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How Kemba Walker’s potential absence might alter the Celtics’ offense

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If Cardiac Kemba rests his knee, who stands to benefit and pick up most of the slack?

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

After the long layoff and time spent away from basketball, the Celtics and Kemba Walker are still taking precautions with his tender left knee.

Walker missed Boston’s practice on Monday, out of an abundance of caution more than anything. Head coach Brad Stevens downplayed the severity, but noted that the knee was the culprit for the point guard’s absence:

“He had a little bit of discomfort after a couple of the individual workouts. He certainly I think feels better than he did even in March. But with just even the small discomfort we said, ‘Let’s take the four days, and ramp it up appropriately.’”

Throughout Kemba’s career, he’s been relatively free of nagging, long-term concerns. A bum wheel would limit the myriad of ways he’s effective, but not necessarily hamper any one skill more than another. But as Walker (and the rest of the basketball world) ramps up their fitness to mid-season form, the reason for caution is apparent.

Stevens would expand on his comments to surmise that Walker may not be up to full strength until postseason play begins in mid-August:

“That may mean he’s a little bit behind when we start scrimmage play and when we start seeding games play from his normal minutes but his health is the most important thing and it’s not just for this particular period it’s for the long run and strength around the knee is important.”

The key in all the uncertainty: seeding games may see a limited approach from Walker.

The Celtics need to find the perfect crossroads between resting his knee, ramping up activity so he’s ready in stride once the playoffs begin, and making sure he doesn’t do further damage to cause a setback. The result could be, once seeding for the Celtics gets locked into that #3 spot or in less consequential games for movement up or down the standings, we see less Kemba.

How would the Celtics look without their leader at the point of attack on offense? They have a few options to carry the load and help facilitate and ease the burden on top scoring option Jayson Tatum.

Wicked Smaht

Of course, Marcus Smart is listed as the team’s backup point guard and is actually the team’s total leader in assists this season. How an offense running through Smart looks is a complete 180° from the Kemba regime.

With Walker at the helm, ball screens are the soup d’jour every night: 48.8 percent of his usage comes from being the PNR ball handler, according to Synergy. With Smart, that number is way down to 23.3 percent.

Putting Smart on the floor with the starting group of Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Daniel Theis instantly makes the Celtics a beastly first unit, with size and post mismatches everywhere. Smart could get the opportunity to become a human battering ram against smaller point guards, abusing his match up with one-on-one post-ups.

We could see the return of a few post-up sets the C’s ran for Smart last season to pick on tiny point guards:

Moving Smart to that unit has been Stevens’ choice through any absences on that first unit, but that doesn’t mean its consequence-free. The second unit becomes a bit thinner on talent, particularly at the guard spots, while cramping the perimeter spacing around post opportunities for Tatum.

Other bench options

There are two other facilitators on the bench who fill the traditional role of point guard: Brad Wanamaker and Tremont Waters. Both are more similar to the prototype of Walker’s ball screen creation, but neither are the proven outside shooters this first unit craves.

Regardless of whether Kemba is on the floor or in street clothes, the offense is run through Tatum as the clear first option. Any replacement player to Kemba will be inserted more as a fifth scorer than a replacement second option. Those guys, typically speaking, just need to defend and knock down shots. Wanamaker is at a solid 36.7 percent from 3 and fits that mold better than Waters, who is 3-of-17 from deep in his brief career.

Regardless of who would start in Kemba’s absence, one of these two would see an uptick in responsibility and playing time. That comes into play particularly with the second unit, where a guy like Waters can come in and run the show through pick-and-rolls. If Stevens’ goal is to keep the top five guys on the floor as much as possible, running a spread ball screen system for twelve minutes a night isn’t untenable.

Los Angeles Clippers Vs. Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Carry on my Hayward son

Three Celtics this season are averaging more than four assists per game: Walker, Smart, and Gordon Hayward. The idea of Point Hayward is not that outlandish, and might be the case even if Smart starts.

Hayward is a talented passer and creator, and actually has a higher ball screen usage than Smart. Out of ball screens where Hayward is the handler, teammates are shooting 49.6 percent, and Gordon creates 3.93 points per game for other Celtics when coming off ball screens. It’s an under-valued piece of his game.

He combines the ability to find open perimeter shooters with a desire to throw pocket passes to his screeners when defenses extend on him, allowing the Celtics to capitalize on the pressure he commands and trusts his teammate to hit the open man:

Boston’s offense is incredibly diverse, meaning its success doesn’t hinge on one player being active and on the floor. The term “point guard” isn’t very meaningful in a system designed to leverage each individual’s best talents. What would change is which set plays are called and who eats up the usual minutes and opportunities generated by Kemba.

With Jaylen, Jayson, and Gordon in town, they’ll devour the lion’s share of that responsibility. Most importantly, other guys will also get the opportunity to shine leading up to the postseason in hopes of carving out a meaningful spot in the rotation. So long as the Celtics keep winning and Kemba gets healthy for the playoff push, there’s no loser in any scenario.