When the Boston Celtics signed Dennis Schroder late in free agency this past summer, they got one of the best bargains of the offseason. The market, both in terms of available point guard spots and in terms of available cash, had really dried up. Boston had their Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception available and a marriage of convenience was consummated.
In a recent article on The Athletic, Shams Charania reported that the Celtics would be open to trade talks involving Schroder. This might seem odd, considering Schroder has started in 17 of the 26 games he’s played and ranks third on the team in minutes played. It gets even more confusing when you factor in that Schroder is third on the team in points per game and second in assists per game.
Yet, Schroder’s fit in Boston hasn’t been perfect.
To be fair, the plan was not for Schroder to start and play the most minutes per game of his career. That’s come because Jaylen Brown has been injured for half of the season. When Brown has been out, Schroder is the next man up, with Marcus Smart sliding over to the off-guard spot.
When Schroder starts, he’s been a far more effective player. Beyond his numbers taking the requisite uptick with more playing time, Schroder is more efficient, despite a similar usage. The on/off numbers show similar efficiency for the team. The Celtics offense is slightly better with Schroder on the court, while the defense only improves marginally when Schroder sits.
In a sense, Schroder has been exactly as advertised, but for a fraction of the salary he was expected to get.
If the value is that good, why would Boston consider trading him? There are a few reasons that we can dive into.
First, there’s the issue of fit. While all of Schroder’s numbers are good, and the team’s numbers are generally fine, there is one stat that stands out: Usage rate. Schroder carries the third-highest usage rate on the team, behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Maybe not unexpected, given his role as a scoring guard.
The challenge? Schroder’s usage rate is 8.7 percentage points less than Tatum’s is. That’s nearly equal the difference between Schroder and the next highest regular rotation player (Al Horford).
To put it in simpler terms: Schroder has the ball a lot. Like a lot, a lot. Every possession used by Schroder is one that isn’t used by Tatum or Brown (when the latter is healthy).
There’s also the eye-test portion of the analysis to factor in here. Schroder is a scorer. He’s not a playmaker who is going to set up his teammates with regularity. Again, not exactly a surprise here. He’s always been a score-first player, and that’s fine.
The challenge here? A lot of Boston’s possessions this season have featured Schroder dribbling the clock away while not much else happens. Schroder has taken 110 of his 371 shots (29.6%) on possessions where he dribbles seven or more times. The next most on the team to shoot as much after that many dribbles is Tatum. Tatum has taken 109 of his 587 shots (18.5%) after seven more dribbles.
Scoring without pounding the ball in the ground is a hallmark of talented scorers. Only the most heliocentric offenses led by superstars (think James Harden in Houston) can survive with one player dominating possessions with the bounce. This season, Schroder’s rate of shots after dribbling for most of a possession ranks up there with Trae Young, Luka Doncic and Damian Lillard.
The difference? Those teams have built their offenses around the unique talents of Young, Doncic and Lillard, who are all superstar players.
By now you probably get why the offensive fit is a little problematic. Ideally, Schroder would cook on second units while Brown and Tatum sit. Maybe that will still come to pass, but for now, that hasn’t happened.
The second reason Boston might trade Schroder is the reality of his contract and the relative inability to retain him beyond this season. Schroder’s $5.9 million deal is extremely tradable. Every team in the NBA can match salary on a deal that small without any issue. That takes one potential, and often overlooked, issue off the list.
The next factor contract-wise to consider that Schroder is likely in Boston for one year and one year only. The Celtics will only have Non-Bird rights on Schroder as a free agent. That means Boston is limited to offering him a contract starting at just over $7 million for 2022-23. Despite the wonky market from 2021, Schroder should command more than that as a free agent in 2022.
Yes, before you ask, the Celtics could work Schroder into a sign-and-trade this summer, but that would again limit him to a starting salary of just over $7 million. If a team wanted Schroder at that price, and he was amenable, they could almost assuredly sign him outright.
In general, the combination of a very tradable contract combined with a player who is unlikely to re-sign equals an attractive trade piece.
Last up is that Schroder’s presence on the roster is blocking a handful of younger Celtics from getting minutes they desperately need for development.
It’s fair to say that not all NBA development comes with in-game minutes. The vast majority comes in practices and individual workouts, both in-season and in the offseason. But there is a real benefit for young players to get NBA game reps.
The most obvious player impacted here is Payton Pritchard. After a year of being the Celtics primary backup point guard, Pritchard has seen his role drastically lessened. As of this writing, he’s down to just 9.5 minutes per game vs the 19.2 minutes he played as a rookie.
It’s fair to point out Pritchard hasn’t exactly shined in the minutes he has gotten, but there is a rhythm factor there to consider. Pritchard doesn’t know when he’s going to play. Most young players have spent their entire lives a primary or secondary option on every team they’ve played on. Transitioning to a backup role is hard enough. Barely playing at all? That’s exceedingly difficult.
Other impacted young players include Romeo Langford and Aaron Nesmith. When Schroder plays, Marcus Smart is going to spend a portion of each game playing off-ball and eating up wing minutes. When Jaylen Brown is available, that’s even fewer minutes available on the wing.
Langford has started to carve out a semi-consistent role, mostly due to his solid play when his number is called. Nesmith, like Pritchard, remains in a cycle of play-don’t play from night to night. As a shooter, that’s been very hard on Nesmith. As a rookie, he only took off once he started getting regular playing time.
This isn’t to say Pritchard, Langford or Nesmith should play over Schroder. They shouldn’t. At least not for as long as the Celtics are trying to win games.
However, if Schroder wasn’t on the roster, that roadblock to minutes is removed for the young trio.
When the Boston Celtics signed Dennis Schroder, the idea was that he’d be a major contributor for a team that could make at least an Eastern Conference Finals run. It’s too early to rule that out completely, given Jaylen Brown hasn’t played for half the season and Boston having the most road-heavy schedule in the NBA.
But if Brad Stevens is looking at things with a longer lens than this current season, it would make sense to gauge the market for Schroder for all the reasons listed above. The fit hasn’t been perfect, the contract is set up to be moved, and the kids would get to play more.
And given the issues surrounding the first and third point above, it’s not even a given the team would take a major step back. If Brown continues to miss half the games moving forward, the Celtics will struggle with or without Schroder. That’s not going to change. Brown is too good and too important to Boston for them to be good without him. Schroder lessens his absence some, but given the evidence, not by enough to really matter.
It all comes down to Stevens’ opinion on where the team is and where they are headed both short and long-term. Stevens may not be the coldblooded, ruthless trader Danny Ainge was, but he’s calculated and likely to make whatever move he sees as improving the Celtics both today and tomorrow. And that move might just include trading Dennis Schroder, great value contract or not.