The Celtics’ perceived lack of bench depth has been a haunting narrative throughout the season, one that envisioned two of the team’s premiere talents sitting early, only to re-enter the game with the bench unit.
Logically, this “two-on, two-off” scheme makes sense, as it provides the Celtics bench with much-needed facilitation and shot creation. Unfortunately, the Celtics have seldom been fortunate enough to utilize this scheme due to injuries to one star or another throughout the season, with the latest casualty being Gordon Hayward. As such, Brad Stevens has regularly pivoted to a bench lineup that also features Jayson Tatum.
The bench unit consists of multiple high-level defenders like Semi Ojeleye and Robert Williams, yet sorely lacks a real scorer, making Tatum the clear choice in the multi-faceted Hayward’s absence. In typical Stevens’ fashion, he’s tinkered with the bench lineups that surround the first time All-Star on an almost nightly basis.
Against Toronto on Sunday, the Celtics found brief success when utilizing a lineup that surrounded Tatum with Brad Wanamaker, Marcus Smart, Ojeleye, and Robert Williams. That lineup played 5.4 minutes together, scoring 13 points on 62.5% from the field and 40% from deep. A key point to note is that Stevens is regularly opting to place either Kemba Walker or Smart alongside Tatum with three other bench pieces to replace Hayward’s playmaking.
By placing a facilitator on the floor with Tatum as the de facto scorer, and bench pieces tasked with holding down the fort on defense, the Celtics instantly have a defined hierarchy.
Each of the above lineups show changes at the three and five positions, with varying results.
The consistency in this area comes from the fact that when Tatum runs with these lineups, he dominates the team’s usage, closely followed by either Walker or Smart.
When Tatum is on the floor with Marcus Smart and multiple bench options, he’s leading the rotation in scoring and shot attempts. But what about when Kemba Walker replaces Smart alongside Tatum and the bench players?
With Tatum and Walker sharing the floor, it’s apparent there’s more of a two-man scoring punch across the rotation. Tatum is still leading the way in points and attempts, but the scoring burden eases with Kemba in the fold. A noticeable difference is in the assists. With Smart on the floor, the rotation accrued ten assists since entering the playoffs. When Walker is in Smart’s place, those assists decrease by half.
Of course, there have been bench heavy lineups that don’t include either Walker or Smart, yet these have been fleeting. Some of these lineups have been useful, other disastrous.
Outside of Tatum operating with the bench, another interesting caveat to how Stevens has responded since Hayward’s latest injury is his reluctance to allow Jaylen Brown time with the second unit. Logic dictates that Tatum’s growth as a pick-and-roll ball-handler makes him a natural selection. Yet, Brown’s improved handle and driving ability could provide another dimension to the second unit’s blunted attack.
Stevens understands his rotations better than anybody, so there must be something he see’s when Brown operates with the bench that he feels disturbs the Celtics’ chances of successful possessions. Since the playoffs began, Brown has led the second-unit for 1.9 minutes over their first six games when being the only starter on the floor.
The final alteration to note is that when Tatum sits, Stevens has shown a willingness to pilot a three-guard lineup consisting of Walker, Smart, and Wanamaker.
That multi-guard lineup has been a net positive with an overall plus/minus of 8.5. Stevens is going small by placing three guards on the floor, putting his faith in having multiple ball-handlers and decision-makers running the offense. The Celtics are buoyed further by containing the defensive menace that is Marcus Smart, which lessens the risk of going so drastically small at the 1-through-3 positions.
As both Stevens and Tatum have alluded to in recent press conferences, replacing Hayward isn’t as easy as just readjusting the rotation minutes, as his presence provided the Celtics with a plethora of rotation options. Having the “double duo” lineups provides the Celtics with a balanced approach to each game, ensuring that scoring or defense falls off a cliff when two starters make their way to the bench.
Alas, Hayward’s absence has forced the Celtics into adjustments, leading to them stumbling upon the Tatum + bench lineup. While not ideal, the newfound rotation is beneficial in two very separate ways. First, it provides the bench with some much-needed scoring while allowing an elite level scorer to torment the opposition’s second unit. Second, placing Tatum in this position forces him to grow, both as a scorer and facilitator, which can only lead to further progression for the transcendent wing in the near future.
For now, Tatum leading the bench unit is a necessity born from circumstances, but no one envisioned it working out quite this well.