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Avoid blaming Stevens for offensive struggles

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While Boston is only 13-13, the blame for their struggles doesn’t belong to the Celtics head coach.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Utah Jazz Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Put your pitchforks back in the shed, folks. Brad Stevens isn’t deserving of this witch hunt for Boston’s 13-13 start.

Something is off right now with the Celtics offense. There’s a stunning lack of assists and games where this team fails to create for one another consistently. They’re 28th in assists per game, and the lack of ball movement has been a key theme from players and critics alike.

Assigning responsibility for the lack of ball movement is much more difficult than noting its absence. As a coach, Stevens knows the buck stops with him, that he’ll wear the Teflon jacket and take the bullets for the team’s play, but that doesn’t mean he’s the right guy to go after.

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are enjoying career seasons, stepping into new roles as the clear alphas and the duo that does the lion’s share of heavy lifting. Part of their success comes from Stevens accurately understanding their spots on the floor, where they are best and how they score.

Beyond those two, a roster of youngsters, defensive-minded role players and a revolving door of bigs don’t offer another reliable option. Kemba Walker could be, but his balky knee is an important subplot; he missed a lot of the season already, doesn’t play back-to-backs and has been struggling of late.

Push aside the rotational challenges that Stevens faces and you’ll find this team’s issue is as much with execution as it is with conceptual design. One area I always try to examine is where the team’s shots are coming from, and the playbook does a solid job of generating looks for this team at the rim.

Now they need to convert. The Celtics are 23rd in finishing at the rim, making only 53.4% of their layups, according to Synergy Sports Tech. The current league average is 59%. On Boston’s volume of 23.9 attempts per game at the cylinder, shooting only average at the tin are worth an additional two makes a game. Those 4 points would bring the Celtics from 20th in points per game to 7th, and leap their offensive rating to a top-ten mark. That’s it. Two layups a game.

Boston Celtics v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Many Celtics have struggled mightily at the basket. Kemba, in particular, has not been able to get into a groove on his layup attempts. He’s 13-for-36 (36.1%) at the cylinder, and 0-for-6 on runners, in the half-court. According to his Basketball Reference page, Walker has been above 46% at the rim each of the last five seasons. It’s a massive drop off from where he’s capable.

Kemba isn’t the only one. Marcus Smart, despite solid assist numbers and a consistent jumper, is dead last in the NBA in layup percentage among players with at least 25 attempts. His number of 8-of-29 (27.6%) is only slightly worse than backup Jeff Teague (7-for-21). Boston’s other free agent signee, Tristan Thompson, is at 44.3% at the rim on 88 attempts. That’s less than ideal for a big man. For his career in Cleveland, Thompson shot 62.7% in the same area.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as guys not making shots they’re capable. But a common point of contention seems to revolve back to Stevens’ usage of his role players within the offense. The idea is that, with more motion to the offense and sets that create ball and player movement, Stevens would positively impact those numbers in ways he isn’t doing currently.

Economists often talk about the “law of unintended consequences.” It’s the theory that when a large change is made, there will be unanticipated ramifications that might have been avoided if the initial change was never made. In basketball terms, tinkering with an offense to create more ball movement likely has a few unintended consequences of its own.

Take the role players on this team for example. Daniel Theis (41.8%), Grant Williams (44%) and Semi Ojeleye (38.9%) are all enjoying career years shooting the basketball. On a team struggling to finish at the basket, their offensive production has been vital to keeping this team in games. All three are best in the corners and off spot-up catch-and-shoots, and the numbers back that up:

  • Semi Ojeleye: 50% of his 3FGA in corner. 41.7% in the corners. 22-59 (37.3%) on spot-ups
  • Daniel Theis: 23.5% of his 3FGA in corners. 46.2% in the corners. 17-40 (42.5%) on spot-ups
  • Grant Williams: 38% of his 3FGA in corners. 63.2% in the corners. 16-33 (48.5%) on spot-ups

These three are having career years and maximizing their offensive impact by having simple roles when on the floor: stand in the corners, be ready to catch-and-shoot, and make the most of those opportunities. The moment those guys are moved out of those areas and asked to handle some of the facilitating duties, or be getting touches elsewhere, the less frequently they’ll be in their most comfortable spot.

Where else is Stevens supposed to turn for facilitation? Teague was a DNP on Sunday against the Wizards amidst his rocky campaign. Payton Pritchard might have a little more upside, but the game should be kept simple for rookies. Carsen Edwards has good days and bad days. Aaron Nesmith isn’t ready. Javonte Green rarely looks at the rim. There’s not much else in the way of perimeter offense.

Ultimately, Patience is what the doctor ordered. We all knew that injuries and COVID concerns would make this a difficult season to navigate. A really young roster, two stars blossoming into their first time as lone alphas and unforeseen struggles at the rim from some established veterans are all contributing to the .500 start. Soon, Smart will rejoin this team and we’ll get to see if having all four stallions helps this team win the race.

Is there more Stevens can do to juice up the offense and create some ball movement with his playcalling? Yes. Is his lack of doing so a definitive cause for the team’s underachieving start? I’d heavily lean no.

Sometimes, the simplest explanation is the right one. Boston has four clear best players: Tatum, Brown, Walker and Smart. Those four have shared the floor for 28 minutes all season, only in two games. Let’s not crucify a coach for piecing together a .500 effort from a short-handed team.