It’s time for round two of the heavyweight tilt many NBA observers feel will be the championship bout in the Eastern Conference.
The Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics are in many ways mirrors of each other. Both are surprisingly young teams, both have been built with the idea of flexibility and position-less basketball in mind, and both are absolutely stocked with useful basketball players.
But who is more stocked?
The narrative seems to be, at least from American media, that the Boston Celtics are the deepest team in the East. But is that actually true? Let’s dive into both teams from player one, right down to player number 14. (The Celtics, as of now, have only gone 14 deep this season; point for the Raptors there.)
The metric we’ll use here is going to pretty simple: Value Over Replacement Player (or VORP). It’s an imperfect number, but it is at least an all-in-one number. I considered RPM as well, but it’s a bit harder to source for careers and for the current season. So I looked at a player’s career VORP, their best ever single season, what they did last year, and a three-year peak.
Now obviously a number can’t tell us everything. Reputation matters — to a point — but the point of stats is to help see past the distorting field rep provides.
What else matters?
1) Availability — A guy who isn’t playing everyday, or is on limited minutes will see a slight hit on what their reputation says they should be. We can’t be sure that Gordon Hayward or Kawhi Leonard are truly healthy — no matter how well they are, or are not playing.
2) Recent history matters more — Some guys have accrued a ton of career VORP, but haven’t been that good in the last couple of years. That’s where last year and the three-year peak come in — someone like Serge Ibaka gets hurt by that, despite this bounce back season so far.
3) Track record matters too though — While Jayson Tatum is very good, he’s still only in his second year, and so we have to account for that. A guy with a lot more career VORP is going to win a close battle unless the here and now edge is just too huge to ignore.
#1 — Kyle Lowry vs. Kyrie Irving
I know, this surprised me too, but Kyle has a higher career VORP, his best season is better than Kawhi’s and, well, recent history is definitely in his favour (not to mention that Lowry’s been in the top then in the league in RPM the last three years). And, no offense to Kyrie, who’s as good a late game scorer as there is in the NBA, but he wouldn’t top Kawhi. And, he isn’t better than Kyle — his last year VORP, and his peak both fall below Lowry’s — while this year they’re almost dead even.
#2 — Kawhi Leonard vs. Al Horford
Al Horford might be the most underrated player in basketball. In fact I seriously considered ranking him first for the Celtics as his best season is better than Irving’s and he has far more career VORP. But, last year Kyrie was better, and he is this year.
Ultimately, I think it’s fair to say that as Irving goes, so go the Celts. Unfortunately for Horford and Boston, even with Kawhi missing last year, he’s still shown enough this season to get the edge — his ceiling is just too high. Still, this a lot closer than Raps fans would want to believe.
#3 — Jayson Tatum vs. Pascal Siakam
You can make a case that neither of these guys are the third best players on their team. Obviously, both Boston and Toronto have guys with more accomplished careers and higher peaks, but Tatum gets the nod because of his excellent rookie season, plus some star-making turns in the playoffs. Siakam gets his because last year his VORP was tied for second amongst existing Raptors, and because he’s just a sliver behind Kyle for leading the team this year.
This match-up is closer than Boston fans think. Last year Tatum put up a 1.8, Siakam put up a 1.7, and Siakam has been better all-around this year. But with the ceiling Tatum has, and the big games he’s already put up on the biggest stage, he gets the nod.
#4 — Gordon Hayward vs. Danny Green
Hayward slips because of health and the fact he’s still finding his way this year. Danny Green is a great pro, and also underrated because of how well he can affect both ends — he has more career VORP and a better peak (4.1 to 4) than Hayward. Still, on balance for the past three (healthy) years, Hayward has been clearly better. Similarly to Tatum, the ceiling Hayward has — and will likely get to by playoff time — means Boston wins another tight one.
#5 — Marcus Morris vs. Serge Ibaka
A couple of rangy bigs with feisty attitudes square off next. Ibaka is a long way from his prime years, but he was better last year (where Morris was almost replacement level), has been better this year, and has a higher career peak. Morris is a solid player, whose three-year peak doubles Ibaka’s, so you can make a case for him — but that year’s also something of an outlier in Morris’ career. This one is a case where the now and the reputation combine to carry Serge to the top.
#6 — Marcus Smart vs. Jonas Valanciunas
Woah. How the heck do you compare these two? Their peaks are basically equal. Jonas has more career VORP, but he’s played longer (and been a stable starter for most of that run). Valanciunas was better last year, but Smart was better the previous two. One guy makes hay on defense, but can kill an offense. The other guy can beast just about anyone, but can be hunted for buckets on defense. Marcus Smart has been considered a sixth man candidate before, and JV could be one this year. You know what, I’m going to call this one...
#7 — Terry Rozier vs. Delon Wright
Two very different personalities make up this match-up. The always attacking, brash, “Scary Terry”, and the fades into the background until you realize he put up 10/5/5 with two steals game of Wright. In the end Terry was better last year, his peak is also slightly higher, and his playoff performances give him the edge.
#8 — Jaylen Brown vs. Fred Van Vleet
On paper this is a non-contest. Brown is a top-10 pick, an athletic marvel, and he really started to find his game last year. But, here’s the dirty secret, for all his gifts, Brown hasn’t produced consistently. For his career he’s barely over replacement level, and with Boston’s crowded wing situation, he’s struggled this year — falling below replacement level.
The other thing is: Fred VanVleet is really good. You could easily put him two spots up, and I wouldn’t argue too hard. I put him here because Wright was better last year by a smidge (shockingly tied with Siakam for second best among the returning Raps) and because of his early-season shooting struggles.
#9 — Aaron Baynes vs. OG Anunoby
This is a little like the #6 battle — except both guys are defensive specialists who just need to keep things afloat offensively. Baynes does a lot of things that don’t show up in the boxscore — and so I suspect his VORP is under-stated, perhaps significantly. He’s a vicious screen-setter, and is exceptional at boxing out his man. But OG offers more flexibility on defense and on offense — and an obviously higher ceiling both ways — especially with the ball. Basically, Boston makes this trade every day of the week, while if Masai Ujiri called it in the NBA would ask him to take a drug test.
#10 — Daniel Theis vs. Greg Monroe
Monroe is here for the body of his work — he has the sixth most career VORP of everyone on both teams (ahead of Hayward), and had a better season last year than all but four Celtics. Weirdly, one of those is Theis. A very mobile, very opportunistic big man who just seems to make everyone better, even if that’s not obvious eye test-wise.
I’m not sure how to grade this, although Monroe’s big performance against Detroit, definitely reminded me he’s way overqualified for his Raptors role. Still, Theis is really interesting, and using the trade test — I don’t think Boston would make the deal, and I think the Raps would think hard on it. If Theis had one more year of track record this would be easier to call, so...
Edge: Tied (I guess?)
#11 — Semi Ojeyele vs. C.J. Miles
Ojeyele has some interesting points. He’s built like a brick outhouse, can switch across multiple positions, and isn’t totally lost on offense. Still, Semi’s under replacement for his short career, and Miles is a veteran NBAer, with the ability to shoot the lights out. While Miles is below average on defense, the numbers seem to say he’s not that far below. If you’re trying to win now, you take C.J. every time. (And I mean, when he comes back he’s just gotta start hitting his shots, right? Right?)
#12 — Guerschon Yabusele vs. Norm Powell
Another one that isn’t particularly close. Yabusele has a great body, and looks like someone who could be a modern NBA wing. But he’s barely played in his career. Powell, for all his warts, has swung two playoff-series, has been better than league average a couple of times, while soaking up legit minutes. This year (before his shoulder injury), Powell was looking to be ready for a bounce-back season. The salary thing complicates matters in real-life, but not in this discussion.
#13 — Brad Wanamaker vs. Lorenzo Brown
How do you like your third string PG? Never played in the NBA, but looked very good in Europe? Or, had a few cups of coffee in the Association, and ransacked the G-League, but has never really done too much for real.
Basically, it’s a flavour thing.
#14 — Robert Williams vs. Malachi Richardson
Williams is an athletic marvel. He also might have a ten-cent head, with a long list of transactions that caused him to fall in the draft. Richardson offers a bit of NBA experience, but more importantly, to me, he’s got a legitimate NBA skill as a shooter. If any of the gains the Raps say he has made on D are real, then his skill set, and the fact that he’s a wing in today’s NBA, means that right now, Richardson is a little more likely to be able to influence a game over an incredibly raw big.
And hey, with Powell and Miles hurt, we might actually get to see if this prediction is true.
So there you have it: the final score is Toronto - 9, Boston - 3, with three ties.
It seems pretty unbalanced, maybe even homeriffic, but then you realize how young the Celtics are, and how few of them have any track record, while the Raps are both slightly more experienced, and have generally produced tangibly better numbers.
Still, a lot of the Raps edge comes farther down the roster — through seven slots the two teams were tied, so if some angry Boston fan wants to say the Raps’ edge towards the end of the “playable” roster means nothing, I’ll hear them.
They’d just be wrong.