going to be able to hit the reset button next summer.
Starting over isn't easy. Trades and payrolls are restricted in so many ways by the league's collective bargaining agreement that it can be a painstaking process. For example, it's easy to think of reasons why Allen would be a coveted asset. He's in the last year of a contract that will pay him $10 million this season, and his ability to play off the ball and hit a high percentage from the outside would fit great on any contender in the league.
But what's in it for the Celtics? A fair package would be a potential lottery draft pick, a youngish reserve that still has some upside and a cap filler to make the salaries work under the trade rules. By definition a contending team doesn't usually have a potential lottery pick. The Chicago Bulls have a future first-rounder from the Charlotte Bobcats in the bank, but the Bulls' need for Allen was mitigated by their acquisition of Richard Hamilton. There really aren't any other contenders that have a pick like that to move.
The paradox with the healthy wish to rebuild is that the teams that have young assets like the Celtics need have no use for their expensive veterans. Not at the cost of trading cost-controlled talent working on rookie contracts. Meanwhile, teams that could use one of Boston's veterans don't have the assets Ainge wants. You see teams make lopsided trades to create flexibility, but Ainge has already taken care of that part of the rebuilding scenario. It's possible that an interesting offer could pop up for Pierce or even some kind of Rondo-Pierce package, but it's hard to see from where such a gamechanger would emanate.
No, it's likely Boston fans will just have to endure whatever might come for the rest of the season. Ainge might be able to acquire the basket protector he squandered in Perkins last season and perhaps there will be some landscape-changing injuries in the Eastern Conference, spurring one last Celtics postseason run. Who knows? As long as Ainge starts over next summer, there are worse fates than wishing upon a constellation of faded stars.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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