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Reminiscing constructively: what happened to that Brad Stevens offense?

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Boston’s offense looked a lot smoother when their expectations were lower with a bunch of role players. What changed in the past three years that made them look so sluggish?

Boston Celtics v Cleveland Cavaliers - Game Three Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

I spent last Friday night doing what any normal person would do: watching Jonas Jerebko highlights. Not even because I was planning on writing about it—oh, no— I’m just a guy who watches highlight videos of role players to kick off the weekend.

Jerebko starting in a playoff game and scoring the first basket on a putback slam is easily in my top-5 favorite Celtics moments of the past decade.

What’s more important is that nearly every single possession in the video involves at least one player touching the ball in the paint (or at least within one step of it). Is that normal, or was this game an outlier? Here’s another:

Again, nearly all but one scoring opportunity generated in part by getting into the teeth of the defense. On today’s NBC Boston broadcasts, we often hear Brian Scalabrine preach for more side-to-side ball movement. And while I agree with him, how about just one solid pass out of the paint? The issue I have with some of Boston’s early shots from the perimeter has nothing to do with the efficiency of the shot or the sheer volume of threes taken, but the fact that it doesn’t force the opposing defense to react to anything.

With more penetration and ball movement, an offense tests a defense. Are they switching everything on the perimeter? Do they communicate on pick and rolls? Think about how many things have to go wrong for the offense to struggle in a season so devoid of defense. It’s hard to figure out what does and doesn’t work if you don’t try anything. To wit, here’s another Jerebko highlight reel from 2015.

Almost every play is the same. Drive the ball to the basket or kick it out. And it’s not just the star players like IT. Sometimes, Jerebko is attacking the paint on a drive or crashing the boards. Sometimes, Jerebko is on the receiving end of a kick out.

Maybe the answer isn’t in the sheer amount of passes, but the effectiveness of each one. A brief glance at the passing leaders of the past three seasons would show there isn’t a strong connection between passing and winning. Here are the top passing teams from 2018-19:

And from 2019-20:

And 2020-21:

Three radically different iterations of the Philadephia 76ers are in the top ten of each season. The ever-changing Celtics that went to two of the past three Conference Finals are absent. What does it all mean?

Well, the style of offense with Isaiah Thomas and Al Horford suited the roster perfectly. In the video above, Jerebko often did something people tend to groan about when a team is struggling: stand in the corner and wait for the pass. With a lot of motion in the offense, there’s no time to focus on the guy in the corner. In Boston’s current standstill style of play, anyone assigned to a corner looks like they’re rotting away because they almost never touch the ball.

NBA.com has the Celtics fifth in isolation possessions per game at 9.2. They’re 23rd in points per possession with 0.83. Last season only had 7.7 isolations per game, but their 0.96 points per possession was fifth overall.

Playing an isolation heavy offense can be very effective, as we know from last season when the Celtics finished 4th in offensive efficiency. Being forced to trade Gordon Hayward wasn’t necessarily a death blow to the offense, but it certainly required them to adapt to his absence.

For context, Hayward’s 1.15 points per possession on isolation plays last year ranked him 15th in the league. This is already pretty good, and it gets even better when you see how misleading it is. Nobody who ranked higher than him was a prominently featured player within their team’s offense. The list also includes several players who missed a significant portion of the season.

Hayward missed a lot of games as well, but we got to see him play quite a few games at full strength. For the first time, we saw the full benefits of signing him.

It’s also worth noting that judging production solely by efficiency can be incredibly misleading as well. Isolation plays made up a relatively slim share of Hayward’s total shot attempts. Meanwhile, they made up 45% of James Harden’s offense, in which he scored 1.12 points per possession. Harden is immensely better than Hayward in this regard, but the drop off from Harden to the next few players with a similar volume of attempts is massive in both frequency and efficiency.

Hayward was not the master of isolations, but he was pretty uniquely skilled in being able to generate a shot for himself when necessary. That skill was never replaced.

To fully revert to the Al Horford offense, the Celtics would need Al Horford. This might be possible with the TPE, but I won’t get my hopes up. Still, they should be able to add a little more drive-and-kick to their offense. Both Jaylen and Jayson have immensely improved their playmaking, but the stagnant offense doesn’t always highlight their expanded game. Their teammates have the “wait in the corner and shoot a three if I get the ball move” down pat, but how about some cuts towards the basket?

It’s much easier said that done, but Semi Ojeleye in particular is someone we’ve seen finish plays through contact around the rim this season. Javonte Green and Aaron Nesmith have the speed, but defenders sag off them so much that they won’t be able to sneak behind anyone unless their three-point shot consistently becomes a real threat. If the Jays are primarily going to create shots in isolation, then Kemba working off whichever bigs are on the floor might be the best bet to inject some new life into the offense. Payton Pritchard would’ve been a great fit in the Horford system, and we’ve already seen him using screens and savvy maneuvers to create opportunities for Rob Williams at the rim.

There are no mysteries behind Boston’s struggles. They’re young, injured, recovering from COVID, and having trouble optimizing the current roster. Those first three points would explain the .500 record, while the last point is more of a concern for the future. The Eastern Conference is a dumpster fire. Only four teams have records above .500. The Toronto Raptors (17-17) and Miami Heat (1-17) have had similar issues with injuries and pandemics as the Celtics and their records reflect that. When their short term problems subsided, they started winning. Boston is the healthiest they’ve been in a while, and they’ll be able to use Kemba more with less back-to-backs in their immediate future. The offense won’t fix itself overnight, but this could be the time for things to finally trend in the right direction again.