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Could Jrue Holiday elevate the Celtics?

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A lot depends on who Boston send out in any potential trade.

Boston Celtics v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

On a peaceful Thursday afternoon, the NBA media were conducting Zoom interviews with potential draft candidates, and noise surrounding the Celtics was minimal. Then, CelticsBlog alumn Kevin O’Connor dropped a bombshell on Twitter.

The notion of Jrue Holiday being on the trade block isn’t anything new as the Pelicans look to completely embrace the Zion Williamson timeline. However, the curveball is that the Celtics are an interested party.

With Kemba Walker, Marcus Smart, and Gordon Hayward all expected to be on the books for next season, Holiday’s fit is murky at best. The obvious rebuttal here is that one of those mentioned above would need to be the centerpiece of any trade, with additional salaries and picks moving as fillers.

Regardless of the final trade package, should Holiday find himself suiting up in the TD Garden next season, there’s going to be questions surrounding his fit on the roster. So, let’s take a look at how his skillset could improve the Celtics while complimenting the core wing duo of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Attempting a total of 553 attempts around the rim throughout last season, the 30-year-old guard relishes getting his work done down low as a slasher. Over the same period, Holiday attempted 14.9 drives per game - four more than Boston’s best penetrators in Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum. Holiday also took more attempts per drive than Walker and finished with a marginally better field goal percentage of 47.9%.

Regardless of who Boston’s trade piece would be, the UCLA product’s three point shooting would be a marginal step backwards. Both Walker (38.1%) and Hayward (37.9%) shot better than Holiday (35.5%) from beyond the arc this season, with Walker’s being the most impressive due to such an increased volume.

The California native is a respectable offensive force outside of penetration, too. He likes to attack the middle while being comfortable firing from the wings.

Jrue Holiday field goal hot zones
Jrue Holiday field goal hot zones
basketball.instatscout.com

In essence, adding Holiday while losing one of either Hayward or Walker would effectively be switching out some additional three-point scoring for a higher rate of penetration. Conversely, both Hayward and Walker are respectable playmakers, so it’s only fair to expect some form of playmaking from Holiday if he was to make his way to the east coast.

Holiday has averaged 6.4 dimes per season throughout his seven years in the NBA, utilizing his penetration skills to tee up his teammates with drive-and-kick opportunities - something that Brad Stevens predicates his positionless offense around.

The one-time All-Star runs the pick-and-roll with regularity, with it accounting for 26.1% of his possessions last season, so it should come as no surprise that he likes to reward his rolling big man.

Sure, Boston’s offensive facilitation style may change depending on which player Boston moves on from in any potential deal, but the playmaking wouldn’t falter as a result.

Now that we know what to expect from Holiday on offense, we can look at his real area of strength: defense.

Making the All-Defensive first team in 2018 and the All-Defensive second team in 2019, Holiday is a bulldog. In a similar fashion to Marcus Smart, the Pelicans guard is regularly tasked with guarding the opposition’s best player and is not fearful about guarding up from his position.

While defensive effort is hard to quantify in statistics, the closest indicator you can find is hustle stats. Using deflections as an effort metric is reasonable because it indicates how many times a player is jumping passing lanes or reading the play correctly - and getting to the necessary positions as a result.

Holiday finished the 2019-20 season averaging four deflections per game while also contesting 7.5 shooting attempts. For reference, Boston’s two most fierce on-ball defenders in Smart (3.2 deflections and 6.7 shot contests) and Brown (2.2 deflections and 7.7 shot contests) were not too far behind or ahead in either category.

Adding Holiday to a roster that also contains Smart, Brown and budding off-ball defender Tatum, would give the Celtics a ridiculous defensive upside against opposing back courts and wings.

Similar to Smart, the 6’3’’ guard is a highly skilled point-of-attack defender, locking in on the ball handler instantaneously.

This play above is reminiscent of Boston’s own defensive bulldog. Guarding his man above the break and staying connected with him throughout the drive, Holiday is able to slide in front of the ball handler as they enter their gather step, knocking the ball loose with impeccable timing.

Again, Holiday is a smart defender in this instance below, operating with the savviness of a seven-year veteran.

Holiday is defending a double screen cut (similar to an Iverson cut) from the Portland Trail Blazers. Reading the action well, Holiday navigates around both screens to stay in contesting distance of CJ McCollum, forcing a miss as he closes out on the catch and shot attempt.

On the play above, you can see Holiday’s defensive IQ when switching off the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations. Starting the play by guarding Ish Smith (who’s operating as the ball handler), Holiday finds himself dragged into a Moritz Wagner screen. Rather than fighting under it, Derek Favors steps up to contest Smith, while Holiday switches onto Wagner.

Smith opts to fire his shot while Favors is still closing out, but Holiday is boxing out Wagner, using a low-centered stance to negate Wagner’s size and strength.

When watching defensive film on Holiday, it became apparent that he would slot seamlessly into the Boston Celtics system and would quickly become a key cog in their defensive identity.

The same is true on offense, Holiday is capable of playing both on and off-ball and thrives on getting into the teeth of the opposing defense. In some respects, Holiday is precisely what the Celtics needed against Toronto and Miami just a few weeks back.

Outside of his on-court play, Jrue Holiday makes sense for the Celtics from a financial point of view. Earning $25,396,111 next season, with the ‘21-22 season sitting as a player option, Holiday could be an integral piece for Boston staying under the luxury tax.

The finances involved in this deal would make the most sense if Kemba Walker were the player Boston looked to move on. It would save the Celtics a shade over $10 million a season, and provide the team with free agency flexibility either next year or the one after.

Of course, including Walker’s name at this juncture is purely speculation. Boston’s optics wouldn’t look great if they chose to move on from him so soon, but with a roster crunch and the current economic climate due to COVID, a $10 million saving will surely be enticing.

According to TradeNBA, both Boston and New Orleans are able to absorb these players contracts without any other players being involved in the deal. It goes without saying that some form of picks will be attached to the deal, but the jury is out on what level of protections those picks should have.

Kemba Walker and Jrue Holiday Trade
Kemba Walker and Jrue Holiday Trade
TradeNBA

Finally, last season, the Celtics were very keen on adding high-character guys to the locker room as they looked to avoid a repeat of the 2019 season. In Holiday, the Celtics would be adding a player who recently won the NBA Teammate of the Year Award.

Holiday projects as an exemplary fit for the Celtics, both on a personal and professional level. His skillset and high-effort style of play would endear him to the Celtics fans while also elevating the team’s on-court performances.

Not knowing who could go in the opposite direction is the only kicker here. Without that knowledge, it becomes increasingly difficult to interpret the level of impact Holiday would have. Now, all we can do is wait and see what Danny Ainge decides to do as the draft inches closer.