The myth about positionless basketball is that you don't have to be great at anything. While a well rounded skill set certainly helps, elite talent will always find its way to the floor.
Let’s start with arguably Boston’s best trigger: the Isaiah Thomas-Al Horford pick and roll (or pop). Thomas was second in the league as a ball handler, scoring 1.04 points per possession and finishing in the 94.1th percentile. Horford isn’t exactly the lob-it-at-the-rim-and-go-get-it big. Pogo stick centers like Rudy Gobert, Karl-Anthony Towns, Hassan Whiteside, and Clint Capela top the list of PnR roll men, but Horford finished last season in the 49.5th percentile and scored 1.03 points per possession. That’s partly because he popped rather than rolled more frequently than traditional 5’s.
It’s not Stockton and Malone, but it’s a great table setter for the Celtics. If Isaiah can turn the corner, he can pinball around the paint and either get to the rim or draw a third or even fourth defender. That’s one of the keys to unlocking the potential of Boston’s pace-and-space attack. Thomas finished first in the league in drives last season. He’s the adrenaline shot to the offense.
Thomas also shot a respectable 36.6% on pull-up threes last season and has turned himself into a pick-you-poison point guard. Try to go over a screen and he’ll zip right passed you. Go under and he’ll punish your disrespect with a three.
Horford is not going to kill defenses with his size and vertical, but because of his ability to play outside and inside, he keeps opposing teams guessing. It’s in those moments of uncertainty that Horford strikes. As a 35.5% three-point shooter, he stretches the floor as a pick-and-pop forward.
And like Thomas to a lesser extent, Horford can also put the ball on the floor and drive. For what it’s worth, he drove twice as much last season than he did in his final year in Atlanta:
What makes Horford even more dangerous is his playmaking ability coming off that roll or pop. With Al attacking the second and third levels of a defense, he opens up the offense for his other teammates which led to a career high 5 assists per game last year.
Thomas and Horford will return next season as two major offensive cogs for Stevens, but it’s the overhaul and potential development around them that could make a Celtics’ offense that ranked 8th in offensive rating in 2016-2017 even better. Obviously the major addition is Gordon Hayward. Along with Thomas, he’s one off the premiere playmakers in the pick-and-roll. He can easily plug in for a lot of the same sets that the team ran for Avery Bradley or work as the primary ball handler. For now, let’s look at how effectively he could work as a swingman off of the Thomas-Horford action.
Per NBAwowy.com, the three wing players that averaged the most time with IT and Al were starters Bradley and Jae Crowder, and 6th starter Marcus Smart. Of their field goal attempts, 45.7% of AB’s were 3’s, 49% of JC’s, and 47.5% of MS’s. That trio became predominately spot up shooters. That could change with Hayward moving into the starting lineup and Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum playing predominant roles.
Hayward wasn’t as prolific as Thomas at driving (5.2 per game), but he improved dramatically last season in spotting up off the ball and cutting. George Hill was the first consistent point guard Hayward played with in his seven-year career in Utah and it showed. He shot 39.8% from behind the arc and 40.8% on catch-and-shoot opportunities. Those numbers are right on par with Bradley and Crowder, but his added ability to probe the paint makes him more than just a deadly shooter.
Hayward is a big fella at 6’8, 225 lbs. and will further break down a defense by attacking weak close outs and backpedaling defenses. Instead of those Avery Bradley pull up long-2’s or lumbering sky hooks from Jonas Jerebko, we’ll have the first time All-Star attacking from the weak side wing. Per Synergy, of players that totaled 100 or more cuts last season, Hayward ranked third behind LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo at 1.44 PPP.
And if it’s not Hayward hanging out above the break for a kick out, it could be anyone in Boston’s bullpen of young athletic wings. Soon-to-be sophomore Jaylen Brown has the inside track at making an early impression; even at only 20-years-old, Brown often replaced an injured Avery Bradley in the starting lineup and came on strong by the close of the playoffs. After the All Star Break, Brown averaged 8.6 points in 20.8 minutes per game. He shot 37.9% from 3 and maintained a 49.4 FG% because if he wasn’t shooting from deep, he was attacking the paint.
In the post-season, Brown took advantages of defensive gaps created by Thomas, Horford, and the motion offense. You need dynamic players for a dynamic offense and Brown fits that bill. He’s was an above average 3-point shooter in the second half of his rookie campaign and showed more poise and confidence in the lane.
Joining Brown is an influx of young guns at Stevens’ disposal: Semi Ojeleye, Abdel Nader, and Guerschon Yabusele, and of course, the #3 pick in the draft, Jayson Tatum. Tatum dazzled in summer league with his array of one-on-one post-ups and shot making in the mid-range. We’ll see some of that as the Celtics lean on him to be a scorer off the bench, but like Brown last season, many of his looks will come on the swing.
Tatum doesn’t have as much of an NBA ready body as Brown. He does, however, have an NBA ready 15-footer and is taller and longer than Jaylen. There are actions in the Celtics playbook that he can uniquely take advantage of. For example, Stevens likes to run these I-formation sets where a big and a wing set up double screens at the top of the key and depending on how the defense reacts, can set up mismatches. Often times, you’ll get a smaller guard switching on to a bigger wing. In both cases, it’s Smart getting the ball near the restricted area.
There’s that Thomas-Horford PnR action again with Horford popping to the top of the three point line and Smart rolling to the rim and taking advantage of the switch. Now, instead of Marcus, think of Tatum getting the ball deep in the key vs. a smaller defender.
The cliche is that this is a puzzle for Stevens to solve, but that’s to suggest that the pieces only come together in one way.
In reality, it’s more chemistry than jigsaw. What are each player’s tendencies? Where do they like to get the ball? Who complements who? Analytics will derive player combinations and lineups, but they can’t predict how a player reads another or how the defense will react. It’s in this randomness where the Celtics will excel. While there are pet plays that they can go to, defenses will try and take them away, but with more dynamic players on the roster, that should lend to a more dynamic offense.