Daniel Theis knocked down five of his six three-point attempts on Wednesday night against the Utah Jazz. His performance raised his three-point percentage to a staggering 47% on the year, a massive jump from his 33% mark a year prior.
Theis’ contributions from downtown weren’t enough to lift Boston to a victory. The Celtics fell to the Jazz 122-108 in what amounted to a perfect microcosm for how to think about their German big man’s increased competence from behind the arc.
In theory, having bigs that can shoot the ball should breathe space into an offense. Theis’ improved accuracy from deep has done that, but Boston isn’t reaping the benefits of his shooting to their fullest potential for a pair of reasons that were evident in their loss in Utah. The first is that Theis spent much of the game playing beside a non-shooter.
Boston’s top-three most used lineups that include Theis this year also include fellow center Tristan Thompson, from whom opposing defenders can – and do – sag off to clog up driving and passing lanes that Theis’ shooting helps to open up.
Theis can still provide plenty of value with his shooting despite Thompson’s presence. In fact, it is one of the reasons the duo’s minutes have shifted from being massively negative to a net positive on the year. Prior to his uptick in long-range efficiency, defenses had two places from which to cheat in and make life hell for the Celtics’ primary perimeter options. There’s a huge difference in the room everyone has to operate when opponents have to honor Theis as a shooter, but as long as he’s tethered to Thompson, there will be limitations to the full benefits of his newfound effectiveness.
In their double center look, Boston is essentially asking Theis to spot up like a wing player. He lacks the ability to attack closeouts or move into secondary actions that a true perimeter player can offer, and as such limits his team’s ability to optimally pressure defenses. His shooting is still a plus, but it’s neutered by the context in which he’s operating.
Imagine the headaches the Celtics’ offense could create going five out. Theis being a real +40% shooter would unlock all sorts of goodies for head coach Brad Stevens to experiment with. Simple cuts and screens can become serious weapons when everyone on the court is a threat to bury open threes. Boston could vary its use of Theis as a screener, encouraging him to both dive to the rim and pop to the three-point line.
Perhaps most intriguingly, the Celtics could test out all sorts of small-small pick-and-rolls, daring opponents to switch into less favorable matchups or scramble to chase around any pairing of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Kemba Walker, and Marcus Smart with shooters spotting up around them. Those options aren’t in play if Theis is on the court with a traditional big. Unfortunately, they’re also an impossibility given the current state of Boston’s roster.
The Celtics have been hit hard by injuries. They need to reach a tipping point of big guards and wings, with sufficient playmaking chops, to fully leverage Theis’ shooting and simultaneously build a coherent defense. With Marcus Smart sidelined with a calf strain, Boston doesn’t quite have the pieces. Kemba Walker’s underwhelming return from injury to-date isn’t helping either.
The Celtics’ jitterbug point guard was an abysmal 2-for-12 from the field against the Jazz, dropping his shooting percentages to frighteningly low levels for the year (34.2% from the field and 30.6% from deep). Walker deserves some patience. He’s only ten games into his season, and has had limited opportunities to practice at game speed. His ability to right the ship will be fundamental to Boston’s success – or lack thereof – this year, to a degree that far exceeds the scope of whether or not the Celtics are taking full advantage of Theis’ improved shooting, but viewing things through such a prism is illustrative of a broader point.
Theis is a role player. He’s made improvements to his game that could provide substantial benefit to Boston. None of it will matter unless all of the Celtics’ best players are healthy and playing well. There is reason for optimism if Boston can get to that point.