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Should the Celtics shift to a “point center” system?

Robert Williams and Al Horford are some of the best passing bigs in the NBA. Should Ime Udoka be using them more?

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets - Game Two Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Robert Williams is fast becoming one of the most impactful members of the Boston Celtics rotation, not only because of his rim protection and threat as a lob target, but also due to his passing abilities. We’ve now had a large enough sample size of this current Celtics roster to understand their strengths, and more importantly, their flaws.

The term “point forward” has been around for decades at this point, ever since Scottie Pippen roamed the hardwood. Of course, LeBron James reinvigorated the league’s love for wings who can orchestrate the offense for others, and a new generation of point forwards was born. Yet, for all the Celtics’ rhetoric about developing Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown into floor generals, it would seem those efforts are still a work in progress, which only strengthens their dire need for playmaking, regardless of what position it comes from.

It’s clear the team lacks a genuine playmaker, and while many feel that skill should come from the guard position, the difficult truth is that pass-first point guards are scarce around the league. With that in mind, it’s easy to see why teams are placing more playmaking onus on their wings, and when fortunate enough to do so, on their big man.

Centers in the NBA have been evolving over the last decade, increasing in skill, as a positionless brand of basketball has taken a foothold within the league. Nikola Jokic is the shining light of those developments, a big man who can quarterback an offense one moment, and light you up the next. It’s no surprise then, that the Denver Nuggets use Jokic in a “point center” role, and perhaps that’s how Boston can solve their playmaking issues, at least in the short term.

In Robert Williams and Al Horford, the Celtics have two of the better passing big men the NBA has to offer. Sure, only one of them projects to be a long-term solution, but both reside on the roster right now, and if given the chance, could alleviate some of their team's struggles in the half-court.

According to PBP Stats, Horford and Williams have combined for 191 assists through the team's first 44 games of the season, while Tatum and Brown, who have a far superior usage rate, have accounted for 240 dimes between them. The guard tandem of Dennis Schroder and Marcus Smart leads the way with 369 total assists shared between them.

Celtics Total Assists
Celtics Total Assists
PBP Stats

Obviously, we need more context here. It’s one thing to see who is dishing out the most dimes and take that as a tell-all sign of where the offensive initiation is coming from, but we need to factor in how often a player has the ball for, along with how many of their passes could have potentially resulted in an assist had the recipient made their shot. Hopefully, that will give us a clearer picture of how the Celtics offense has looked and could be improved. 3StepsBasket has us covered for that data.

Assists + Secondary Assists / Usage Rate
Assists + Secondary Assists / Usage Rate

As we can see here, the pairing of Horford and Williams is second only to the guard tandem of Smart and Schroder when we allow for usage rate and hockey assists. So, doesn’t that mean the big man duo should be getting more reps as playmakers? Wouldn’t that free up Tatum and Brown to do what they do best which is score?

Ask yourself: when has the offense looked close to its best? Is it when Smart and Schroder are driving the lane, looking to kick out to the corners? Or perhaps it’s when Tatum and Brown are spearheading an attack, utilizing the pick-and-roll to generate space?

My guess is neither of those options fills you with immense confidence. and you would rather see the Celtics lean on their big men for offensive creation in a similar fashion to how the team played in their New Years' Eve victory over the Phoenix Suns. We often hear about how a player's size helps them read a defense, allowing them to make the correct pass regardless of how an opponent is playing them, so isn’t that conducive to running more offense through talented passing big men?

If we want our playmakers to have the height to see over a defense's front line and to spot cutters on the wing, then surely a 6’10’’ giant is better than a 6’3’’ guard? Or 6’7’’ wing? Of course, height only helps if you have the passing ability to complement it.

Thus far, we have looked at the statistical side of things, and asked some pertinent questions surrounding how the Celtics are divvying up their offensive initiation, but what does the film tell us? Will our eyes agree with the numbers?

“I think he’s better than I knew coming in, and I saw that early in training camp. It’s an area that I think is underestimated for him ... I was surprised more than the other people when I got here at how well he passed the ball,” Udoka said of Williams’ playmaking.

Plays like the two above both came from a five-out offense, where no player is inside of the three-point line. Williams operates above the break, in what is known as the delay. When watching these two plays, one thing quickly becomes clear: players have more room to cut towards the hoop, and trust that the Lousiana native will find them with a solid pass. And of course, the same can be said for Horford.

However, Boston’s bigs aren’t constrained to playmaking from the perimeter. Running your offense through a big man gives you numerous ways to attack a team. You can initiate from the low-block, mid-post, elbow, off a short-roll, or above the break.

Regardless of which big has the rock in their hands, and where on the floor they receive it (I know most of these clips are above the break in a five-out) their passing ability is allowing others to cut freely, providing Boston with a fluid offense that’s hard to predict and allows Brown and Tatum to get easier reps off the ball.

I’ll leave you with this paraphrased quote from the movie Paid In Full: “what good is having passing big men if you don’t use ‘em?”

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