1. Taking Stock in Boston: As the standings start to sort themselves out in the NBA, it is clear that Boston is, once again, a serious title contender. With their current winning streak, the Celts are 20-4 and have the best record in the NBA and the best SRS rating, though Atlanta and the Lakers are very close. (Surprisingly, the Magic and Cavs are far behind these three in SRS). Boston has been winning, as they usually do, with suffocating defense. The Celts have the top defense in the NBA (99.4 efficiency) and are within shouting distance of their historic 2007-08 pace (98.9 defensive rating). An interesting question is whether the Celts can keep this defensive pace up. Last year, Boston started out quite hot (22-2) but tapered off to merely a very good defensive team, partly because of Kevin Garnett’s knee injury and partly because they could not possibly sustain such a hot start.
With an older team, there is a tendency to believe something similar could happen this year too. KG, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Rasheed Wallace are all approaching 35. Let’s take a look at how hard Doc Rivers have been monitoring these four this season so far versus the past two years:
-2007-08: 35.9 mpg, 19.6 ppg, .464 FG%, 5.1 rpg, 4.5 apg, 17.4 PER
-2008-09: 37.5 mpg, 20.5 ppg, .457 FG%, 5.6 rpg, 3.6 apg, 17.7 PER
-2009-10: 35.3 mpg, 18.0 ppg, .481 FG%, 4.4 rpg, 3.8 apg, 19.0 PER
-2007-08: 35.9 mpg, 17.4 ppg, .445 FG%, 3.7 rpg, 3.1 apg, 14.9 PER
-2008-09: 36.4 mpg, 18.2 ppg, .480 FG%, 3.5 rpg, 2.8 apg, 17.3 PER
-2009-10: 35.5 mpg, 15.5 ppg, .460 FG%, 3.0 rpg, 3.0 apg, 14.8 PER
-2007-08: 32.8 mpg, 18.8 ppg, .539 FG%, 9.2 rpg, 3.4 apg, 23.0 PER
-2008-09: 31.1 mpg, 15.8 ppg, .531 FG%, 8.5 rpg, 2.5 apg, 21.2 PER
-2009-10: 30.6 mpg, 15.3 ppg, .569 FG%, 7.5 rpg, 2.5 apg, 20.8 PER
-2007-08: 30.5 mpg, 12.7 ppg, .432 FG%, 6.6 rpg, 1.8 apg, 17.2 PER (with Pistons)
-2008-09: 32.2 mpg, 12.0 ppg, .419 FG%, 7.4 apg, 1.4 apg, 14.9 PER (with Pistons)
-2009-10: 20.6 mpg, 9.6 ppg, .388 FG%, 3.9 rpg, 0.8 apg, 15.5 PER
So far, Pierce is shooting quite well, which is making him a little more effective than usual. Allen’s shooting spike of last year seems to have ebbed back to his merely effective playing of two years age. KG’s minutes have been really carefully monitored. He’s still quite good but a we can see a little decline from the previous two seasons both in minutes played and in per-minute production. As for Sheed, offensively, he’s basically only a three-point shooter at this point offensively (averaging 9 threes per-36 minutes this season). Rivers has been riding Pierce and Allen hard as usual, if not quite as hard as last season. KG and Allen falling back to earth a little bit has been counterbalanced by Wallace’s presence (a huge improvement over guys like Mikki Moore and Brian Scalabrine) and the fact that Rondo and Kendrick Perkins continue to improve.
The streak should continue at least three more games. The next game to watch is Boston’s Christmas day game in Orlando. Boston is 1-3 against the top teams in the NBA this year so far, with losses against Phoenix, Atlanta, and Orlando (and an opening night win against Cleveland). Winning some games against the tougher teams will go a long to proving Boston as the favorite to win the East.
2. Spurs Woes: Another old favorite, however, has struggled this year. The Spurs have signed Antonio McDyess and Richard Jefferson in an attempt to squeeze another title run out of the Tim Duncan based team. So far, things haven’t been good. The Spurs are only 12-10 and are shockingly mediocre defensively (105.7 defensive efficiency, 13th in the NBA). There are significant factors to indicate that the Spurs should pick up their pace a bit:
-The Spurs are under performing their Pythagorean W-L, as they have scored/outscored opponents to rightfully be a 14-8 team.
-Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been hurt and Duncan is playing as well offensively as ever. Once they are all healthy and playing full minutes, the Spurs should look much better.
-Outside of the loss in Chicago, the Spurs have no really bad losses, with losses coming against Boston, Denver, OKC (which is a good team this year), Phoenix, and Utah. Moreover, the rest of December looks very favorable. The best teams they have to face are Portland (struggling with injuries), Milwaukee, and Miami before Dallas and the Lakers pop up in mid-January. In fact, the Spurs’ SRS rating is better than last year’s and in line with the 56-win team of 2007-08.
-DeJaun Blair is playing like a potential offensive star to pair with Duncan. Blair has played only 14.4 mpg but he should take minutes from McDyess, who has really struggled. In fact 82games.com indicates that the Spurs are much better with Blair on the floor (0.0 point differential) then when McDyess plays (Spurs have been outscored by -9.1 ppg so far).
The one scary indicator, however, is the decline in the defense. The Spurs 105.7 defensive rating is consistent with the decline that has occurred in each of the last five years. Fortunately, the offense has also picked up the pace, with its best rating since 1994-95, even though McDyess and Richard Jefferson have both struggled. Still, the Spurs are predicated on defense and should be able to defend better without yielding too much on offense. I’m not sure what the problem. Sure, Bruce Bowen is gone but he is not the player he was and the team defense was already in decline with him the last two years. Perhaps, this is occuring because of the aging of TD and Manu (who are both playing quite well offensively). If that is the case, there really isn’t much San Antonio can do but embrace their new identity as an offense-first team. So I still expect the Spurs to be in the 50-win ranges by the end of the year, though they don’t have the same bite if they don’t defend like they used to.
3. Spirits Post Script: Last week, we examined the Spirits of St. Louis deal with the NBA to get television revenues in perpetuity. One of the issues we looked at was what the value of this right would be if the NBA would ever consider buying the Spirits out with up front money. We noted that it was tough to value this right, that rests of the NBA continuing to rise in value. At this point, the right is worth about $24 million per year, with the only risk to the Spirits that the NBA loses value or that the ABA teams all fold. These risks are quite remote and the buyout would have to be quite high to even get the Spirits to listen.
Just for fun, I ran the case by an expert on valuation. He looked at the raw public data, which is admittedly limited, and took a stab at the fair value of a buyout right now. He estimated that the Spirits’ contractual right to revenues is worth nearly $400 million, assuming the revenues never increase off of the current television contract. If we assume slow steady growth (a fair assumption), the present value is actually about $675 million. His guess is that a fair buyout number is probably about $500 million.