The Boston Celtics Are NBA Title Favorites, at Least According to 1 Metric

Exactly one month ago, the Boston Celtics were a franchise in need of saving.

The Celtics fell at home to the Portland Trail Blazers on Jan. 21, dropping their record to 23-24. Fittingly, there was talk of selling at the deadline and even splitting up franchise stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Fast forward to Feb. 21, where Boston now exits the All-Star break at 34-26. Instead of what appeared to be a guaranteed trip to the play-in round, the C’s are sixth in the Eastern Conference and just 4.5 games out of the one-seed.

While its surge was unexpected, Boston is now proving to be a real contender in the loaded East. And the numbers are substantiating that claim, especially the ones from a particular website known for its fascinating projections.

The Boston Celtics went from a middling .500 club to an Eastern Conference powerhouse

There are teams that come out of the gate on fire and those who need some time to get things going. The Celtics fall in the latter category, and that’s putting it mildly.

Boston clawed its way back to .500 after opening the year with five losses through seven games. However, the Celtics would largely struggle for the first three-and-a-half months of the season.

Finally, the 25-25 Celtics managed to break through their season-long stretch of mediocrity. The C’s won nine straight contests between Jan. 29 and Feb. 15, defeating the Eastern Conference-leading Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets, as well as the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers.

Defense has been the biggest reason the Celtics are now playing winning basketball. Boston has the second-best defensive rating in the NBA thanks to its starting five — Tatum, Brown, Marcus Smart, Robert Williams, and Al Horford. As ESPN‘s Zach Lowe recently mentioned in his “10 NBA Things” column, those five are allowing just 88.8 points per 100 possessions this season, the best of any five-man lineup in the league with over 100 minutes played.

Besides phenomenal defense, Boston is grateful to have both Brown and Tatum playing at a high level. Brown missed 14 of the team’s first 27 games due to hamstring concerns but has since returned and averaged 23.7 points in his sixth season. Meanwhile, Tatum is averaging a team-high 25.7 points with 8.4 rebounds in 56 out of a possible 60 games.

FiveThirtyEight thinks very highly of the Celtics’ championship aspirations

While every team has faced some level of adversity this season, Boston has been far from full strength. Only Tatum and Grant Williams have played in at least 55 contests, while Al Horford and Marcus Smart have suited up in 51 and 50 games respectively.

Though as we’ve seen over the last few weeks, a fully-healthy Celtics team can beat anyone. And although the eye test has proven that, an advanced projection model believes Boston is the favorite out East.

FiveThirtyEight, a website specializing in statistical analysis, has season-long NBA projections that update daily. The forecast utilizes the player-measuring tool RAPTOR, which stands for “Robust Algorithm [using] Player Tracking [and] On/Off Ratings. This tool, combined with up-to-date depth charts, aims to give an idea of how a team would look if fully healthy.

Using a complex system combining RAPTOR with several factors like overall efficiency, the Celtics have a regular-season full-strength rating of 1,707 and a playoff rating of 1,741. Get all the details here, but know this: No team in the entire NBA has a higher team rating than Boston, making them the league’s best healthy squad according to FiveThirtyEight’s projections.

It gets better for Celtics fans. Boston is also tied with the 48-10 Phoenix Suns for having a league-high 34% probability to make the NBA Finals. Additionally, this metric gives the Celtics an NBA-best 21% chance of winning it all.

FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR-based projections aren’t always accurate. After all, the site predicted the Golden State Warriors to finish as the 11-seed and Cleveland Cavaliers to be the 13-seed before the season. But it’s nevertheless fascinating to see how highly one model views Boston.

Boston’s point differential could be giving it an advantage in the ratings

As mentioned above, there’s a lot that goes into the FiveThirtyEight projections. Two of the criteria are margin of victory and quality of opponent, which helps the Celtics tremendously.

Boston owns a +5.4 point differential, the best in the East and fourth-best in the NBA. Last year’s team finished with a +0.9 differential before getting bounced in the opening round of the postseason.

Factoring in point differential, their current strength of schedule, and future strength of schedule, Basketball Reference’s playoff probabilities report is another place showing love to the C’s. Boston now has a league-leading 24.9% chance to win the conference and a 9.4% chance at winning a title.

Even if the Celtics are healthy come playoff time, they’ll still face some stiff competition for other Eastern Conference foes like the Milwaukee Bucks, Sixers, and Heat. But multiple sources agree that Boston is capable of much more than the vast majority of fans may expect.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise specified.

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