Remember that NBA bubble? The one in Disney. The one that feels like forever ago but is barely a year behind us.
Josh Richardson was pretty dang good inside that bubble. He shot 39.7% from 3 while playing a prominent role for the Philadelphia 76ers. While the Celtics swept Philly in the first round, Richardson was indispensable and couldn’t come off the floor, logging 36 minutes a game in that series.
Less than one year later and Richardson’s value has taken a bit of a plunge. A poor season with the Dallas Mavericks drove him to the Celtics, where he hopes to regain some of his former promise and be the ultimate connector piece next to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
The question is how to get the best out of Richardson? What was it during his time in Philly and with the Miami Heat that caused him to produce so well? Did something go wrong in Dallas that will take time to repair? Is there a difference between playing next to Joel Embiid vs. Luka Doncic? Or is this simply a case of a guy who needs a change of scenery to the point where the Celtics are opportunistic simply for giving him a new opportunity?
During Richardson’s final year in Miami and his lone season in Philadelphia, he appeared poised to take the next step in becoming a solid third option for a team. His per-36 minute stats over those two seasons were exceptional: 16.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists while shooting 35.1% from 3 on 6 attempts.
Those numbers took only a slight hit in Dallas: 14.4 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.1 assists while shooting 33% from 3 on 5.4 attempts. It may not seem like that big of a decline, though something felt off from watching Richardson play.
It may be no coincidence that only eight games into his season, Richardson was pulled into COVID protocols along with several other Mavericks, and it is likely that time threw off the rest of his year. Richardson’s first 11 games back were pretty abysmal: 11.5 points, 2.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 27.1% from deep. He couldn’t get into a rhythm, and deserves none of the blame for such an occurrence.
About a month after his return to the lineup, Richardson was much more himself. Over the next nine contests, J-Rich put up 15.9 points and shot 36.7% from deep while playing much more inspired defense. Dallas won seven of nine games, capped off by back-to-back 20 point outings from Richardson. He was attacking the hoop frequently, got to the free throw line a great deal and served as the linchpin to the Mavericks’ best lineups.
The hot-and-cold Mavericks finished the regular season 9-3 and stampeded into the playoffs, pushing eventual Western Conference finalist Los Angeles Clippers to seven games. But Richardson’s role had diminished over the end run and tailed off through the playoffs. His 30 minutes a night turned into an average of 24 over the final regular season run. During the last three games of the Clippers series, while great wings Paul George and Kawhi Leonard were ripe for a defensively useful wing to guard them, Richardson played just 21 minutes total.
Luckily for Richardson, reclamation and a return to his impactful ways will be guided by Ime Udoka, an assistant on that Sixers team from the bubble. The familiarity, and the success he had during that time with Udoka, could make this a steal of an addition for the Celtics.
Richardson was pretty good coming off screens for the Sixers, used within their offense as a movement threat instead of standing on the perimeter and watching the stars go at it. In 2019-20, Richardson took 50 shots off screens, going 24-50 (48%) and posting a fantastic 1.143 points per possession. A year before with the Heat, his volume off screens was quite high: 65 shots, making 44.6% of them.
For some reason, his efficiency there tanked in Dallas, going only 15-46 (32.6%), finishing dead last in efficiency among those across the league with at least 40 possessions. It wasn’t a huge dip in volume, but it did feel much more clunky within the Mavs offense. There was much more constant movement in Philly’s offense — perhaps the key is to keep Richardson from standing still for too long.
With the Sixers, Richardson was awesome at making decisions around the nail hole, curling screens and getting to the sweet spot in the middle of the floor. They would run a few actions for him out of their Horns package, which was in play because the Sixers were trotting out lineups with multiple bigs like Al Horford and Joel Embiid. With Horford back in the fold in Boston and potentially appearing next to Robert Williams for stretches, a Horns element of the Udoka playbook makes sense.
The best set for Richardson was this misdirection pin down:
There’s a strong pull-up scorer in Richardson, and a guy who is caught in a tough place as a result. He isn’t an isolation specialist, and likely won’t be a top-three scorer on the Celtics. Typically those are the guys who have to cut mid-range jumpers and pull-ups out of their diet, relegated to spot-up duty or finishes at the rim. Perhaps a longer leash can be established for Richardson to get the most out of him.
More than anything, human nature is at play. The Mavericks offense last season featured a ton of standing around, watching Luke isolate or play out of spread ball screens. There’s potential for iso play in Boston with Tatum, another tall and talented scorer. The challenge is on Udoka to make these pieces fit together and utilize Richardson in a way that doesn’t make him a spectator. The less involved he is, the less impactful he can be. During the playoffs, when Richardson began to lose his role in Dallas, Doncic went into supernova mode: 35.7 points per game on 28 shots.
The Gordon Hayward Traded Player Exception (TPE) has trickled down all the way to this moment, where Richardson joins the Celtics as the latest filler of the “use it or lose it” mechanism. That doesn’t mean Richardson is spare parts — Brad Stevens extended his contract an additional year this summer — nor a guy who requires a ton of attention. He is a connector piece, a worthy defender who can guard 1 through 3, initiate offense at times and knock down open shots. He just needs to be involved enough on a play-to-play basis to squeeze that versatility out of his game.