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The most important Celtics (and how everybody can’t play with them)

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Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have emerged as Boston’s most important players,

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New Orleans Pelicans v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

When Brad Stevens shook up the starting lineup, it was a redistribution of resources of sorts. Infusing the Marcuses of course added intangibles of grit to what was a starry Opening Night fivesome, but it also made a lot of basketball sense, too; Smart is arguably the Celtics’ second best ball handling point guard (which buys Kyrie Irving precious minutes off the ball) and Morris has far and away been Boston’s most deadly shooter on the perimeter (giving Irving and Al Horford a reliable target on kick outs).

While their insertion has coincided with the team’s current 12-4 stretch, it’s shined a spotlight on the recent struggles of the three most prominent bench players: Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward. Small sample size notwithstanding, the numbers are stark for the trio since the team “airing of grievances” meetings. During the win streak that preceded them, Brown-Rozier-Hayward sported a 30.4 NetRtg (117.2 OffRtg, 86.8 DefRtg). Over the last three games however, they’ve been a disastrous -34.2 NetRtg (100.0 OffRtg, 134.2 DefRtg). For such a talented group, it’s been puzzling, but it could have something to do with how little time they’ve been paired with Boston’s best.

Evidenced by his Christmas Day “acting up,” Kyrie Irving is the Celtics best player, the rising tide that raises all ships. Over this recent stretch, Irving’s on court NetRtg is a robust 21.5 (121.9 OffRtg, 100.4 DefRtg). Off the floor, the Celtics are a -4.3 NetRtg, considerably worse offensively (103.2) and unexpectedly worse defensively (107.5). There’s also the return and importance of Al Horford. Like Irving, he’s been a shot in the arm for the Boston collective (on 17.3 NetRtg, off 11.9NetRtg). Together, they’re a 24.2 NetRtg over their last 124 minutes, but not everybody has reaped their benefits.

Brown has become the favorite targetfor fans’ disappointment, but it’s an unfair distinction. Since the demotion, Brown has averaged only eight minutes a game next to Irving and even less (5.4) with Horford. That means minutes without the player gravity of the two best playmakers on the team. For a player like Brown who’s more of a finisher than a creator, his third season has had some predictable bumps in the road.

Philadelphia 76ers v Boston Celtics - Game Five Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Celtics are 7th in the NBA in potential assists per game at 46.5 and still first in the league in generating open and wide open looks (as of December 26th). That’s the macro view. Team-specific, some players benefit more than others from the team’s passing. Brown, for example, has one of the lowest assisted field goal percentages on the team at 61.2%. By comparison, fellow wings Gordon Hayward and Marcus Morris are assisted 70.4% and 67.5% of the time respectively. In his defense, Brown has been plagued by a right hand injury for the last six weeks which could explain his shooting slump, but he’s also being asked to be his best self without the best players to prop up his game.

The same could be said for Rozier. There has been some thinking that Scary Terry is a better off guard than point guard. Despite his performance in the playoffs last season, Rozier instinctively is a scorer. Case in point, he’s received the most passes from Gordon Hayward, the de facto ball handler of the second unit. Most of the passes are coming off of pick-and-roll action where Hayward, still working himself back into All-Star form, is not getting deep enough penetration or sucking in the defense as he was in Utah. Rozier has hit just 17 of 50 field goal attempts off those dishes. In contrast, Rozier has received roughly half as many passes from Irving, but he’s hit a healthy 55.6% of those looks.

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

Finally, there’s Hayward. What’s been striking since those team meetings after the blowout loss to the Bucks has been the increase of his minutes with Irving. During the eight-game winning streak, he shared the floor with Irving for 10.9 minutes a game. That’s increased to 14.2 over the last three. Conversely, he’s playing just 5.6 minutes with Horford. Before tallying five assists in Houston, he’d handled the ball less in the pick-and-roll and played more in the corners as a swing man in the flex offense. For Hayward to really make the next progression in his recovery, he’s going to have to be more of a focal point, but I wonder if Irving has taken it upon himself to help get Hayward going with the two sharing the court more.

All season, the Celtics have been very careful managing minutes for the entire roster. Irving leads the team averaging a conservative 32.4 minutes per game. Team engines like Anthony Davis and James Harden play around 36+, a minutes load that Irving was accustomed to in Cleveland. He’s currently fifth in Real Plus-Minus and out of the top-10 players, but only big men Nikola Jokic and Nikola Vucevic average fewer minutes. Horford is still on a minutes limit after missing seven games for patellar tendonitis and even when healthy, the training staff has tried to keep the 32-year-old as fresh as possible for the playoffs. It’s a deliberate balance of weighing winning games now vs. post-season success later.

Stevens could stagger minutes more, but my suspicion is that one of the requests from the players was longer stretches of playing time. If you look at the substitution patterns over the last few games, players have been afforded longer stretches to get in the rhythm of the game. Extended playing time has lead to less mixing and matching and Stevens has allowed for a longer leash. Even when the bench quickly relinquished a one-point lead late in the third quarter into a double digit deficit midway through the 4th in Houston on Thursday, the Celtics stuck with their bench. It didn’t pan out against the Rockets and again, the Celtics sans Irving did not perform well and were outscored by 20 points when he was on the bench. Irving voiced his frustrations to the media again:

“I think the next step for us is just knowing that there are just other opportunities for you to be a basketball player other than having the ball in your hands,” Irving said. “You don’t need the ball to just dribble, dribble and shoot a fadeaway every single time. You can cut backdoor, you can screen for a teammate. There are other things to help an offense flourish rather than just standing out on the perimeter.”

While those sentiments from a player trying to grab the leadership reins ring true, my concern is that they can be construed as simply “know your role.” To Irving’s credit, he’s added dirty work elements to his game. He’s improved so much on defense and added an offensive rebounding wrinkle to his already dazzling repertoire on that end of the floor. But Irving is already a star and will command a max contract in July. For players like Rozier and Brown (and Tatum to an extent), they’re trying to be stars in whatever minutes are doled out to them. When they hear “screen for a teammate” or “there are just other opportunities for you to be a basketball player other than having the ball in your hands,” those “little things” could be construed as supporting roles supporting a Best Actor bid.