The Boston Celtics have no means for consistently generating efficient halfcourt offense.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have flashed the potential to function as primary offensive creators, but neither currently has the chops as an isolation player or pick-and-roll ballhandler to consistently crack a defense and generate a good look for themselves or their teammates.
Boston’s offense has suffered accordingly, particularly in fourth quarters, when games tend to slow down and defenses lock in. The Celtics have an offensive rating of just 104.2 in the final quarter of games, ranking them 24th in league, per NBA.com. That’s a full four points per 100 possessions worse than their overall rate, which ranks a similarly uninspiring 21st overall, also per NBA.com.
Too many possessions – both in the fourth and throughout the game – stall out with limited movement, disjointed actions, slow decision-making, and overdribbling. Boston loves to set screens to try to create mismatches to attack one-on-one rather than actually using ball screens as a primary tool for applying pressure on opposing defenses.
The Celtics struggle mightily to flow between actions if their initial plan is thwarted. Tatum and Brown are frequent culprits, but the rest of the roster is similarly prone to bogging things down, particularly Dennis Schröder.
And when thing do run crisply, Boston’s roster lacks the shooting to really punish opponents.
The Celtics need to be better if they want to compete in a meaningful way. The solution to becoming a more effective offensive team likely isn’t on the team’s current roster. Boston has no one that can run a pick-and-roll as a threat to do all three of shoot from beyond the arc, attack the basket, or draw attention and kick to open teammates at an above-average level. The same is true out of isolation.
There are players capable of some of those things, but to be an engine of an elite offense requires consistently putting pressure on a team in a way the Celtics simply aren’t capable of as currently constructed.
It’s hard not to dream of what Boston might look like if Kyle Lowry, Chris Paul, or Mike Conley were simply added to the roster free of charge. A capable pick-and-roll ballhandler that doubles as a knockdown spot up threat would do absolute wonders for the Celtics. Those players are hard to come by and certainly couldn’t be acquired without surrendering one of Boston’s stars.
Things have been ugly enough that considering a major shakeup isn’t crazy, but rushing to move a young star on the rise is a dangerous proposition. Let’s take a look at all the possible options for how to address the Celtics’ need for an offensive hub.
The Patient Approach
“We don’t know yet” is an acceptable answer to the question of whether or not Tatum or Brown need additional support to build a top-tier offense. Tatum hasn’t even really entered his prime as a player yet, and he’s produced at truly impressive levels throughout his career to-date. His efficiency numbers as an isolation scorer don’t match the beauty of some of his highlights though.
It’s incredibly difficult to be the focal point of an offense without being a plus facilitator, which Tatum doesn’t qualify as currently. You basically have to be a Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard level scorer (it should be noted that both of those players have also figured out how to leverage their scoring to set up others). Tatum has skills that tease that kind of potential, but right now he’s nowhere near that level of player.
For context, Durant averages 1.25 points per shot attempt and assists 27.0 percent of his teammates’ baskets when he’s on the court, per Cleaning the Glass. Tatum is at 1.07 and 18.1 percent respectively. When he last played, Leonard posted 1.25 points per shot attempt and a 23.9% assist percentage.
The argument for those preaching patience is that both Durant and Leonard are at the top of their games, after years of building a broad set of offensive skills. Tatum could still grow into the kind of world beating wing that can lead an offense, but what if he tops out as Paul George instead? That’s an extremely valuable player, but it’s not one who can be the primary offensive player on a championship team.
There is also the less talked about possibility that it is Brown who will emerge as the Celtics’ number one option. He’s got more athletic pop to help him crack into the paint, get to the rim, and draw fouls, but Brown is miles behind Tatum as a playmaker, and is further along in his developmental trajectory.
The majority of those willing to wait for Boston’s two stars to develop fully are putting their eggs into Tatum’s basket as the player who will carry the most significant offensive load. It will be years before we know if he can become the player this iteration of the Celtics need. If you’re willing to wait to find out, then tempering expectations for the current year would be wise.
Taking a Big Swing
Some have made their determination and think more offensive competence is needed for both the present day and the future. The challenge becomes just how to acquire it. The ideal outcome would be to move parts that aren’t Brown or Tatum for a high-end point guard. It seems unlikely that Boston could swing that, and even less likely that there is player available who can fit the bill of what they need.
Damian Lillard, Bradley Beal, and Ben Simmons are the stars most frequently discussed as potential trade targets. Lillard and Beal have both indicated they’d like to stay where they are and come with monumental contracts. Simmons is an incredibly intriguing option for those that believe the Tatum/Brown duo can be an effective combo driving halfcourt offense in the long run. He’s much less appealing for those who are not convinced of that fact.
The Celtics likely can’t win a bidding war for any of them without surrendering Brown. That may ultimately be what this team needs, but Boston needs to tread incredibly lightly in considering moving on from such a young, talented wing on such a great deal. Brown is making just $26.8M this year. For comparison, Lillard is earning $39.3M and Beal $33.7M. They’re also both closer to the end of their primes than the start.
If the Celtics move on from Brown they should be targeting someone of equal talent level, roughly in Tatum’s age range, and who provides the exact skillset they need to pair with him long-term. Threading that needle is no small task, and may just be impossible. At the moment there is no Kevin Garnett waiting to be traded for Al Jefferson and whole bunch of spare parts.
Take a Smaller Swing
Boston can try to add the offensive abilities it needs at a lower price. There are players a cut below star-level that can provide the kind of pick-and-roll competence and shooting that the Celtics are missing. Jalen Brunson, Fred VanVleet, and Malcom Brogdon (a year from now when he is trade eligible) stick out as primary examples, though each would still cost a pretty penny, and it’s not clear that making such a move would provide the boost Boston’s offense appears to need.
Would it be worth acquiring such a player If it cost something like Marcus Smart and multiple first round picks for example?
Defense Wins Championships
Perhaps the pursuit of an efficient offense is all for naught. The Celtics have looked like they could be the most dominant defensive team in basketball at times this year. Boston could simply lean into that identity by grinding opponents into dust and relying on slightly below average offense being enough to get them by. Winning ugly isn’t easy though. Being a defensive juggernaut night over night is exhausting and requires a level of buy-in that the Celtics just haven’t displayed to-date.
There may be some hope for the future. It’s hard to build good collective habits in the middle of a pandemic with a roster constantly in flux. But even if Boston suffocates its opponents upon returning to full strength, history suggests that most champions need at least a top-10 level offense. The Celtics aren’t going to reach that level of competence as currently constructed.
So what is the answer to our original question here? As with most things it depends on perspective. If you think Tatum and Brown are roughly fully-formed versions of their basketball selves, then yes Boston needs to add an offensive hub.
If you think there is room for the Celtics’ stars to grow and aren’t as concerned about winning right now, then they might not need one. In fact, it may behoove Boston to take its lumps as Tatum and Brown learn how to lead an offense efficiently.
If you think the Celtics’ offense is good enough to contend as is, then you may be delusional.