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Should the Celtics rely more on Schroder and Smart as playmakers?

The pair of Celtics point guards lead the team in assists.

Boston Celtics v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

After years of fielding an All-Star point guard, the Celtics have started the 2021-22 without one. That’s put the onus on Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to be better playmakers and so far, they’ve delivered mixed results to mixed reviews. It was an emphasis in the offseason, a focus in training camp, and a point of contention this week. To help ease that burden, they could lean on their tandem of PG’s, Marcus Smart and Dennis Schroder.

At Media Day, Smart embraced the idea of more offensive responsibility as the starting point guard, but after a disappointing loss to the Bulls on Monday night, he sounded frustrated with the offense and his role in it.

“When I get in the lane, I’m making it easier on those guys, making it easier for everybody even though my shot’s not on,” Smart said of playing with Brown and Tatum. “The threat that I put on teams coming off the screen roll or getting to the basket or even me in the post. Teams aren’t doubling me in the post and if they do, everybody knows I’m a great passer. I’m gonna find guys. So really, just taking some ease off Jayson and Jaylen early on in the game and even late in the game sometimes so they’re not exhausting themselves on the offense end and then getting picked on on the defensive end.”

The team has seemingly addressed those comments at a team dinner Tuesday night. However, could the Celtics lean on Smart and Schroder more as playmakers?

Schroder currently leads the team in assists at 6.0 per game with Smart second at 4.0. That’s not necessarily an argument for Schroder to replace Smart as a starter or even join him in the back court (if head coach Ime Udoka opts to not play his double big lineup with Al Horford and Robert Williams). But if a goal is to get the Jays easier shots, Udoka could start with giving his point guards more primary ballhandling duties.

So far, Schroder and Smart have been passing the ball at nearly equal rates with varying success:

Celtics Assists

Player Minutes Potential Assists Assists
Player Minutes Potential Assists Assists
Dennis Schroder 31.7 11.4 6.4
Marcus Smart 36.4 9.5 4
Jayson Tatum 38.7 8 3.7
Al Horford 30.8 6.2 3
Jaylen Brown 38.8 5.2 2.5
NBA Stats prior to November 3rd, 2021

Despite playing more minutes, Smart isn’t generating as many looks for his teammates as Schroder and the difference is even more stark when we’re talking about the direct relationship between Smart/Schroder and Brown/Tatum and how each guard’s play affects the shots they’re creating for the wings.

Smart/Schroder to Tatum/Brown

Passes from: Tatum FG% Brown FG% Tatum 2FGA Tatum 2FGM Tatum 2FG% Tatum 3FGA Tatum 3FGM Tatum 3FG% Brown 2FGA Brown 2FGM Brown 2FG% Brown 3FGA Brown 3FGM Brown 3FG%
Passes from: Tatum FG% Brown FG% Tatum 2FGA Tatum 2FGM Tatum 2FG% Tatum 3FGA Tatum 3FGM Tatum 3FG% Brown 2FGA Brown 2FGM Brown 2FG% Brown 3FGA Brown 3FGM Brown 3FG%
Marcus Smart 31.4 32 3.2 1.3 42.1 2.7 0.5 18.8 4.2 1.3 32 1.8 0.8 45.5
Dennis Schroder 45.2 45.5 4.4 2 45.2 1.6 0.7 45.5 3.9 1.7 44.4 0.9 0.4 50
NBA Stats prior to November 3rd, 2021

There’s nearly a 15% drop in Brown and Tatum’s shooting percentages when they’re receiving passes from Schroder vs. Smart. Some of this is small sample size and dozens of other circumstances at play, but some of this could come from Schroder and Smart’s differing styles of play. Smart is a bull in a china shop, probing with his linebacker frame and bullying defenses with his body. The slighter Schroder instead uses his speed and quickness to penetrate and get to the rim.

That all speaks to differing mindsets, too. In his comments from Monday, Smart was very adamant that he could be part of the solution in generating easier looks for his teammates. He’s not exactly a pass-first point guard, but Smart isn’t necessarily looking to score either. He’s a game manager of a quarterback going through all his progressions and check downs and never really looking to run the ball and score himself.

Smart has taken just 16 shots inside of ten feet. In less time, Schroder is at 31. Where a player wants the ball just doesn’t have an affect on the player himself, but how his gravity manipulates the defense and creates space for his teammates.

Schroder, on the other hand, isn’t satisfied just attacking the paint. He wants to get to the rim. Even in his relatively limited minutes, Schroder is second on the team in drives (13.7 a game), just a tick below Tatum (14.0). Smart’s at 6.7. That’s the speedster’s game. So many of his assists come when he’s putting pressure inside the restricted area. That means shrinking the defense even more (than Smart) and creating space for Brown and Tatum to operate.

To wit, Schroder is the more accomplished pick-and-roll ball handler, averaging 0.75 points per possession to Smart’s 0.44. Neither of them are Isaiah Thomas or Kyrie Irving or Kemba Walker in the PnR, but again, the numbers do speak to the glaring difference in style.

Big picture, as Coach Spins pointed out, the Celtics are rooting in a system that just hasn’t born fruit yet. Boston has the 4th highest differential between potential assists (50.3, 6th in the NBA) and actual assists (24.1, 16th), meaning they’re one of the better ball moving teams in the league, but they’re just not knocking down shots yet. Ceding more playmaking control from Brown and Tatum to Smart and Schroder could improve those numbers by effectively flipping responsibilities, making the point guards the play generators and the wings the play finishers. For what it’s worth, in Wednesday’s win over the Magic, Smart, Schroder, Brown, and Tatum notched 4, 3, 3, and 3 assists respectively with Horford leading the team with seven. That balance may be more the blueprint of what Udoka wants anyway — an equal opportunity offense where everybody creates for everybody.

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