There’s never been a doubt that Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart were the head honchos in Boston’s guard rotation, but simmering under the surface, a fierce battle for the “first guard off the bench” spot has continued to heat up.
Walker’s absence over the first thirteen games has inevitably afforded additional minutes to other guards in the rotation and provided an early season tryout for both the veteran Jeff Teague and upstart rookie Payton Pritchard. Whereas Teague has struggled for consistency to begin the season, Pritchard has hit the ground running, captivating the hearts of fans everywhere in the process.
When he first signed in Boston, it’s doubtful that Teague expected to be jostling for playing time with a first-year guard who many deemed a reach with the 26th pick. The Indiana native’s acquisition as additional veteran talent, a player that can guide the bench unit while the stars catch a breather was supposed to fill a gaping void in the teams’ rotation. Yet, the emergence of Pritchard has thrown a spanner in the works.
In terms of opportunity, both guards are receiving equal consideration from the coaching staff. Both Teague and Pritchard are averaging twenty-ish minutes a game; both are averaging seven shot attempts per contest, and both are operating with a modest usage rate.
According to Cleaning The Glass, Teague is yet to see the floor without Pritchard sharing his air space. The team is a plus 11.9 in points differential throughout those possessions while shooting an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 60.
However, Pritchard has spent considerable amounts of floor time guiding the offense without Teague on the floor. The 6’2’ rookie has played 526 possessions; 293 of them have come as the lead guard. The Celtics are plus 13.7 in points differential with Pritchard at the helm.
Despite the notion that neither guard will set the world alight defensively, both perform admirably, making hustle plays and forcing the offense into bad decisions. Statistically, Teague has Pritchard marginally beat.
But how do you contextualize defensive impact? Is it steals? Defensive rating? Or effort levels? To fully understand a player’s defensive activity, you need to dig a little deeper than just defensive ratings. That’s where deflections come into the equation; tipped passes that kill offensive advantages are highly valuable, and with just a bit more luck, become steals. Add shot contests into the equation, and the picture starts to become more transparent.
Teague is stripping opponents 1.6 times per game while also garnering 2.2 deflections and contesting 2.5 shots. Compare this to Pritchard’s 1.2 steals per game, 1.8 deflections, and 2.9 shot contests, and it quickly becomes evident that Teague is out working his younger counterpart on the business end of the floor.
In terms of offensive differences, Teague favors crafty changes of pace to attack the lane, where he will finish with either his trusty scoop layup or a mid-range floater.
In contrast, Pritchard tends to drift off-ball, finding space beyond the perimeter to maintain shooting motion off the catch. His handle allows him to attack close-outs should they arise, while he’s also shown patience when operating as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll.
The differences don’t stop there either. As you can see from the below image, Teague likes to take his shots from the short-mid range area - which generally means a floater. Beyond early floaters, the veteran guard doesn’t tend to fire away from deep; He’s a penetrator who will attack mismatches and put defenses on their heels.
Now, look at Pritchard’s frequency below. It’s almost the total opposite, with the rookie preferring to get his work done either on the perimeter or around the rim. These images display shot frequency and not success rate, yet it’s a telling reminder of old school vs. new school. Which style is better suited with the starters? Who can power the second unit at the point?
Coach Brad Stevens has a difficult decision ahead of him. Does Stevens stick with the veteran guard he’s openly coveted since entering the league or is Pritchard’s long-term development more critical?
We got a brief glimpse against New York, where Teague was the first guard off the bench, but the rookie logged the most minutes throughout the game. Perhaps Stevens will adopt this approach through the rest of the season, with Pritchard operating as a two and shadowing Marcus Smart.
Unfortunately for Pritchard, regular season performances become quickly forgotten once the playoffs roll around. You live and die by your achievements in the more physical, mentally challenging, emotionally grueling post-season. No amount of college basketball can prepare you for that first taste of a deep playoff run.
It is here, in the playoffs, when a guard of Teague’s experience and caliber pays dividends. So, while Pritchard may win the battle for the regular season playing time, Teague could win the war and earn minutes when they matter most. Or maybe Pritchard does enough over 72 games to prove his value heading into the postseason. Only time will tell and for now, it’s nice knowing that the Celtics have two solid options off the bench.