2023 Boston Celtics: Who Needs Defense?

If there was any doubt in the NBA that offense has become far more valuable than defense, the Boston Celtics stand as the poster children for that belief.

They’re first in the league with a you-gotta-be-kidding-me 121.6 Offensive Rating. Their Defensive Rating stands below league average, 17th at 113.1.

But who cares if your defense is mediocre if you’ve got an 8.5 Net Rating and a 17-4 record, both best in the league? And who cares about defense when you’ve topped the previous record for offensive efficiency by over three points per 100 possessions?

Let’s have a look inside both ends of the Celtics’ on-court dominance, because it’s one heck of a testament to just how bananas the NBA has become.

The Offense

Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics

The record for highest Offensive Rating in a season belongs to the 2021 Brooklyn Nets, who posted 118.3 in a truncated 72-game season. If we keep this to 82-game campaigns, last year’s Utah Jazz top the list at 116.7.

The Celtics, once again, have posted a 121.6 mark in 21 games so far.

Of course, you’re not going to post those kind of eye-popping offensive numbers without your players doing some amazing things along the way.

Jayson Tatum is averaging 30.8 points per game with a .560 eFG%.

Jaylen Brown isn’t far behind him at 26.1 PPG on an even more efficient .565 eFG%.

Overall, the team is hitting 49.6 percent of their shots and 40.1 percent of their 3-pointers. And they’re doing it while ranked second in the league in 3PAR.

This is, in essence, the precise opposite of this year’s Houston Rockets. Both teams are high up the ranks in D’Antoni Index. The Celtics may be just 24th in 0-3 foot attempt rate and 22nd in FTR, but that 3PAR more than makes up for those shortcomings.

And when you’re hitting 58.0 percent of your two-point shots, that’s why even taking nearly half of attempts from 3 isn’t enough to drag the overall FG% down.

Wait, How Crazy Is That Shooting?

Consider that the 1986 Celtics, one of the greatest teams of all time, a team that had Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish taking the bulk of their shots, hit 50.8 percent of their attempts overall.

This year’s team, taking nearly half their shots from beyond the arc, are hitting 49.6 percent of theirs.

This is an offense on absolute crazy pills.

And they’re doing this despite starting one of the worst shooters in the league. Marcus Smart is fourth on the team in FGA per game. He’s third in 3-point attempts. And he can’t shoot (.441 FG%, .351 3PT%, and the worst eFG% of any player in the rotation.)

Yet even he can’t drag this team’s shooting down far enough to eliminate comparisons to a team that is on the Mount Rushmore of great squads in NBA history alongside the likes of the ’96 Bulls and the ’17 Warriors.

Oh, and making things even crazier? Boston is shooting 85.2 percent from the free throw line this year. As a point of comparison, James Harden has hit 86.0 percent of his free throws for his entire career, and he’s long been considered one of the best free throw shooters in the league.

The bigger question is whether this kind of offensive dominance is sustainable or if Boston’s headed for a nasty regression to the mean as the season goes on.

The Defense

It’s not like 113.1 is a particularly bad Defensive Rating. That’s good for just 17th in the league.

It’s why of their 15.4 total Win Shares across the roster this season, only 4.7 have come on the defensive side of the stat sheet.

But it’s not like Boston has glaring defensive weaknesses. They’re 7th in the league in defensive rebound percentage, a key stat in making sure the other team doesn’t get fast break opportunities in transition. They’re 10th in the league in blocks per game despite playing at just the 18th-fastest pace. And their opponents’ eFG% is 11th in the league. Those are all solid contributing stats when it comes to playing solid defense overall.

And indeed, what’s dragging down their Defensive Rating is that they’re dead last in the league in forcing turnovers. Yes, it is strictly true that the higher the percentage of possessions that end in a shot rather than a giveaway, the more points a team will score.

But we’re all coming to the collective realization that it’s not 2001 anymore. Gambling for steals is the easiest way to get torched for easy buckets. And when your defense is geared toward taking advantage of opposing misses to set up your offense, being out of position stands against that goal in every way.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and Boston’s paying for the fries and Coke but they’re getting the burger for free. And at least at my local Jack in the Box, that’s only about $4 for a $12 combo meal.

So What Does This Mean?

Well, I’m not a film guy, as anyone who reads this site knows full well. I’m a stat guy, believing firmly in the idea that what your eyes tell you isn’t always the full story.

And what the stats say is that the Boston Celtics combine two fundamentally Bostonian concepts—hard work and attention to detail—into a formula that has given the team its hottest start since the days of the Big Three at the end of the aughts.

Specifically, this is, statistically, the 2009 team before Kevin Garnett got hurt. And that team was a defending champion.

This year’s team is a defending Finals runner-up, and if they get back there this year, there might not be a team in the West who can stop them.

Enjoy what you’ve got, Celtics fans. This team is legit.