The NBA begins its 2012 season today with a noon game between the Boston Celtics & the New York Knicks. Over the last 4 seasons, the Boston Celtics have dominated the New York Knicks en route to 4 straight Atlantic division titles. In that time span New York has only won 2 of 20 head-to-head games against their regional rivals. Last year despite a full season from Amar’e Stoudemire and a partial season from Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks lost all 8 games against Boston, including 4 consecutive playoff games.
This offseason both parties attempted to bolster their roster. The Celtics eyed a pair of All Stars, but failed to land either of them. They were unable to trade for point guard Chris Paul, and free agent power forward David West rebuked their offer and instead chose to sign with the Indiana Pacers. Not only did Boston fail to make a significant upgrade, but they also lost a player already on their roster, forward Jeff Green, to a season ending injury.
On the other hand the Knicks signed premiere free agent center Tyson Chandler and recently landed former All Star point guard Baron Davis. Although New York appeared to get the upper hand this offseason, it remains to be seen whether New York has done enough to surpass Boston this year.
Boston’s sovereignty over New York could be seen statistically. Basketball analysts have identified four factors in which relate most to winning: shooting, rebounding, turnovers, and free throws. Recent studies show that one can account for 96% of point differential of any NBA game by using the proper metric for each factor.
For shooting the most useful measure is effective field goal percentage (efg%), which accounts for three pointers. A team that shoots a field goal percentage (fg%) of 40% would appear to be inefficient, even if all of the made shots are three pointers. On the other hand, a team that made 4 of 10 three pointers would have an effective field goal percentage of 60%. By using the more advanced metric we know when a team has a higher effective shooting percentage than their opponent in the NBA, they win 80% of the time.
Last year the Celtics had a higher efg% than the Knicks in 6 of their 8 games, and in the other two New York only had a slight edge. In the December 15th game, the Knicks bested the Celtics in effective field goal percentage 58.6% to 56.4%, and in game 1 of the playoffs they had a miniscule edge (47.4% to 46.9%) of +0.5%. But New York lost both games by 2 points. Meanwhile in the final 3 playoff games, the Celtics held a whopping 10.0% differential and won by an average of 10.7 points.
By acquiring Tyson Chandler, the Knicks aren’t necessarily looking to improve their shooting. Chandler did average an amazing 65.7% efg%, but his 13.1 points per 36 minutes means his meager rate didn’t help his team’s offense much. Where the Knicks new center enters the equation most heavily is by reducing the other team’s ability to score. Last year Chandler was a member of the NBA’s All Defensive Second Team, and in a recent poll of ESPN’s experts Chandler finished second to Dwight Howard for potential defensive player of the year.
New York’s new focus on defense cuts at the heart of Boston’s main weakness, offense. The Celtics offensive efficiency has dropped in each of the last three seasons. Measured by points per possession, Boston was ranked a mediocre 18th last year among NBA offenses. There were rumors that the Celtic front office was so desperate for scoring, that they were rumored going to send their 24 year old 2 time All Star point guard Rajon Rondo in a package for Chris Paul.
As the two teams square off today, the winner will have a head start for claiming the Atlantic. Should Boston take the first game at Madison Square Garden, the Knicks will have a tougher hole to climb out of later in the year. Even if New York wins, they still have three more games (two at TD Garden in Boston) before they can claim victory. What may be most interesting is how the effective field goal shooting for the teams turn out in their four regular season games. For the Knicks to be successful this year against their main rival, the differential in shooting needs to be more in their favor.