The Boston Celtics might be 7-3 over their last 10 games, but their glaring weaknesses on the offensive end are becoming more apparent. After Gordon Hayward went down, Boston leaned heavily on their pesky defensive intensity to carry them to the best record in the Eastern Conference. Still, replacing the full value of a 27 year-old all-star was implausible. The absence of Hayward’s scoring ability is starting to show.
Boston survived the first six weeks of the season with rapid ball movement and buckets in transition when the blanketing defense caused turnovers. Through December 14, they had the 12th best offensive rating, but their scoring efficiency has plummeted as they’ve begun to face teams for the second and third time around. With twelve new players and three rookies in the rotation, Boston was never going to sustain that early season .800 winning percentage. A lack of offensive firepower is the main culprit.
The Celtics have the league's worst offense since December 15. Their offensive rating is 99.3 this month—also 30th in the NBA.— StatMuse (@statmuse) January 22, 2018
On the bright side, they still have the league's best defense in both spans. pic.twitter.com/jwaUOisskf
There is no simple replacement for losing an elite level scorer (although the Kawhi Leonard-less Spurs may be proving that wrong). No Celtic wing was going to match Hayward’s 21.9 points and 5.4 boards per game and his ability to consistently draw multiple defenders is a finite commodity. After all, does anyone regret giving him $128 million in free agency?
According to Synergy Sports tracking statistics, Hayward ranked in the 91st percentile in offensive output last season, and his 0.981 points per possession (PPP) as a pick-and-roll ball handler was near the top of the league. Sans Kyrie Irving, no Celtic is above 0.78 PPP in pick-and-roll efficiency this season. Lacking dynamic off-the-dribble shot creators, Boston’s half-court offense is too frequently stagnant, which results in plenty of contested heaves near the end of shot clocks.
Brad Stevens has tried to cobble together enough offense to remain afloat, but there is no magic formula for this kind of problem.
Jayson Tatum has been a markedly impressive surprise, and while his long-term outlook rightfully has us optimistic about his future, he still lacks the overall off-the-dribble inventiveness that Hayward offers. Per Synergy, only 8.6 percent of Tatum’s shots come as a pick-and-roll ball handler, and he needs to develop better court vision to generate open looks for his teammates. He is two assists per game behind Hayward’s yield from last season. Tatum will get there in time. I wrote this week about how improving his passing is the next step to making him truly unstoppable.
Marcus Morris has been nursing a lingering knee issue all season. Now that he’s theoretically healthy, a return to the 14.0 PPG average that he sported in Detroit would be welcome. Boston is 23rd in bench scoring, and at his best Morris could be the offensive spark plug that the second unit starves for.
Tatum and Morris will only serve as Hayward impersonators at best. The genuine product is a rare asset.
Boston scores only 95.7 points per 100 possessions when Irving and Al Horford are off the floor, per NBAwowy. To put that into context, the last place Sacramento Kings score 100.0 points per 100 possessions. Experimenting with staggered minutes has occasionally helped, but separating Boston’s two best offensive weapons comes at a steep price. When Irving or Horford play without each other, opposing defenses can swarm them with double-teams and traps, which makes the overall offense less multifaceted and free-flowing.
Having a third elite offensive option will—whenever Hayward returns—make Boston exponentially harder to defend. Stevens will be able to draw up simultaneous actions with Irving and Hayward, with Horford serving as the lynchpin facilitator and Tatum acting as the floor spacing three-point option. Without Hayward, Boston’s offense has become predictably single-minded.
If the dearth of shot creators isn’t enough of a nightly reminder, here’s a highlight video in case readers need a rest from the bleakness of this analysis. Watching it reminds me of how dangerous the Celtics will be once Hayward is healthy.
The Celtics are also feeling the ramifications of Hayward’s pricey $29.7 salary.
Tough financial decisions were made in order to bring him to Boston. Avery Bradley was sacrificed so that enough cap space could open up for Hayward’s max-level contract. Key rotational cogs like Kelly Olynyk, Jonas Jerebko, Amir Johnson, Tyler Zeller, and Gerald Green were allowed to walk in free agency.
Last year’s second unit veterans have been mostly replaced with low-salaried rookies. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the newcomers are less equipped to handle a demanding 82-game regular season slate. The rookie wall is real, and January is typically the time when we see early season production begin to tail off. Opposing teams are starting to scheme more effectively for the Celtics’ makeshift offense, and blueprint game film on how to prepare for Boston’s younger core is becoming more abundant. Asking Tatum, Semi Ojeleye, and Daniel Theis, to read and react to exotic defensive schemes as if they were veterans is wholly unfair.
The longer Danny Ainge continues to hold off on using the $8.4 million designated player exception, the longer the Celtics need to survive without any on court relief stemming from Hayward’s massive salary.
Hayward’s wife, Robyn, posted a video of him recently getting up some flat footed jumpers, but the Celtics remain publicly coy about his potential return this season. For now, Stevens and company will have to continue to piece together an offense that tries to resemble what they planned to have all season.
Gordon Hayward is back to getting buckets (via robynmhayward/Instagram) pic.twitter.com/eU9GTebPWR— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 22, 2018
Statistics are accurate as of all games headed into January 23, 2018. All non-cited statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com. All salary information is from RealGM.com.