Flash back to the trade deadline. The 76ers finally get a second talented offensive player to team up with Allen Iverson. That day Chris Webber was the “huge trade” and everything else was just a byline. The deal was supposed to propel Philly to the top of the Atlantic division. However since February 24th, the Sixers have only gone 6-7, and find themselves sputtering in second place.
Just before the trade deadline the division rival Celtics sent point guard Gary Payton, a first round pick, and some belly lint for Antoine Walker. That Boston wanted the 7 year Celtic back after a year and a half exile could have been the trade day laugher had Isiah Thomas not given sports talk hosts something to pounce on. Since then Boston has gone 11-1, and are 5.5 games ahead of Philadelphia. So the Celtics unexpected streak begs the question “Is this for real?”
Granted in this 12 game span, Boston has beaten up on a few of the league’s worst teams. They’ve steamrolled over the Hawks, Jazz, Hornets, and the expansion Bobcats twice. But before we dismiss the Celtics success to the schedulemaker’s whimsy, Boston has been an impressive 4-1 against teams that are .500 or better. The Beantown 12 have defeated Washington and Detroit at home, and Phoenix & Houston on the road. So maybe the Celtics’ turnaround is due to the man they (re-)acquired?
Someday in the far away future, when advanced statisticians look at 20th/21st century NBA, someone is going to write his thesis on the statistical anomaly known as Antoine Walker. The shimmying forward defies being put into any simple category. While ‘Toine is comfortable hoisting three pointer after three pointer, his free throw accuracy is inexplicably free falling towards Shaqsville. The tweener forward is a respectable rebounder (2.3 OREB/40min), but a permeable defender. He’s skillful enough handling the ball that you can run your offense through him (as Atlanta did when they played New York this year), although he’s as likely to have an assist (3.6 AST/40min) as he is a turnover (3.4 TO/40min). His most similars by age according to www.basketball-reference.com show Walker’s diverse and polarized game: Drexler to Glenn Robinson to Bird to Chuck Person to Nick Anderson to Scottie Pippen.
Antoine Walker’s 16.1 PER (career 16.9 PER) isn’t exactly league shattering. However his insertion in the starting lineup gives the Celtics a unique look on offense. They can hit the long ball from the three big spots (Pierce, Walker, LaFrentz), and the two forwards have been averaging more assists combined (7.3 AST per game) than the starting point guard (Payton 6.0 AST/game). The Walker deal also gives Boston an addition by subtraction. Since #8 dusted off his old uniform, Raef LaFrentz & Mark “Phillies” Blount have seen more bench time. In the 12 games before the trade, the two played 30 minutes or more 21 times, a feat they’ve only matched 6 times since. Walker gives the Celtics a better front court rotation.
There is one caveat with the Celtics recent success. Walker is playing a bit above his head. This year for Boston he’s been better than his career average or even best year in three main shooting categories.
Stat eFG 3P% PSA
Celtics 52.4% 38.9% 1.08
Career 45.7% 32.6% 0.97
Highest 47.8% 36.9% 1.01
Although I think he was a good addition to the Celtics, I suspect that they’ll cool off a bit as ‘Toine floats back down to earth. While I don’t see Boston as good as their 92% win percentage since the trade, I don’t think their improvement is a total fluke. They’re certainly not as good as the Spurs or even the APBRSonics, and it’s possible that they’ll get swept in the first round by a young & hungry team like the Bulls or the Cavs. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be shocked if they knocked off the Pistons & crept into the Eastern Conference Finals.