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The franchise-altering importance of having a second option on offense

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Having a first option in Jayson Tatum has unlocked Boston’s potential. Having a reliable second option is what the Celtics had been missing.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The newly established hierarchy in Boston’s offense has unlocked their potential as real Eastern Conference contenders. Jayson Tatum’s ascension to being the number one option makes him the centerpiece of the offense, but you know what this team was really missing? A second option, meaning somebody to pick up the slack if our primary scorer is missing everything or getting double-teamed. A secondary all-around scoring threat that cannot be left alone. Why is this so important?

First, we need to review an abbreviated history of top scoring options in the Brad Stevens era.

2013-14:

1st option: Jeff Green by default

2nd option: Avery Bradley

3rd option: Jared Sullinger

Bonus stat! Win shares leader: Brandon Bass

2014-15:

1) More Jeff Green, until...

2) Isaiah Thomas!

2015-16:

1) Definitely Isaiah Thomas

2) Avery Bradley

2016-17:

1) Lots and lots of Isaiah Thomas

2) Kind of Avery Bradley but also, Jae Crowder

3) Al Horford becomes the engine, but not a bona fide second option

2017-18:

Alright, here we go. At first it was:

1) Kyrie Irving

2) Gordon Hayward

3) Al Horford

And then it was:

1a) Jaylen Brown

1b) Marcus Morris

1c) Al Horford

1d) Jayson Tatum

1e) Terry Rozier

Seriously, each of these guys averaged between 10 and 11.5 shots per game on the year.

2018-19:

1) Kyrie Irving

2) ????????

3) Al Horford

One of the most unique roster construction details in the Al Horford plus star PG era was having a clear first and third option on offense without ever really having a second. No matter the situation with injuries and lineups, Horford’s role seemed sedentary as the engine that keeps the other pieces moving. This wasn’t always framed as a problem, as it was widely agreed upon that the Celtics were “a piece or two away” in his first two seasons here. However, as important as Horford was, he wasn’t exactly a reliable #2 scorer.

And finally, after much reflection, the 2019-20 hierarchy:

1) Jayson Tatum

2) Kemba Walker

3) Jaylen Brown

4) Gordon Hayward

I spent way too much time deciding if Kemba or Jaylen is the true second option and here’s why I put Kemba at #2: over half of Jaylen’s offense comes on spot-ups and in transition. Almost 49% of Kemba’s offense comes in the pick-and-roll. Kemba dictates the offense far more, and often calls his own number on pull-ups and step backs (via Synergy). Kemba also shoots slightly more on higher usage, but the roles are what’s important to me.

With that said, Gordon Hayward accepting his role--and more so, his place on the totem pole despite being a max player and a former All-Star--might be the most vital act of casting aside ego for the team and should be noted. Before his injuries, Hayward was the only one in the group known as a star on the rise. He’s easily the one with the most to lose (financially and otherwise) by taking a back seat.

For those saying Hayward needs to do more because of his contract—you’re wrong. Nobody needs to play outside of their role unless everyone ahead of him on the depth chart is injured. He’s hard to read, and might secretly hate it, but his willingness to let the Jays and Kemba cook is huge.

(Quick tangent: It’s funny that I started this piece before Tuesdays’s Brooklyn game where Tatum was out sick, Hayward left the game injured, Brown left the game injured, Kemba was on a strict minutes limit, and Smart fouled out. It’s not nearly as bad of a loss as people are making it out to be, but it still sucks.)

Finally, Kemba as the second option is a perfect fit. We don’t like to admit this, but Kemba can’t be the best player on a championship team. As one of the team’s only veterans, Kemba clearly has the best sense for the ebbs and flows of a basketball game. He understands the importance of getting his teammates going early, as well as the presence of mind to know when the team needs him to score first and pass later. By nature, the best leaders in basketball are ready to defer to their teammates.

I know I’m stating the obvious by saying “having good players is good,” but the context to why this group gels so well is worth exploring. This dilemma of having a first and third option with no clear second fiddle might all be a narrative I’ve written in my head, but its hard to ignore that this hierarchy has organically developed without the influence of Danny Ainge explicitly saying “we’re building around this guy” or Brad Stevens force-feeding shots to a lottery pick. Tatum made the leap. Brown has made big steps, too. Walker and Hayward lead by example. It just happened. That’s why this season feels so miraculous. The perfect piece materialized right in front of us in what felt like a time of crisis and what could have been disaster was averted altogether.