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What is Boston’s biggest trade need: shooting or playmaking?

As the NBA trade deadline draws close, the Boston Celtics are struggling to find consistency. What additions are most needed on the roster?

NBA: Boston Celtics-Media Day David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

After a brutal 4th quarter collapse against the Trail Blazers, the Celtics now sit at 23-24 on the season with a crucial stretch of winnable games ahead of the NBA trade deadline. At this point in the season, most teams fall into one of two categories: buyers or sellers. Boston is in this strange spot where they definitely shouldn’t be pushing all of their chips to the middle of the table in hopes of contending, but they also can’t sit pretty and hold off as the deadline passes. This is Brad Stevens’ first trade deadline as President of Basketball Operations, and he now has the tall order of adding complimentary players around Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and emerging star Robert Williams.

As currently constructed on paper, the Celtics should be better than their record indicates. They also have some glaring issues with spacing and playmaking that have compounded the struggles of rookie head coach Ime Udoka and the new responsibilities given to their star wings. Both Tatum and Brown have had the mantle of leading scorers AND playmakers thrust upon them, for better or worse. With Tatum and Brown as the team’s top playmakers, opposing defenses will look to trap and lock down the duo in order to effectively hamper Boston’s offense. The Celtics have also struggled to close out games down the stretch, with last night’s blown lead as a painful reminder.

To be clear, while both of Boston’s young stars have room to grow and bloom, the team’s struggles do not solely fall at their feet. In a down year across the NBA for three point percentage, the Celtics only have five players shooting above the league average of 34.8% from deep. Per NBA Stats, the teams ranks 21st in scoring (107.4 PPG), 22nd in assists (22.8 APG), and while they rank 14th in three point attempts (36 3PA), they rank 24th in three point shooting (33.7 3P%).

From Brad Stevens’ perspective, you have to decide what is the best way to address the team’s issues on offense. Is adding another shooter or two alleviate some of the defensive pressure on Tatum and Brown? Or is a tertiary playmaker outside of your two stars more beneficial for the Celtics?

Let’s take a deeper look at the numbers to see what move Boston should make first. Per NBA Stats, Boston is ranked 26th on wide open threes, shooting 35% when the closest defender is at least 6 feet away. Boston’s shooting on open threes is almost identical, as they shoot 34.9% from deep when the defender is 4 to 6 feet away. Essentially, regardless of what the coverage is, Boston is struggling to shoot the ball from deep. But what players are taking these shots?

Of the team’s 1,690 attempts from deep, 1,495 of these shots have come from eight players: Tatum, Brown, Marcus Smart, Dennis Schroder, Al Horford, Grant Williams, Josh Richardson, and Payton Pritchard (in that order). This group is averaging 34.4% from deep, with Tatum (109/350, 31.1% 3P) and Brown (91/254, 35.8% 3P) leading the team in attempts. While one would expect and want your top two players leading the team in scoring and shooting, you need other shooters capable of knocking down shots to soften the defense and provide spacing. That’s how you optimize players like Tatum and Brown, by giving them the option to drive to the lane and have dependable shooters to kick out to if and when the defense collapses.

The dip in Tatum’s shooting is concerning, but it might come down to the fact that his minutes have been extremely high this season. Per NBA Stats, Tatum has logged the 3rd most minutes in the league (1,583 through 43 games) as well as ranking 4th in points (1,085) despite his shooting struggles. After a short layover following the bubble, Team USA Basketball, and a 2nd bout of COVID this season, Jayson Tatum might just be worn down. When asked about it after the Celtics lost to the Trail Blazers, Tatum said “I don’t think so...I get paid to play basketball. It’s been my dream since I was three years old. I’m going to play as often as I can, for as long as I can.” Tatum is currently in the longest three point drought of his career, missing his last 20 shots from deep, including a potential game winner against Portland. Regardless of what he may say, having another versatile wing to take some of the workload off Jayson Tatum’s plate would be beneficial in the long run.

If the Celtics can add another playmaker without giving up the farm, they should do it. But in my opinion, a lot of the issues stem from shot conversion and not shot creation, and simply having players with gravity to pull coverages away from Brown and Tatum can alleviate some of the shooting issues plaguing this team. Boston ranks 11th in total passes made and received on the season, but they’re 22nd in assists per game and 18th in total potential assists. The ball movement of a solid offense is there for the Celtics, but either the ball stops moving due to players not being open or players opting to call their own shots. I truly don’t believe this has to do with Boston’s primary playmakers not trying hard enough to get their teammates going.

Out of all players on the roster, Marcus Smart (378), Jayson Tatum (350) and Dennis Schroder (341) have notched the most potential assists for the Celtics. Al Horford is a distant fourth (226) with Jaylen Brown (188) rounding out the top-5. See the issue? Boston’s top five leaders in potential assists are also their top five leaders in three-point attempts, and out of the bunch only two of them are shooting league average or higher from deep (Brown and Schroder).

This is where an additional shooter or two would help immensely in Boston’s offense, players that you can insert into the lineup and can knock down catch-and-shoot threes and operate well off-ball. If there is a way to acquire both a shooter and a playmaker, Boston should be seriously considering it; not in an attempt to be contending this year, but to better position themselves and the roster built around Brown, Tatum, and Robert Williams. Regardless of what direction Brad Stevens ultimately chooses to go at the trade deadline, changes are needed in order to set this roster on the right path.

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