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NBA math, the value of versatility & where the whole could be greater than the sum of its parts in Boston

If variety is the spice of life, then Brad Stevens has all the ingredients to make next season very spicy.

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NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Cleveland Cavaliers Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

When Alex Kungu wrote an article earlier this month entitled, “do the Boston Celtics have too much versatility?”, I laughed a little. He quickly qualified that hot take with a “nope,” but it really got me thinking about the potential of this roster and reflectively, how limited last season’s team was.

In four summers, Danny Ainge has torn down the Big Three era and built not just a winning team, but a roster with the modern NBA in mind. It’s chock full of athletic wings that can score from anywhere and defend multiple positions. It’s got the prototypical stretch-5 in Al Horford that makes the rest of the team sing. It’s got youth and sustainability on its side. All that adds up to one of the most versatile teams in the NBA that can challenge the Golden State Warriors.

To illustrate the value of versatility, let’s look at two rotation players from last season: Marcus Smart and Jonas Jerebko. Both are versatile defenders, but despite shooting only 35.9% from the floor, Smart doubled his playing time over Jerebko. Part of that is position; on the wing, Smart could play as a ball handler and off the ball as a wing with Isaiah Thomas whereas Jonas was primarily the 4th big off the bench behind Amir Johnson, Al Horford, and Kelly Olynyk. Smart could also do—or at least try to do—more things:

From our new friends over at, here are the play types for JJ and Smart. Jerebko was fairly one-dimensional on the offensive end. Over half of his shots were spot ups and he only shot 52.5 EFG% (52nd percentile in the NBA).

Smart shot worse at 48.3 EFG%, but it’s the variety of his offensive attack that makes him valuable in Brad Stevens’ system. His utility as a pick-and-roll ball handler (19.1%) and a playmaker out of the post (9.6%) gives the offense an added dimension that Jerebko does not.

To be fair, also has a tool on their site called “value added” to measure how a player stacks up against the rest of the league.

Outside of posting up, Smart performs at a below average rate compared to the rest of the league at almost every other play type, but it’s hard to argue his positive value to the team. He had the fifth highest VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) and second highest Defensive Wins Share on the team. His offense clearly needs improvement—if his off-season workouts are any indication, he could come back better than ever—, but at best he’ll be a jack of all trades, master of none.

Detroit Pistons v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Celtics have almost completely revamped is the front court. The only big man returning from last year is Al Horford. Johnson, Olynyk, Jerebko, and Tyler Zeller are no longer with the team. In their place, Danny Ainge has brought in some former Motown muscle in Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes from the Pistons.

For the most part, Baynes is a close facsimile to Johnson, both are bruising centers that don’t necessarily fit Boston’s small ball style, but are roster necessities against some of the bigger teams in the league. As you can see, they have very similar play type profiles:

There are, however, some glaring differences. Johnson did more last season as a release valve. Over 40% of his offense came on spot-ups and cutting to the rim. Once one of the more efficient paint players in the league, Johnson’s offense saw a steady decline in the last two seasons in the post, in isolation, and as a roll man.

Baynes, on the other hand, might have some uncovered potential. The Celtics got him cheap for the full RME at $4.2M and on the upswing of his career. Even in limited minutes in Detroit, Baynes showed a more diverse repertoire. He was used more frequently in the PnR and in the post and more active on the offensive glass. Baynes is a bruiser. He ranked 4th in per-36 screen assists for guys that played over fifty games last season; that puts him in the same conversation with Rudy Gobert, Marcin Gortat, and Zaza Pachulia. He’ll create a ton of space for IT and Gordon Hayward and give them a big target rolling to the rim.

And then there’s Morris. Fans might be disappointed that Avery Bradley is no longer in green because of a lowered cap projection, but it’s not like Morris is a salary dump. He’s been a productive NBA player for the last four years and arrives in Boston with a cost-controlled contract for two more seasons. He won’t be replacing Olynyk per se, but he could be the first big off the bench, or even start at the 4.

There are stark differences between the two. In Detroit, Morris played a lot of small forward next to Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond. You can see his positional effect in the pick-and-roll stats: he was the ball handler in 16.6% of his possessions in the PnR and was rarely the roll man. For Olynyk, those stats are practically flipped. Morris also garnered a lot of isolation looks and finished in the 85.9th percentile.

It’ll be curious how Stevens uses Morris next season. With all the wings on the roster, he most likely won’t take minutes away from Hayward, Jaylen Brown, or Jayson Tatum even though under Van Gundy, he’s played a lot of small forward. Instead, he’ll find playing time as a small ball 4 and arguably be better than Jae Crowder. It’s important to note that MM is one of only seven players (including Gordon Hayward) that has positive value for all play types on defense. Crowder has the better percentage from behind the arc, but an argument can be made that Morris can do more.

Utah Jazz v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The crown jewel of the off-season was the acquisition of Gordon Hayward. After the free agency fireworks on July 4th, there were several articles written by the national media about how good of a fit Hayward is in Boston. I wrote something about how he slots in perfectly with all the actions that the team ran for Bradley last season.

As you can see, he’s a plus offensive player on all the staples of a Brad Stevens’ offense: spotting up, coming off screen, and cutting without the ball, but his ability to work off the pick-and-roll might be Hayward’s biggest skill set for Stevens.

Bradley was a -3.94 where as Hayward was a whopping 53.3. The pick-and-roll is the crux of NBA basketball and Hayward finished in the 87.1th percentile. For what it’s worth, Thomas was in the 94.1th percentile.

Jayson Tatum is the wild card and unknown quantity, but from what we’ve seen so far, his all-around game will fit in nicely in Boston. The #3 pick was solid in summer league and showed that his hot finish in postseason play coming out of Duke was the real deal. Here’s his shot chart from Barstool Sports via Krossover.

Those numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, but at only 19, Tatum has shown to be a polished scorer from fifteen feet and in. He shot 44.6% in Utah and Las Vegas and had an array of 1-on-1 post moves that were part Kobe, part Dirk. He can get his own shot in the mid-range and his lanky frame makes him a sleek finisher around the rim.

If I had to guess, Tatum’s play type profile will look like a combination of Brown and Gerald Green’s:

He’ll get his share of spot-ups from Thomas, Hayward, and Horford creating open looks for him, but as the season progresses and he adjusts to the speed and size of the pro game, he’ll start to take advantage of coming off screens, taking the ball of handoffs, and maybe working ISO in the post. Brown is a good example for Tatum. By the time the playoffs came around, Jaylen was attacking close outs and opening up his game in order to open up the game for his entire the team.

That’s really the theme here: the more a player can do individually, the more the team can do as a whole. The Celtics have replaced nine players from the last year’s roster. Gone are Avery Bradley’s 16 points per game and Amir’s 20 minutes a night. Olynyk’s heroics in Game 7 and Jerebko’s spark off the bench in Cleveland are no more. In their place, Ainge has added a more diverse collection of talent with untapped potential.

To some extent, afters years in the league, guys like Hayward and Morris and Baynes are known commodities, but because they can do more on the floor, that could open up the game for their teammates and vice versa. Couple that veteran leadership with the burgeoning talents of Rozier, Smart, Brown, Tatum, and the rest of the incoming rookie class and you just might have something that adds up to Banner 18.

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