At the beginning of the season, I thought that FiveThirtyEight’s projection of 48 wins was overly optimistic for my Boston Celtics. In what is perhaps another sign of the machines developing sentience and becoming our new overlords, their CARMELO system was exactly right, as the Celtics won 48 and the fifth seed in an improved Eastern Conference. One could even call the 48 wins a disappointment, as they faced each of the teams near them in the standings in the last three games of the year and only managed to win one of them with an epic comeback from 26 points down. One of the teams they lost to in that stretch was the Atlanta Hawks, who regressed a bit from their out-of-nowhere 60-win season last year to return to their usual place in “4/5 seed hell.” I say hell mainly because the winner of this series always faces the top seed in the second round, in this case the Cleveland Cavaliers. But that doesn’t mean that this series won’t be fun to watch. Let’s break it down:
The state of the Celtics
While having catalyst point guard Isaiah Thomas on the roster for a full season no doubt helped, a big part of the Celtics’ improvement has to do with the maturation and improvement of their core players. Per Basketball Reference, several key Celtics saw their Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) ratings improve markedly from last year. Forward Jae Crowder became more than a glue guy, going from 0.9 to 2.8. Guard Avery Bradley continued his blossoming into a more complete player, going from 0.2 to 1.4. Hell, forward Amir Johnson even chipped in a 2.3 after being added in the offseason, much more than I would have thought he’d be worth. While none of these numbers are really anywhere near star-quality, they show that the team is, as predicted, slowly ascending into a well-rounded unit.
Offensively, Thomas is still the straw that stirs the drink, but Avery Bradley actually ranked ahead of him in shooting percentage both from the field and from distance, so look for Thomas and his 6.2 assists per game to both set up Bradley and create his own shot with drives to the lane, his specialty. Off the bench, guard Evan Turner and forward Kelly Olynyk both chip in over 10 points per game. Notably, Olynyk shot over 40% both from the field and from three this season, but in fewer attempts than most. He isn’t much of a traditional big man, though, with only 0.5 blocks and 4.1 rebounds per game. That brings me to the team’s main weakness: a lack of another true interior presence aside from Jared Sullinger. He has shown some ability to bang the boards, ranking just inside the top 20 in total offensive and defensive rebounds and ranking tenth in the league in defensive rating, but gives up a lot of height to opposing big men (6’9’’) and could use a partner that can score consistently with his back to the basket.
That said, this team has a lot of talent on the defensive end. Depending on which defensive metric you look at, the Celtics have different players who stand out. If you look at Box Plus/Minus, their leader is Johnson. Defensive rating, it’s Sullinger. Steals, it’s Crowder & Bradley, who are among the league leaders in this underrated basketball skill. All of this combines to a team whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts, ranking fifth in the NBA in Adjusted Defensive Rating, two spots above the Golden State Warriors, who just won 73 games. So, like the offense, they’ve got a well-rounded team without any gigantic stars.
The state of the Hawks
Last year, the Hawks rode a historic three-point shooting season by sniper Kyle Korver to 60 wins and the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Unfortunately, they were so decimated by injuries that the Cleveland Cavaliers easily dispatched them in five games in the Eastern Conference Finals. This year, Korver’s shooting percentage has dipped almost a hundred points, and DeMarre Carroll took his 2.7 VORP and 7.0 overall Win Shares to Toronto. As a result, the Hawks tumbled from sixth all the way to 22nd in Adjusted Offensive Rating (Boston is 10th). They’re still in the top half of the league in shooting from the field and from three, so they aren’t exactly a bad offensive team, just not anywhere as good as last year.
The defense is another story. Greg Popovich protégé Mike Budenholzer has them ranked second in Adjusted Defensive Rating, just behind Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs. The Hawks allow the sixth-fewest points per game and allowed opponents to shoot only .432 from the field. Forward Paul Millsap and center Al Horford are the cornerstones, as both blocked more shots than anyone on the Celtics and were better by just about every defensive metric (their VORP is better than any Celtic too). They come in with the typical profile of a 4/5 seed, while Boston is probably playing a little bit better than its talent level.
While both teams appear similarly built, the Hawks seem to have a small edge talent-wise. One has to wonder if this series will look like the teams’ last few regular season meetings, which have featured numerous lead changes and wild swings in momentum. Brad Stevens always has the team playing better than expected, and the C’s could very well steal the series if he can squeeze just a little more out of them. But I’m going to go with the Hawks in seven games. The Hawks have home-court advantage and have played better lately, with the Celtics crashing a bit after the high of upsetting the mighty Warriors late in the season.
Do I even need to make an NBA title pick? I’m forced to revise my preseason pick due to history-making circumstances. If the Warriors don’t win the title, either Stephen Curry tore his ACL or the Spurs managed to grind them down enough to win four out of seven. Regardless, the best team in the NBA usually wins the title, and the best team this year is the Warriors, by far.