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The Celtics need a pass-first playmaker off the bench

On a team full of talented scorers, adding a backup point guard with a pass-first mentality would be the best option for the Celtics.

Boston Celtics v Houston Rockets Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

The Celtics had a bench problem all season long, with the backup units averaging just 28.5 points a night, second worst in the league. And while most agree that improvement to the second unit is paramount to Boston’s success next season, many are split on the best way to solve the bench’s problems.

Should the target be a new center? A microwave scorer? A backup point guard?

Well, with Daniel Theis in the second year of one of the better contracts in the league, and Robert Williams hopefully healthy and ready to build off a pretty solid playoff run, another big man doesn’t necessarily have to be a top priority. Yes, if the Celtics are going to go “center-by-committee” again, they will likely need a bigger body as a third option to deal with the behemoths of the league like Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic, but there are enough options available at affordable rates that the Celtics can afford to spend some resources on a new backup point guard as well.

With Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart still on the roster, targeting another point guard might seem a bit redundant but, in truth, there isn’t a single player on this Celtics roster (barring *maybe* Gordon Hayward) who thinks to set up his teammate before looking for a shot himself. While both Smart and Walker are more than capable of playmaking at a high level, Kemba, throughout his career, has always been a score-first guard. Smart, too, can make the passes, but often prefers to settle for pull-up jump shots rather than continuing to move the ball. This graphic from Todd Whitehead of Nylon Calculus does a great job of showing Kemba’s decision-making after catching a pass.

Todd Whitehead | @CrumpledJumper

While he takes a lot less catch-and-shoot jump shots than the league average, Kemba’s distribution of shots vs. passes on his drives looks more like a wing than a point guard – as he’s more likely to look for his own shot than one of his teammates. Comparing Kemba’s flow chart to even a playmaking wing like Jimmy Butler shows Kemba’s score-first mentality.

Kemba’s 22.8 assist% (a measure of the number of his teammate’s made field goals a player assisted) from this season was by far the lowest of his career and, while some of that had to do with the ball being in his hands far less than it was in Charlotte, that mark also ranked down in the 28th percentile for guards, and even fell below guys like Bam Adebayo and Caris LeVert.

The Celtics as a whole relied a lot on unassisted baskets, with just 55.7% of the team’s baskets coming off assists for 26th in the league. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Boston had three of the best pull-up shooters in the league in Kemba, Smart, and Jayson Tatum and the team managed to take maximum advantage of their skills. As Paul Pierce, Boston had “the best starting 5” in the league. Every player minus Daniel Theis can get their own shot; they ranked in the 86th percentile in isolation scoring last year at 0.96 points per possession.

However, adding someone who is more of a pass-first playmaker off the bench would help create some easier shots for them and would allow Kemba, Tatum, and Brown to focus on what they do best: scoring the ball. For example, Brown ranked above the 85th percentile in terms of scoring efficiency off 0 or 1 dribbles, so adding someone who could set him up a little more could really propel his effectiveness even further.

Adding a bench playmaker would also help some of the Celtics’ younger bench players like Robert Williams and Romeo Langford. Timelord is a point guard’s dream to play with in the pick-and-roll – a bouncy, athletic center to whom guards can toss up lobs - and pairing him with a playmaker in the bench unit would give the Celtics a nice source of bench offense. Langford is a gifted young athlete, but right now, his offensive game is unpolished. Pairing him with a point guard that can find him easier looks could make him a more effective finisher.

In a different article for Nylon Calculus, Todd Whitehead wrote about optimizing lineup fit by clustering players together into player archetypes and comparing the synergistic fit of combinations of players. One of the key findings from his piece was identifying which combinations of players work well together using five seasons worth of data.

He found that pass-first playmakers in lineups with rolling rim protectors (the group Robert Williams would likely fall in) performed 1.6 points per 100 possessions better than expected, making it one of the more efficient two-man lineup combinations. With Timelord set to play a bigger role next season, assuming he stays healthy, adding someone willing to feed him off the bench – somewhat similar to the bench combo that Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell have been able to give the Clippers over the past couple seasons – would go a long way towards solving some of the bench issues.

Of course, adding a new point guard would likely mean the end of the road for Brad Wanamaker in Celtics green, and though he did a serviceable job this season as the backup especially after Marcus Smart’s insertion into the starting lineup, Wanamaker isn’t a traditional floor general and provides more of a threat scoring than he does with his playmaking.

Danny Ainge has options. Internally, they have Tremont Waters coming off a G-League Rookie of the Year campaign. They could also fill that slot in free agency with a sure hand of a veteran or invest in someone from the draft:

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Elfrid Payton

Most will say Elfrid Payton failed to live up to the hype as a top-10 pick in 2014, but he is still one of the better passers in the league, averaging 7.2 assists in just 27.7 minutes a night for the lowly New York Knicks. Payton formed nice pick-and-roll duos with both Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that could be replicated with Timelord and Theis here in Boston, and would provide an assuredness to the backup role. It’s worth noting, too, that the Knicks were a whopping 8.2 points per 100 possessions better offensively with Payton on the floor.

Now, whether he will be available is another question. Payton has an $8 million team option from the Knicks for next season, and it’ll be interesting to see what Leon Rose and the new Knicks front office decides to do with him. With Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina on the books already and the #8 pick in the draft that could end up being LaMelo Ball or Killian Hayes, it wouldn’t be shock to see the Knicks let go of the 26-year-old.

Shooting could be a bit of a worry with Payton and Smart in the backcourt together in the bench unit, given Elfrid’s non-existent three-point stroke, but if the Celtics can pair them with Tatum, Brown, or a free agent bench signing capable from deep, the duo has enough on the defensive end to be a net positive.

Rajon Rondo

Boston could bring back Rajon Rondo, fresh off a championship with the Lakers. We all know what Rondo’s capable of on the playmaking side, and he showed in Game 6 of The Finals that he’s still pretty good putting the ball in the hoop, too.

Rondo recently opted out of his minimum player option for next season with the Lakers, and while rumors are circulating that the Clippers are interested in bringing him over to the other side of the Staples Center, he would be a big coup for the Celtics bench.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Virginia Tech Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

Tre Jones

The last option here comes via the draft. While it’s hard to imagine a rookie especially a late first rounder having much of an impact on a roster as talented as this Celtics one, Jones is as mature as it gets at 20-years-old and, according to our Adam Spinella, has a level of “polish and professionalism” that makes him a low-risk option for a team.

As Spinella noted in his piece on late-round guards to target for the Celtics, Jones spent his first year at Duke setting up Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, and Cam Reddish and did a great job as a facilitator. With more weapons in Boston, Jones will not be asked to do too much, instead just build on those playmaking skills and use his IQ to set up his teammates.

Like with Payton, there are legitimate concerns about his shooting and malleability next to Marcus Smart, but Jones also figures to be a solid point of attack defender and together with Smart could form one of the tougher backup backcourts in the league.

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