Not all basketball skills are created equal.
Some can exist in unlimited quantities across lineups. There is no such thing, for example, as too much shooting, passing, or well-timed help defense. Other skills have diminishing returns though.
Deploying a great screen setter can be immensely valuable within an ecosystem that includes a talented pick-and-roll initiator or good shooters capable of flying off picks away from the ball. But having multiple high-level screeners on the court doesn’t really bring much to the table unless those players also have other useful skills (think Steph Curry setting a back screen off the ball and the chaos the threat of his shooting creates).
The best NBA offensives leverage players with a wide breadth of skills. The more players on the court capable of shooting, attacking the basket off the bounce, moving without the ball, and passing, the harder it is for defenses to predict what might happen.
Think about the pressure the Brooklyn Nets can put on opponents simply by giving Kevin Durant the ball at the top of the key with James Harden and Kyrie Irving on the wings, Joe Harris in the corner, and Blake Griffin lurking in the dunker spot.
Literally anything could happen because everyone is a threat to do multiple things. Let alone the fact that Durant could simply rise up and shoot over the top of pretty much anyone in the league and Harden and Irving can breakdown opposing defenders from a standstill with ease.
Brooklyn's stars are each individually talented enough to build an above average NBA offense around on their own, but it’s their collective versatility – across both top-end talent and role players – that makes them nearly impossible to defend. Every time a defender gets beat off the dribble or caught sleeping sets off a chain reaction of split-second decisions that must be made amidst incredibly unpredictable conditions. There aren’t really any right answers.
The Nets are an outlier here given the ridiculous offensive firepower they can roll out, but the principle holds true across all teams. The less capable a defense is of determining what will happen in any series of events, the less likely they are to stop a team. Not everyone has the luxury of rolling out lineups that include five particularly versatile offensive threats.
Even some of the NBA’s best players have their warts. There are all sorts of individual deficiencies that can muck up an offensive: bad or low volume shooters, players who can’t pass, players who can’t dribble, one-trick ponies forced to play next to other one-trick ponies (e.g. pairing two traditional big men together).
The Boston Celtics roster was saddled with lots of players with limited or severely limited offensive skillsets last year. A full 65% of Boston’s non-garbage-time possessions included at least two of Daniel Theis, Robert Williams, Tristan Thompson, Grant Williams, or Semi Ojeleye. Those lineups had a weighted average offensive rating of 112.4, roughly two points per 100 possessions lower than Boston’s average for the year. Most non-Theis combinations were substantially worse.
We should make some distinctions before moving on. Both Theis and Robert Williams are actually plus-offensive players, but the things they do best weren’t accentuated by any of the other players listed above, and in many cases they were actually counter-acted fairly significantly. Let’s use the two of them as a test case. Boston couldn’t leverage Williams’ threat as a lob catcher and Theis’ ability to seal off defenders rolling to the hoop if they were on the court at the same time.
Grant Williams, Thompson, and Ojeleye fall into a less glamorous distinction, as harmful offensive players whose skills don’t outweigh their limitations. Williams is a great screen setter and occasionally good shooter, Thompson is a monster offensive rebounder, Ojeleye shoots a high percentage from deep (though on a low volume). None of them draw any attention when they have the ball outside of the paint, can dribble, or have much hope trying to finish by the basket.
Defenses gleefully helped off of the Grant Williams/Thompson/Ojeleye trio, making life harder for the rest of their teammates. They frequently did the same to Robert Williams and Theis when they weren’t part of the primary action. Watching the Celtics’ best offensive options play in tight spaces was painful, but preferable to allowing any of the team’s less gifted players attempt to create offense for themselves.
As a general rule, most NBA offenses can survive having one fairly limited player on the court, but it’s hard to build a coherent system with two, which is what the Celtics were dealing with for most of last year. Injuries and COVID absences didn’t help, but the primary issue was one of personnel.
Brad Stevens didn’t have any truly dynamic offensive weapons outside of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker, and most of his alternatives were severely lacking. He may have shifted that reality stepping into the role of President of Basketball Operations this summer. Stevens swapped Walker for a versatile big man in Al Horford, and signed two players capable of attacking off the dribble and functioning as nominal shooters in Josh Richardson and Dennis Schröder.
There is an opinion in the ether that Boston will be a worse offensive team heading into the year because they ditched Walker and opted not to re-sign Evan Fournier, without finding an equally talented offensive replacement, but that’s a flawed line of thinking. The Celtics didn’t need replacements for Walker and Fournier, but rather to reorganize the roster to build an entirely new offensive infrastructure.
Richardson and Schröder aren’t former All-Stars or 20-point per game scorers, but Boston has two of those in Brown and Tatum already, and the difference in either of them initiating offense or catching the ball against a defense in rotation as compared to Ojeleye or Grant Williams is massive.
Head coach Ime Udoka will have some decisions to make about how to structure his rotations to take advantage of the changes Stevens has made to his team. Any minutes in which he pairs Enes Kanter with Horford or Robert Williams may get messy, and while Richardson and Schröder are major upgrades in offensive ability as compared to the players whose minutes they are like to replace, neither is a particularly reliable shooter.
However, the pieces are in place for Udoka to build something that makes more sense than last year’s offense though. Don’t be surprised if this year’s collection of talent exceeds its predecessor.