Sharpshooters, penetrators, rollers, and put-back artists – the Celtics have it all this season.
There’s a scene in Friends when Ross Geller purchases a sofa but refuses to pay the delivery fee. Ross and Rachel journey through New York, the couch in hand, heading towards an apartment block. The hilarious couple faces a multi-story staircase, which begins one of the most memorable scenes from 90’s television.
Danny Ainge has become a master of impersonation, succeeding in award-winning mimicry for the last two consecutive postseasons. With each star that leaves for pastures new, Ainge slides on his leather pants, slicks back his hair, and yells “PIVOT!” at the top of his voice.
The Celtics always have a Plan B, knowing that if their stars walk in free agency, the ability to change course on a dime is essential to continue building towards the elusive 18th championship. As Ainge moved quickly to secure both Tristan Thompson and Jeff Teague once Gordon Hayward decided to depart, this off-season was no different.
Unfortunately, changing course can have its drawbacks, and just like Ross’s sofa that went tumbling over the handrail, Ainge’s current roster construction has caused the last year’s rotations to need piecing back together.
To first understand possible rotations, we need to look at the primary ball handlers’ skill sets and who on the roster compliments them best.
In Kemba Walker, the Celtics possess a premier pick-and-roll guard, ending last season with a 48.5% frequency in using the pick-and-roll to generate his offense.
The Brooklyn native ended the season with a respectable 57.5% effective field goal percentage when running the Celtics pick-and-roll offense, a success rate that forced playoff opponents to plan to remove the ball from his hands.
Having a guard so adept at scoring across all three levels is a luxury, one that doesn’t require an incredible roll-man to elevate the chances of success. Instead, having a big that excels on the glass, someone who will mop up the misses and generate secondary offense is a delightful foil for a guard of Walker’s ilk.
The Celtics had a big in that mold in the form of Enes Kanter. Alas, the defensive woes that came as part of that package meant the Celtics seldom got to appreciate a scoring/mopping tandem. Luckily, things are different now, as Tristan Thompson has replaced Kanter on the roster, bringing a championship presence with him on both sides of the floor.
According to Instat’s player tracking data, putbacks were the meat and potatoes of Thompson’s offense last season, accounting for 19.6% of his total offensive output. Capable of playing as either the roller or trailer, Thompson will provide Walker with additional confidence when pulling the trigger, fresh in the knowledge that the Toronto native will be battling around the rim to keep every possession alive.
But what about when Walker sits? Logic dictates that in Walker’s absence, Jeff Teague will become the primary ball handler. Like Walker, Teague is a pick-and-roll connoisseur, utilizing his insane change of pace and dribbling ability to get to the bucket with regularity.
Teague PnR Ball Handler tendencies
– Will pass-up shooting opportunities off down screens to drive the lane
– Doesn’t reward roll man, prefers to finish himself
– Favors scoop layups high off glass – gets blocked a lot
– Likes to hesitate to put guys in jail & draw contact
— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) December 7, 2020
After watching every PnR possession from Teague for last season, it became apparent that he doesn’t usually look to bring the roll man into play, preferring to shift gears as he gets downhill to create easy layups. Operating as a de facto scorer begs for an offensive rebounding presence such as Thompson, however, should Teague change his offensive approach slightly, he could create a fearsome bench partnership with Robert Williams.
While Williams does provide some interior presence, with 17% of his offensive output coming via put backs, his primary asset is the ability to offer vertical spacing when slipping or rolling to the basket. Should Teague be willing to blend his affection for driving the lane with some well time lobs and dump downs, the tandem could become a worrisome prospect off the bench, which would alleviate the pressure on youngsters such as Aaron Nesmith and Romeo Langford.
Luckily, the Celtics are far more modernized than merely relying on their point guards to dictate the offensive flow, thanks in large part to Jayson Tatum. The first-time All-Star began to show signs of playmaking ability from the power forward position during the regular season and in the NBA bubble and will have expectations of continuing an expected uptick in usage this season.
Unlike guards, playmaking wings aren’t as reliant on having a rebounding roll man, in part due to their size, physicality, and shot-making skills. What would benefit Tatum when operating as the primary playmaker is positioning multiple catch-and-shoot outlets around him. Players such as Nesmith, Grant Williams (maybe?), Jaylen Brown, and even Kemba Walker will benefit from the gravity Tatum now possesses.
Luckily, the Celtics drafted two exceptional catch-and-shoot threats this year, obtaining Nesmith with the 14th pick, who shot 42.4% on off the catch throughout his two years at Vanderbilt. Also, in Payton Pritchard, the Celtics have a guard that finished his final year in Oregon shooting 42.5% off the catch, and 42.4% for his collegiate career.
Placing those sharpshooting rookies around gravitational scorers like Tatum, will not only expedite his playmaking ability, but will also open up opportunities in the corners as defenses anticipate the drive or patented step-back jumper.
Should Jaylen Brown take a jump as a facilitator, either in the pick-and-roll or the open floor, he too will find the value in having a plethora of scorers littered across the court.
But if Thompson and Williams are the most complimentary bigs, with Walker and Teague as the primary initiators, where does that leave Daniel Theis and Marcus Smart?
Last year, Theis showed an aptitude as both a roll man and short roll facilitator. He will compliment any playmaker he shares the floor with due to his high level of versatility. Theis will continue to be an offensive metronome for the Celtics throughout next season, from sealing low-post defenders to create open scoring lanes to keeping the ball in motion and redirecting it to a volume scorer’s hands. He shied away from shooting the 3 in the bubble, but he’s proven to be a competent shooting big man that should continue to have a green light to take those shots.
Then, there’s Marcus Smart. Basketball Index has Smart as the Celtics’ best playmaker, one that can orchestrate both the first and second units without relying on his shot to draw defenses out of the paint (although this is changing). In Smart, the Celtics have a combo-guard capable of lighting guys up or carving them open on any given night. However, you don’t scheme around Smart for his offense, but rather, his defense.
Indeed, Stevens has a lot to work with in the upcoming training camp and opening weeks of the season. Being known for experimental lineups and rotations, Stevens is sure to test out these pairings along with some more unorthodox ideas that none of us can see coming right now.