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Towards modernization: Can the Celtics heal their ailing offense?

The NBA has seen an offensive explosion this year, but Boston has yet to catch up.

Milwaukee Bucks v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The principles of modern NBA offense aren’t overly complex. Find a crack in the opposing defense, pressure the rim, and kick the ball out if someone keeps you from finishing your journey to the basket. Repeat until the defense breaks down and is forced to commit a foul or surrender one of the game’s two juiciest looks: layups and threes.

Sprinkle in a strong proclivity for the latter option that borders on reckless and crank up the pace to eleven, and you’ve got yourself the kind of high-octane approach that is en vogue throughout the league.

Not everyone has the personnel to pull it off seamlessly. The best units grease the skids with shooting at all five positions, heady passers bought into egalitarian(ish) systems, and enough isolation talent and tough shot making ability to save possessions that stall out. In theory the Boston Celtics have all those things. They’re loaded with players capable of shooting, attacking off the bounce, and making smart reads when attacking a defense in rotation.

And yet, Boston’s offense has only consistently been generating one of the modern game’s three golden outcomes: three-pointers. The Celtics have been launching like crazy from beyond the arc, taking a robust 39.7% of their total shots from distance, good for third in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass.

That may be a touch on the unpalatable side for traditionalists, but it’s an encouraging sign for those willing to adapt to these more math-driven times. Hoisting lots of triples is a sign of a healthy offense, and Boston deserves some credit for its embrace of the three-point revolution in that regard, but it warrants just as much rebuke for its inability to generate other offensive efficiencies.

The Celtics rank dead last in percentage of shots taken at the rim (26.3) and second from the bottom in free-throw rate (16.4), per Cleaning the Glass. It’s a major reason why Boston’s offense has gotten off to such a middling start, managing just 105.1 points per 100 possessions - a bottom five mark for efficiency, and a decidedly discouraging sign given the talent on the roster.

The natural question becomes whether or not the Celtics can expect things to change moving forward, and there isn’t a ton of reason to believe they will. Boston has ranked in the top half of the league in percentage of shots at the rim and free throw rate just once in Brad Stevens’ five plus years with the team. His system has always emphasized hunting open shots, but primarily prioritized triples above all else.

Stevens enables his best mid-range isolationists to take over possessions as a means of leveraging their unique gifts, but it too frequently translates in a way that is detrimental to the overall offense.

His plans are presently being executed by a collection of individuals who, with the exception of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, haven’t traditionally been interested in attacking the hoop with the kind of relentlessness needed to boost the team’s frequency of shots taken at the rim or ability to draw fouls in a truly meaningful way.

The former of those two exceptions doesn’t have the ball handling ability to be a consistent offensive fulcrum at the moment, and the latter has inexplicably turned himself into a maestro of inefficiency with some seriously questionable shot selection to start the year.

Everyone else either lacks the athleticism, craft, or interest to make rack attacks their calling card.

The good news is that there might be reason for hope regardless. Boston has enough shooting to cheat the system a bit. With a well-spaced floor, a little bit of ball movement can go a long way in cracking a defense where the Celtics might lack the dynamism to get to the hoop from a standstill. Ping the ball around with enough purpose and pace, and suddenly lanes to the hoop get bigger and scrambling defenders more prone to fouling.

That kind of quick, free-flowing offensive philosophy is something that can be taught in a way that, for example, beating your man off the dribble ala James Harden simply can’t. And it doesn’t have to transform Boston into the platonic ideal of modern offensive efficiency. Leading the league in percentage of shots taken at the rim and free throw percentage isn’t a prerequisite for an elite offense.

The Golden State Warriors – perhaps the most devastating offense we’ve ever seen – have ranked toward the back half of the league in both metrics for years. There are some caveats to be considered here. The Warriors are such a historically great team that the rules that apply to them don’t necessarily hold up elsewhere.

Having three of the greatest shooters in the history of time on one roster changes the calculus on what constitutes a good shot. The Celtics can’t boast that level of talent, but they’ve got enough dangerous shooters to cobble together a system that functions in a somewhat similar way.

It’s alright to turn to the likes Irving and Tatum to make absurdist mid-range twos when other sources of points dry up, but Boston needs to place a greater emphasis on searching out those other sources. That will get easier when Gordon Hayward returns to full health. The same is true if the Celtics start to move the ball with greater urgency. Until then things aren’t likely to look any less disjointed.

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