With all 22 teams set to enter the Orlando bubble by the end of the week, preparations for the NBA’s restart are now well and truly underway, and early news out of the Celtics camp is that Jayson Tatum still can’t miss. But if the Celtics are to really make a run in Orlando, they will need a lot more than just the heroics of their first time All-Star.
Brad Stevens called the bubble a “new season in a lot of ways” and, after what will be over four months off, there is bound to be some rustiness to shake off – which makes having multiple options all the more important, in case one or two have an off night. And while this year’s Celtics might not have the traditional kind of depth in terms of being able to go 9 or 10 deep on any given night, what they do have is an abundance of offensive talent between their top 4 scorers in Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Gordon Hayward.
With Tatum’s emergence as a star this season, he’s taken his spot atop the pecking order, but the Celtics real strength comes in the depth of their 2nd to 4th options. The combined 58.9 points per game that the Celtics receive from the trio is the second most of any team’s 2nd to 4th options since 1995, only trailing last year’s version of the Golden State Warriors, who topped the leaderboard by getting nearly 64 points a night out of Steph, Klay, and Draymond behind Kevin Durant’s 26 points per game.
If we adjust for era/pace of play by calculating a percentage of the team’s points per game scored by the 2nd to 4th options, the Celtics still rank a remarkable 6th in the last 25 years. This is exactly the kind of multi-pronged offense that Brad Stevens was looking for at the beginning of the year.
Hayward, for his part, is the most overqualified 4th option in the league, averaging 17.3/6.5/4.1 while flirting with a 50/40/90 this season. And it hasn’t just been the scoring, he has been excellent with his playmaking as well, placing in the 88th percentile amongst other wings in that regard. Looking around the East at some of the other fourth options, it’s clear just how much of an advantage the Celtics have offensively with Hayward compared to the likes of Brook Lopez, Norman Powell, Kendrick Nunn, or Josh Richardson in the East.
What makes this group even more special is that they are all capable of hitting shots late in games, and Brad Stevens has used that to his advantage all season. Take Jayson Tatum’s game-winner against the Knicks from early in the year. The Celtics have Kemba Walker in the backcourt. In a set they have run a few times, Kemba often sprints into the front court with momentum and receives a pick to get going downhill. This time, though, he was just a decoy forTatum to get the ball on the right wing and nail the dagger over R.J. Barrett.
Stevens trusts these four (and Marcus Smart) to take important shots, and that versatility will keep defenses on their toes in the playoffs.
With Tatum and Walker likely to face the stingier defensive assignments in Orlando as they have all year, Hayward’s and Brown’s ability to both create for themselves and play off the ball will be vital once we get going in the bubble. It’s rare that teams are able to consistently roll out four quality perimeter defenders, and Hayward and Brown must take advantage of any mismatches.
Coach Spins put together a great video on how Brown has been able to attack the basket this season off the catch when playing in an off-ball role, and one of the biggest changes in his play has come from the improvement of his handle, and an increased ability to create his own shot.
Last season, per PBP stats, nearly 60% of his made two-point attempts were assisted, but this year, he has dropped that number all the way down below 50%, putting him in the 71st percentile for shot-creation amongst all wings.
He was simply not doing things like this last season. With both Tatum and Walker off the floor here, Brown is going up against one of the league’s best defenders in Ben Simmons, but he comfortably takes a pick from Marcus Smart and spins away from Simmons and Shake Milton before finishing over Al Horford. These are the kind of plays that Brown will need to make in Orlando if the Celtics are to have a chance.
The other big benefit of Brown and Hayward hitting shots is that teams will be reluctant to help off them, making life much easier for Tatum and Walker. Brown and Hayward have both shot above 40% on catch-and-shoot threes this year, keeping defenses honest and forcing them to guard them up at the three-point line – which in turn gives Tatum and Walker more space to work with.
Brad Stevens has done an excellent job of keeping everyone happy by spreading the shots around and drawing maximum performance from all his offensive options. If he can continue to get historic production out of Tatum, Walker, Brown, and Hayward, we might not see these Celtics return to Boston until October.