Since the February 10th trade deadline, the Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics haven’t just been playing great, they’ve been playing like two of the greatest teams of all time. Lost in the mania of March Madness and the overwhelming NFL offseason are two teams that appear to be on a collision course for greatness.
Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics are True Championship Contenders
What the Stats Say
No team wins a championship on paper or in the box score, but some advanced stats correlate strongly with deep playoff runs (conference finals appearance). These are offensive rating (OFFRTG), defensive rating (DEFRTG), net rating (NETRTG), assist to turnover ratio (AST/TO), effective field goal percentage (EFG%), true shooting percentage (TS%), and player impact estimate (PIE). Over the last five NBA seasons, teams that made the conference finals ranked around the top seven in most of the above categories, championship teams were top five.
Shocker, right? Efficient and well-rounded teams are good at basketball.
Since the trade deadline, the Phoenix Suns or Boston Celtics are first or second in each one of these categories! If the Suns aren’t first, it’s the Celtics and vice versa. Everybody else is playing for third. This includes record and +/- as well. That’s absurd.
The only team that was this dominant in the last five years was the 2016-17 Golden State Warriors. You’ll recognize them as the team that went 73-9 the previous year, breaking the single-season wins record, and then added Kevin Durant. These Warriors were even more ridiculous; they were first in every category except for DEFRTG, where they only ranked 2nd.
What Their Records Says
Well, maybe the small sample of 20ish games is skewing the results. They could’ve put up big numbers rolling over tomato cans like Rocky Balboa at the beginning of Rocky III. The Suns (60-14 overall, 16-4 since the deadline) have beaten the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves (watch out for them, by the way), Chicago Bulls, New Orleans Pelicans (don’t laugh, they’re on the rise), Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers, and Milwaukee Bucks since February 10th.
The Celtics (46-28 overall, 15-3 since the deadline) ran the gauntlet, beating the Utah Jazz, Nuggets (x2), Warriors, Charlotte Hornets, Brooklyn Nets (x2), Memphis Grizzlies (they’re fighting for third place in most categories), Atlanta Hawks (x2), and Philadelphia 76ers.
These teams aren’t just sitting atop of the league. They’re Targaryen dragons laying waste to all of Westeros. They don’t have foils, they don’t have apparent weaknesses, and no teams match up well with them. The teams who can go big against Boston don’t have the wings to matchup (except maybe the Bucks), and with Chris Paul healthy, Phoenix doesn’t have to worry about their lack of guard depth. Devin Booker proved more than capable of filling that roll in spurts anyway. The Suns also loaded up with big guys in the offseason, so they don’t have to roll out Dario Šarić and Frank Kaminsky against the Giannis Antetokounmpo types when Deandre Ayton rests.
How Did They Get Here?
Phoenix Suns: It started a while ago. They added ultimate good guy, Monty Williams, to steer the ship prior to the bubble season. Then after a Cinderella run in the bubble, they added Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards of all time. Also, he may be the most underrated player in the league. He doesn’t get counting stats like many of the other guys in the league, but he sets up your team’s chessboard as well as anyone. You’re never going to have a single player in the wrong spot with CP3 as your floor general. It doesn’t show up on the stat sheet, but that’s an invaluable quality.
Since then, the Phoenix Suns have been a wagon. They ran through the western conference last season before running into a top-shelf Bucks team in the finals. There’s no shame in that loss; deep playoff runs are hard enough to come by. Just ask Chris Paul. They responded by proving without a shadow of a doubt that last season was not a fluke. They’ve been the best team in the league all season long, and they verified it by already locking up the best record in the league.
Boston Celtics: Boston’s recent history is a little shakier; they bounced from overachiever with Isaiah Thomas to underachiever with Kyrie Irving over two seasons. Then they were just average with Kemba Walker running point for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, which was a disappointment.
Even this season got off to a rocky start (17-19 through December 31st) as new coach, Ime Udoka, tried to install his hard-nosed defense while running the offense without a true point guard. This would often lead to the two Jay’s pounding the rock through the floor before taking a contested shot.
Then on New Years, the Celtics made a resolution to start moving the ball around and playing as a team. Thus becoming the first time in history, a New Year’s resolution was kept beyond January. Since January 1st, they’re 26-9, good for the second-best record in the league, behind only the, you guessed it, Phoenix Suns (33-6).
Adding Derrick White at the deadline was the icing on the cake. The perfect piece from the Spurs to help alleviate ball-handling duties from Tatum and Brown. They’ve been on fire ever since, and Tatum has ascended to another level just in time for the playoffs.
What Does History Say?
History says efficient, and well-rounded teams win playoff games and hoist championship trophies. I know using the February 10th trade deadline date creates a small sample size issue, but these teams showed enough leading up to that date that I don’t think it’s unrealistic to assume they’ll keep performing at this high level. Both teams keep getting stronger as the season goes along, and nobody has yet been able to find a chink in the armor.
Some of their efficiency stats since the deadline would be historic. The Boston Celtics would have the most efficient offense of all time, 120.9 OFFRTG. At the same time, the Phoenix Suns would have the 2nd most efficient offense in history at 120.3. Offensive rating isn’t the greatest stat to use historically though, because the rule changes have made it so offensive efficiency always increases each season. Net rating, however, is a different story. In the past 20 years, Boston’s 13.5 NETRTG would be the best by a solid margin. Phoenix would have the 4th best showing in that time frame, with a 10.7 point differential.
They would also break the all-time marks for AST/TO, EFG%, and TS%.
Are The Phoenix Suns and Boston Celtics Championship Contenders?
What the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns are doing right now is historic. They’re absolutely stifling their opponents when you watch them on the court. The numbers bear out that what we’re seeing is real. Their records are littered with wins over the other potential contenders. Don’t be surprised to see one of these teams bringing home the championship come June.