Cast your mind back to the 2019 NBA Playoffs. We’re expecting another dominant Golden State Warriors run. The Toronto Raptors look loaded. LeBron is wearing purple and gold. A young, gritty LA Clippers team faces the unenviable task of facing Steph Curry & Co. in the first round out West.
Despite the Clippers failing to inflict much damage against their historically good foes, we’re captivated. There’s a fixation on a bench duo that’s incredibly fun to watch—a pairing who inject pace and energy every time they check into the fray. The Montrezl Harrell / Lou Williams pick-and-roll becomes the talk of NBA circles, and analysis of how to counter the duo’s productivity soon follows.
You see, life is full of pairings that just make sense: Peanut butter and jelly, coffee and cream, macaroni and cheese - each item is fine on its own, but add the complementary piece, and now you’re really onto something special. Basketball isn’t an exception to this rule; you’ve had Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaq, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett - we could list duo’s throughout the ages until we’re blue in the face.
What made the Clippers different was that their duo operated in bench roles rather than starring as a focal point of their team’s attack. There are levels to something’s effectiveness depending on the brand (or, in this case, talent level). For example, we know peanut butter and jelly is good, but does it taste the same with store brands compared to the good stuff? Perhaps it does, but given a choice, you go good stuff every time. A star pairing will always beat a bench / store brand one - which is why the Steph Curry / Klay Thompson duo eventually won that series.
Now ask yourself this: what if a team could have two or three impactful pairings? Guys, who when they play a two-man game, bring the best out of each other? Would that team be on to something special?
The Boston Celtics are in a fortunate position, where they can put that question to the test. No, they likely never intended to construct a team capable of rolling out two or three pairings who flip a game at a moment’s notice, and they certainly haven’t figured out how to use it to their advantage yet, but encouraging signs are there.
I recently wrote about the Kemba Walker and Daniel Theis two-man game and how that duo impacts games with their intelligent pick-and-roll offense. And we all know that the star pairing on this team is Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Yet, the Celtics have stumbled onto their own version of Williams / Harrell, too. Only this version seems better, more modern if you will.
Payton Pritchard and Robert Williams are two young and hungry modern NBA players. One is a rim-running big with potential as a short-roll playmaker. The other is a warrior point guard comfortable doing battle toe-to-toe or peppering you from a distance. Put one of these players into the game, and you’re going to get good production. Put both of these guys in together, and now you’re onto something special.
Let’s take a look at some numbers. Cleaning The Glass has tracked Pritchard and Williams sharing the floor for 301 possessions when Pritchard plays at the two - because that’s where the rookie has spent the lion’s share of his playing time. During those possessions, the Celtics are outscoring opponents by six points, with the team averaging 130.9 points (100th percentile) per 100 possessions.
Downside? The team stinks on defense, not like an awful passing smell, but one of putrid toxic waste. Over the same 301 possessions, Boston ranks dead last in points allowed (124.9), in the second percentile of offensive rebounds allowed (teams grab 31.3% of their misses), and the fourth percentile for opponents’ effective field goal percentage (58.1%).
What’s funny is that the Clippers were also incredibly lousy defensively when their bench duo shared the floor.
A high offensive upside with huge defensive drawbacks...that sounds like a raw pairing of prospects, right? It makes sense then, that when this young duo is sharing the court, Brad Stevens opts for either Semi Ojeleye or Grant Williams at the four to inject some modicum of defensive IQ; unfortunately, it isn’t working.
So why is Stevens persisting with this bench duo if the results are so horrid defensively? Well, first of all, outscoring opponents by six points still equates to a win, so there’s that. Secondly, despite his love of jumping, Williams is showing clear signs of improvement on defense. The third-year big is learning when to contest and when to stay grounded, and his control of the glass has taken a big jump on both ends of the floor. By allowing Williams to play through his errors, you’re enriching him with trust and confidence, which in turn encourages growth.
With Pritchard sharing the floor, Williams has ample room to operate as a screener or roller while the rookie point guard is reaping the rewards of his counterpart’s vertical spacing. Second units have to make the hard choice: kill the lob threat or close-out on the ever-improving Pritchard. Either way, chances are you’re going to get punished, and it’s beautiful.
A key component in any duo’s effectiveness is their ability to tee each other up. Sure, thriving in the space generated by each other is fantastic, but you also need to create easy looks for each other. According to PBP Stats, Williams has received a total of 65 assists so far this season, with 15 of them coming from Pritchard - that’s 23.1% of Louisiana native’s assisted buckets.
The easy offense isn’t a one-way street with this pairing either, with Williams assisting Pritchard four times. In total, the pairing have combined for 40 points off assists from each other - encouraging considering neither is a focal point of the offense due to Stevens staggering Brown or Tatum with that second unit.
There has been a young partnership forming off the bench despite all the scuttlebutt about the Celtics lacking proper bench depth and being too young to compete. A partnership that draws semblance to one that captivated the hearts of neutral fans everywhere not too long ago, the encouraging part is that this pairing has copious amounts of room to improve in the coming years.
It might never be a star pairing, and others might always view them as the store brand option, but for two late first-round draft picks, that’s more than what we bargained for happening.