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Dump Garnett And Pierce? Here's What The Data Says

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The Boston Celtics kept their playoff hopes alive Wednesday night with a 92-86 win over the New York Knicks in Game 5 of the best-of-seven series.

Boston lost the first three games of the series. And some fans are holding out hope that the team will be the first in NBA history to overcome such a deficit.

Celtics stars Kevin Garnett, left, and Paul Pierce during a February game (Don Ryan/AP)
Celtics stars Kevin Garnett, left, and Paul Pierce during a February game (Don Ryan/AP)

But the odds are long. And in some quarters, attention is already shifting to the Celtics' biggest offseason question: Dump aging stars Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and rebuild, or hold on for another year or two?

It is an emotionally fraught query.

Pierce, the team captain, has spent all 15 years of his career with the Celtics and says he wants to retire in green. And Garnett is the chest-pounding soul of the squad. Both players are destined for the Hall of Fame.

But if Celtics executives weigh fan attachments, it is the numbers that will guide any decision to trade the pair or buy out of the final year of Pierce's contract — a move that could trigger the retirement of Garnett, 36, who has suggested he won't continue without Pierce at his side.

The most important numbers may be those attached to the players' contracts. Pierce, 35, is due $15.3 million next season and Garnett is headed into the second year of a three-year, $34 million deal. That's a lot of cash that could be spent on younger legs. But the team, no doubt, will consider the aging players' performance, too.

There are, of course, the top-line numbers that dominate newspaper accounts and talk radio chatter. And both players held up pretty well on that front this year.

Pierce averaged 18.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game, right around his career averages. And Garnett averaged 14.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, in line with his production over the last four years, when he began playing fewer minutes.

But the advanced metrics — the "Moneyball"-style analytics playing an increasingly important role in professional sports — tell a more interesting story.

Kirk Goldsberry, a visiting scholar at Harvard and basketball stats savant, recently considered Father Time's grip on Pierce in a piece for ESPN's Grantland.

Injuries to younger teammates, he wrote, have forced the forward to maintain a major role on the team, just at the moment in his career when he should be slipping into a reduced role.

Pierce averaged 33.4 minutes per game this year — not much different than the previous three seasons. And of the 22 players with a "usage rate" of 25 or higher this year (usage rate refers to how often a player is deeply involved in plays when he's on the court), Pierce was the only one 35 or older.

"The only one close to him in age was Kobe Bryant," Goldsberry said in an interview with WBUR, "and we all saw what happened there."

Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers star, ruptured his Achilles tendon last month.

Pierce, still playing big minutes, has become a less efficient shooter in the last couple seasons. This year, his field goal percentage was 43.6 percent — his worst mark in a decade and substantially below his career high mark of 49.7 percent two years ago. What's changed?

An aging Pierce, Goldsberry explains, is not as aggressive as he once was. He doesn't attack the basket quite as much:

More than one-third of Pierce’s shot attempts now occur beyond the [three-point line]. His efficiency back there has always hovered around a respectable 38 or 39 percent, but as 3s have taken a bigger share of his total attempts, his overall field goal percentage has declined. At the same time, Pierce is getting to the rim less. Two seasons ago, when he set his career mark for shooting efficiency, 31 percent of his shots came at the rim; this season only 24 percent occur in this fruitful zone. So while Pierce is hitting shots at about the same rates all over the court, the overall profile of his shot selection has changed.

(Kirk Goldsberry/Grantland)
(Kirk Goldsberry/Grantland)

A WBUR analysis of Garnett's numbers tell a similar story — of a player grown less aggressive.

In his first season with the Celtics, 2007-2008, he took 24 percent of his shots at the rim. This year, he took just 17 percent of his shots at the rim.

It's a statistic that won't surprise any Celtics fan who can close his eyes and picture the lanky forward-cum-center lining up his signature 16- or 17-foot jump shot time and time again.

Garnett's field goal percentage, not surprisingly, has dropped as he's moved farther from the hoop — down from 54 percent his first year on the Celtics to 50 percent this year.

But the shift to the perimeter is a reasonable adjustment for an aging player. "It's fine," Goldsberry said. "He knows his limits."

And the drop-off for Garnett and Pierce, all things considered, hasn't been terribly steep. Both men, by any reasonable measure, have remained very good players in recent years.

Goldsberry argues that the pair's relatively successful shift to a more perimeter-oriented game owes much to point guard Rajon Rondo.

Rondo slashes and improvises. He draws defenders, freeing up jump shooters to do their thing.

The point guard, of course, went down to a season-ending knee injury in January. And despite some success in the immediate aftermath — and Wednesday night — the Celtics have suffered since his departure.

Rondo's absence, Goldsberry argues, has been particularly felt in the playoffs, when the defense grows more intense and suffocating.

Players like Garnett and Pierce, less able to improvise and get to the hoop than they once were, have been especially affected. Garnett was shooting just 44 percent heading into Game 5. Pierce was shooting 42 percent.

Here's the thing, though: Rondo's absence is temporary. He will be back next year, slashing and disrupting and passing.

And the old guys' weaknesses, laid bare in the playoffs, may not look quite so glaring. That is, if they return.

This program aired on May 2, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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