The Boston Celtics’ bench struggled with production throughout last season when not paired with Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown. Primarily comprised of youthful potential, the second unit couldn’t find an offensive flow and defensive identity. As you would expect with a young rotation, each night's performance was a coin flip.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Celtics were minus 8.8 points per 100 possessions when Tatum and Brown were out of the lineup. What’s worse is the “Jayless” Celtics only had a 48.9 effective field goal percentage, good for the bottom sixth percentile. So yes, the Celtics had a continuity problem if neither of their star wings was on the floor.
It makes sense then that President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens has moved to shore up the rotation with additional veterans who can handle the rock, provide some additional scoring, and offer a versatile defensive presence. One of the primary additions to the Celtics rotation this summer was veteran wing Josh Richardson, acquired from the Dallas Mavericks earlier this summer.
Richardson is an enigma. After an encouraging season with the Miami Heat, he took his talents to Philly and Dallas but has failed to replicate the level of play that made him such an attractive prospect earlier in his career. Hopefully, a new role on the Celtics can spark some life back into the talented wing.
As I recently discussed with CelticsBlog’s Daniel Lubofsky, Richardson’s best chance of success with the Celtics will come from the bench. The former second-round draft selection will provide the second unit with a veteran presence who can take hold of games against opponents' bench units. Possible playing alongside Dennis Schröder or Marcus Smart, Richardson can operate in a secondary playmaking role. He uses his quick first step to attack close-outs to find reliable shooters spotting up on the wing or cutting in the lanes.
As usual, when the Celtics acquire a new piece to their ever-growing puzzle, the film of Richardson’s previous seasons can shed some light on what we can expect from the combo guard/wing. By providing Richardson with a limited role and asking him to excel within the confines of said role, the Celtics could have a high-level role player residing slightly under the surface.
Let’s look at the three areas Richardson could excel at if he occupied a bench role and operated as a secondary or tertiary option.
Additional floor spacing
Since leaving the Miami Heat, Richardson has regularly found himself operating in catch-and-shoot scenarios. Richardson is a bang-average three-point shooter, hitting 35.8% of his long-range attempts, so having him operate in catch-and-shoot scenarios makes perfect sense.
Over the last two seasons, the Oklahoma native has taken 347 catch-and-shoot shots, totaling 378 points, creating a points per possession value of 1.08.
With ball-dominant guards like Schröder and Payton Pritchard projected to be sharing the court with the second unit, having a legitimate threat off the catch will keep defenses honest and discourage them from collapsing too deep on penetration drives. Richardson can carve out a role with the bench unit as a kick-out option when teams pinch from the wings or rotate over too early in help situations.
Another encouraging aspect about Richardson’s presence as a kick-out option is diversifying any potential Celtics playbook options. Last season, the Mavericks ran some hammer sets to create uncontested shot opportunities for Richardson (granted, these were minimal). With the penetrators the Celtics bench projects to have, we could be treated to plays like this consistently.
Watching some JRich film, and this hammer screen play stood out. We didn't see many (if any) hammer sets from the Celtics' second unit last year. Be a nice wrinkle to add back into the playbook - especially when the starters are sitting and need some easy offense pic.twitter.com/31XXx22o7s— Adam Taylor (@AdamTaylorNBA) August 23, 2021
For what it’s worth, this type of play would benefit multiple members of the Celtics roster, with Aaron Nesmith being the ideal beneficiary of this play call. However, if it gets Richardson going on a nightly basis, there's no harm in running this type of play over and over again.
One thing to note is that Richardson is at his best when shooting off the catch in a stationary position. Ask him to curl/cut off a screen and shoot, and results become far less desirable. It would seem that the 6’5’’ wing has trouble locating his shooting pocket on the move, which leads to unreliable shot mechanics and, in turn, low percentage success. The issue of movement shooting affects Richardson both as a ball-handler and off-ball catch threat, which is why he’s only taken 26 attempts as an off-ball catch-and-shoot threat over the last two seasons.
Richardson averages 2.8 assists per game for his career, but has produced flashes of a higher-level playmaker, specifically during the 2018-19 season, where he averaged 4.1 dimes per game for the Heat.
Coming off the Celtics bench, the Tennessee alum won’t be required to quarterback the second unit's offense; that task will firmly rest in the hands of Schröder, and to a lesser extent, Pritchard. Rather, Richardson will be asked to be judicial with his shot selection and utilize his passing ability to counter close-outs or manufacture space for shooters to lift/sink into.
Richardson ended last season with 165 regular season assists to his name.
Due to Richardson’s high usage in catch-and-shoot scenarios, he has high gravity levels when he receives a kick-out, which forces quick close-outs from the defense. When watching his assists from last season, a large portion of them came from either Richardson attacking closeouts off the dribble before offering secondary creation or with him hitting the open man with a pass as a defender gets into shot contest range.
Operating under the premise that Richardson is coming off the bench, you can envision a world where he would thrive in a secondary creator role, as he plays off the rotations caused by Dennis Schröder marauding through defenses.
Ideally, Richardson wouldn’t see much of a drop-off in terms of usage rate should he operate with the second unit, which would provide him the best possible chance of rediscovering the playmaking touch he displayed back in his final season in Miami.
Despite the Celtics -8.8 per 100 possessions without Tatum and Brown on the floor, the team still managed to hold opponents to a respectable 110.6 per 100 possessions. Defense has always been the calling card of a Celtics team, and the level of defensive intensity generally correlates to the team's larger-scale success.
Stevens noted Richardson’s competitive character as one of the reasons the Celtics are happy with his acquisition, and in the NBA, competitiveness is a prerequisite for high-level defensive play.
“Winning is really important to him. I think the way he separated himself when he joined the league with him being a mid-second-round pick showed his competitive character out of the gate. I think that that is something that we’re looking forward to adding to our team.”
Basketball Index tracks Richardson fulfilling a point of attack defender role, both from a skillset and usage standpoint. Operating under the current premise of Richardson coming off the bench, regardless of if he’s sharing the floor with Schröder or Smart, the Celtics project to have a robust perimeter protection unit they can lean on.
Richardson’s 6’8’’ wingspan will close off large portions of passing lanes. At the same time, his quick feet and respectable lateral quickness will ensure ball handlers find it tough to generate any separation on either step/drag backs or dribble drive penetration.
That same wingspan and lateral speed are what makes Richardson a tough prospect to attack in pick-and-roll situations last season; he held opponents to 34.8% shooting when guarding a PnR ball handler. Richardson guarded a total of 400 shot attempts from pick-and-roll ball handlers, allowing only 139 makes. You can see opponents' success rates by location in the shot chart below:
Another aspect of Richardson’s defense that projects to help the Celtics second unit is the lack of fouls he gives up when contesting shots. Out of 1371 defensive possessions Richardson participated in last season, he only fouled on 30 plays that led to an and-1, while his total foul count sat around 3.2%. Richardson is good at using his length and speed to force offensive mishaps and utilizes angles to cut off easy scoring opportunities.
A defensive pairing alongside either Smart or Schröder is going to be a nightmare for opposing teams, especially if those offenses are second units, who are often more limited in their offensive skillset.
Why the bench?
Richardson’s value comes as a secondary scorer and playmaker, with his defensive upside being the fancy bow that ties it all together. By placing multiple veterans between both units, there will seldom be the drop off we witnessed last season, and as such, this should help multiple players in the rotation rebuild their value around the league.
For Richardson specifically, he’s averaged somewhere between 17-20% usage rate while on the floor for his career. Operating with the starting unit pretty much guarantees that it will drop to career-low levels, which doesn’t provide six-year veterans with a path to consistent improvement. Coming off the bench will ensure he’s got the ball in his hand enough to be impactful, but not too much so that he feels the need to force his looks.
Another aspect is that including Richardson in offensive sets consistently will keep him engaged, which will translate well to the defensive end of the floor - something which will be hard to consistently do if he was sharing the floor with the Celtics two All-Star wings.
Overall, Richardson can be an excellent pick up for the Celtics, regardless of whether he starts. But, by limiting his role to two or three areas of the game, Richardson could encounter a renaissance that sees his value around the league rise, and that’s a win-win for everyone involved.