Somewhere in Boston, there was a contract sitting inside a lawyer’s office, the ink still drying on the dotted line where Ime Udoka had recently scribbled his John Hancock. Elsewhere in the city, media had gathered both physically and virtually to welcome the 18th head coach in Boston Celtics history. Midway through the introductory press conference, Udoka produce a playful quip in Brad Stevens’ direction, an anecdotal prodding of Stevens’ inability to garner fluidity from his team throughout the season.
“Sorry Brad, but 27th in assists last year...We want to have more team basketball. But you have Jayson and Jaylen and you need to play to your strengths. And we’re going to get after defensively from the start,” Udoka said.
A brave move from a first time head coach on his first day, taking a playful jab at his predecessor who’s now his boss. Yet, despite the jovial nature of Udoka’s joke, that quote may become the measuring stick of the Celtics improvement next season. By now, we’re all well versed in the iso-centric offense Stevens ran in his final season as head coach, where role players found an open spot on the floor and glued themselves to it while watching the likes of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown get to work. And we’re all too familiar with the high pick-and-roll that continually got reset until the defense cracked or the shot clock ran out.
We’ve all been calling for change, for an offense that’s as fluid as it is potent. A form of attack where players embrace being off-ball and affect an opponent’s defensive structure through movement and screening plays.
Udoka is aware of his team’s offensive flaws. Heck, there’s hours upon hours of footage where far too much workload was placed upon the team’s young All-Stars. What’s encouraging though, is how subtle tweaks to the offense could galvanize this current roster, and in watching the Phoenix Suns against the Milwaukee Bucks, it would seem there’s already a blueprint in which Udoka can base his team upon.
Throughout their run to The Finals, the Suns have displayed an unselfish level of ball movement, further accentuated by their relentless movement off ball. Both the Suns and Celtics are lead by two stars who dominate the offensive hierarchy, yet Monty Williams has his teams role players working for their spots and causing defensive rotations as a result.
The ball doesn’t stick in any one player’s hands for too long. Instead, they’re actively playing hot potato as they zip pass after pass before relocating to open space. Take the above play as a prime example. Rather than rely on a back screen or pick-and-roll to reset the offense, the Suns continue to move the rock, players are cutting and drifting in and out of shooting pockets. Every player on the roster orchestrates with the confidence of Jack Harlow, knowing they have options (although none of them are John Stockton).
No doubt that Udoka is watching the NBA Finals with a keen intrigue into Phoenix’s game plan, knowing that for the Celtics to climb up the Eastern Conference, similar levels of ball and player movement will be required if he wishes to maximize the talents of his supporting cast.
All this isn’t to say that the Suns are immune to isolation play. Any team with the scoring abilities of Devin Booker and Chris Paul would be foolish not to lean on that scoring prowess from time to time. The difference is that Phoenix uses isolation plays as part of their offense, rather than basing their entire offensive philosophy on it like the Celtics did last year.
We’ve all seen similar plays to this one, where Tatum or Brown will attempt to beat their man off the dribble, and if it doesn’t work another screener comes over to reset the offense. Booker chose a different option, rather than taking a step back to survey the floor, he draws two defenders and hits Jae Crowder on the weak-side wing for the easy jumper. Reads like the one above look easy from a birds eye view, but on the floor it’s far harder to recognize open players when two giants are swarming you - which is why it’s so important to continue developing Tatum and Brown as playmakers.
The Suns put the ball in Devin Booker's hands over the last two years like how the Rockets do with James Harden. It was pretty messy at time, but it's all paying off now. https://t.co/AkIiVkCURe— Keith Smith (@KeithSmithNBA) August 6, 2020
From an eye test point of view, this seasons Suns and Celtics couldn’t be further apart from a fluidity standpoint. Yet, from a statistical perspective these two teams are almost exactly equal in the number of passes made per game. During the regular season, the Celtics averaged 284.7 passes per game, whilst the Suns sat directly below them with 284.1. In the playoffs, Phoenix are averaging 250.6 while the Celtics sat on 248.4.
And now we find ourselves stuck in the middle of the analytics vs. eye test argument, or do we?
According to NBA Stats, the average amount of possessions this season was 99.75 per team. Let’s slightly round that up to 100 possessions. Operating under the assumption that both Boston and Phoenix had the average possession rate, we can see that both teams were making approximately 3 passes on each offensive trip. Basketball is like life, in the fact that no two things are made equally, and passes are no different.
Zipping the ball around the perimeter with no end goal in mind will quickly rack up your pass per possession stat, but won’t correlate on the scoreboard. Alternatively, having multiple players carving open driving lanes or providing pass opportunities in the seams will ensure that a minimal amount of ball movement is consistently rewarded on the scoreboard.
Herein lies where the biggest change for Udoka’s Celtics will stem from. After ranking 29th in assists last season, it’s clear the team’s ability to carve open half-court defenses was an area of contention and requires immediate resuscitation. Udoka will undoubtedly have his own ideas and theories—let’s not forget that he’s a disciple of Gregg Popovich and those ball-moving Spurs teams of the 2010’s—on how improving the Celtics’ assist percentage should be achieved, but it would be a big shock if we don’t see some of the Suns plays or ideologies replicated in TD Garden next season.