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How good can the Celtics offense be?

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In short, very good.

Boston Celtics v Washington Wizards - Game Six Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics are a new team. Just four players from last year’s unit are returning for the 2017-18 season. That kind of roster turnover makes predicting future performance a challenge. It’s not a simple equation of whether the pieces added in the offseason equate to those lost. The magnitude of change negates that exercise.

We can’t, for example, assess whether or not Gordon Hayward can fill Jae Crowder’s role, because the majority of the players that surrounded him are also gone. Crowder’s role no longer exists. The task becomes projecting an entirely new system, with unique potential synergies and weaknesses.

This is not to say that the general principals Brad Stevens has embraced will disappear. Boston will still move the ball, let their best players cook when they’re hot, and shoot a ton of threes. The nuance within the team’s system will be altered, though.

To begin win, the Celtics appear likely to start games with Al Horford playing center and Marcus Morris at power forward. Boston wreaked havoc on opponents with units that included a floor spacing “big” next to Horford. Take a look at the chaos Horford’s playmaking and Kelly Olynyk’s gravity produce in the clip below.

Indiana has no back-line defense because all of their bigs are out by the three-point stripe, and a small mistake on the Marcus Smart-Jaylen Brown off-ball screen turns into a wide open alley-oop. This clip is an extreme example. The Pacers need not concern themselves with the threat of a Smart triple as much as they did, and the amount of space for Brown to cut through borders on garish, but the point is clear.

When the Celtics have shooters all over the floor, passing and driving lines expand, defenses help less liberally, and points are easy to come by. Those things become especially true with Horford handling the ball up high.

The structural shift of playing a shooter at the 4 more consistently isn’t the only thing that should grease the skids. In landing Gordon Hayward, the Celtics added a wing with an offensive repertoire that far exceeds that of both Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder.

The following clip is instructive.

This is a decent shot for a good shooter. Crowder doesn’t bang it home, but it’s not hard to imagine him canning enough similar looks to make them worth taking. The trouble here is that Crowder doesn’t have many options but to pull the trigger. His offensive game isn’t well-rounded enough to get by his defender and to the rim or transition immediately into another action.

His choices are to shoot the three, swing the ball to someone who is less open, or try to up-fake and reset for a different look from three or a long-two. Shooting was the right pick, but Crowder’s skill sett constrained his options.

Take a look at how Hayward handles a similar situation.

The Jazz run through some actions away from Hayward and swing the ball to him such that he receives it facing a similar decision point as the one Crowder encountered in the prior video (I know these aren’t perfect, but work with me). He opts to blow past his man, draw in a help defender, and drop a pretty little pass to Gobert for a dunk.

That’s not something Crowder could do consistently, and as such it’s not something that opposing defenses needed to account for. The final outcome of both plays aren’t even what matters here—what does matter is that in a similar moment, Hayward could choose to shoot, drive to score, or drive to facilitate. He could have even moved into a pick-and-roll.

All of these things will be running through a defender’s head while trying to focus on making the right rotations. That’s a new, powerful level of pressure the Celtics can exert on their opponents. Hayward is an elite offensive talent who will be playing with more space to operate than he’s ever seen before.

Now you may be thinking to yourself, but didn’t Marcus Morris only put up .418/.331/.784 shooting splits last year? Why don’t defenses just sag off of him to clog lanes? That’s a valid question, but it has a simple answer: Morris’s role in Detroit’s abysmal offense forced him to consistently take bad shots. He shouldn’t have to function as a late-clock safety valve in Boston.

That means a lot less of this:

And a lot more of this:

Morris has eclipsed the 35.0 percent mark from three in four of his six years as a pro, and he should see a return to a more respectable rate with less of an offensive burden.

No such argument can be constructed to explain away Marcus Smart’s poor shooting. He’s never been good from deep, and teams will leave him alone when he is on the court. The Celtics can minimize the impact of his anti-spacing by putting the ball in his hands either as a pick-and-roll initiator or a floor-inverting post-up threat.

The easier task may be to play Jaylen Brown. He’s a good enough shooter to maintain plenty of breathing room, but he could improve a bit as a ball mover and needs substantial development attacking the rim off the bounce. He’s young enough that growth in those domains isn’t unrealistic, but even if he doesn’t recognize it, Brown’s shooting is probably all that Boston needs to make the offense work, if he is playing with the starters.

Should he find himself with the second unit, more may be required of Brown. The backups don’t have a clear means of scoring efficiently. They’ll have something of a hub if Smart is in the mix, and Brad Stevens will undoubtedly find a way to stagger his stars enough to keep one of them on the floor to feast on opposing benches.

There is also the possibility of Jayson Tatum becoming a go-to source for bench points, though he will likely need at least several months to adjust to NBA-level competition. All in all, while the Celtics’ bench doesn’t project to score in bunches, there are enough potential solutions in play for Stevens to keep things running fairly smoothly.

Add in a likely boost in transition competence, and Boston may very well have a top-5 offense on its hands. How feasible it will be to pair it with a decent defense is a subject we will tackle at another time, but suffice it to say: if the Celtics can live up to their offensive potential and defend at even a league-average rate, they’ll win a lot of games.