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A realistic goal for the Celtics? Lead the NBA in assists

They finished 14th last year, but it’s fair to expect better this season.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Miami Heat
Jayson Tatum passes to a teammate in a game against the Heat.
Jim Rassol-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tempting to dissect and analyze preseason stats, but the reality is that most are relatively meaningless.

For instance, the Sacramento Kings are allowing an NBA-low 84.5 points per game so far. Chances are that won't continue. If it does, kudos to them.

There are some stats, however, that at least have the potential to foreshadow a future regular season trend. Preseason success in a certain area certainly doesn’t guarantee regular season success in that area, but it sometimes can be a precursor for what’s to come.

One preseason stat this year is particularly intriguing. The Celtics are leading the NBA by a significant margin in assists per game (33). The next closest team is the Kings (banner or bust in Sacramento) at 29.5.

It’s important to note that the Celtics have played the Hornets twice, so these numbers may be a bit skewed. Even so, those same Hornets led the NBA last year at 28.1 per game, so 33 is quite impressive regardless.

So, will it continue? Well, it should, because the Celtics have the right personnel to be the best passing team in the NBA. They finished 14th in assists last year, at 24.8 a night, but their overall ineptitude early in the season was obviously difficult to overcome in that regard.

In the postseason, even though the number went down slightly to 24.5, that put them fifth overall. Defense is better in the playoffs, so scoring and assist numbers go down naturally. The Celtics moved the ball extremely well in the postseason – except for when they didn’t.

The next question: does it really matter how many assists they get? As long as they’re getting good shots, isn’t that enough? Well, kind of. The Celtics have the luxury of turning to Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to get them a bucket when they really need one.

However, both players had stretches in the playoffs where the Celtics counted on them too much and they coughed it up. Tatum and Brown are able and willing passers, and they’re at their best when the ball is moving fluidly.

The way Celtics have zipped it around the perimeter, cut, screened, and taken high-percentage shots in the preseason has been very encouraging. Nearly 47 percent of their shots have been 3-pointers, which is the top mark in the league – just above the Adelaide 36ers (don’t sleep on them either).

So, can a team that shoots a lot of 3’s and has two terrific isolation scorers lead the NBA in assists? Of course it can. Malcolm Brogdon, Marcus Smart and Derrick White are all outstanding passers, and Payton Pritchard, Tatum, Brown, Grant Williams, Al Horford, Blake Griffin and Luke Kornet all pass well for their role.

You could make a case that all ten of those players are above-average passers, and obviously Brogdon and Smart are elite. Sam Hauser doesn’t need to pass. He’s Sam bleepin’ Hauser. Everyone else in the rotation likes to keep the ball moving, and Hauser can when he doesn’t have an angle.

There’s a legitimate chance that Brogdon, Smart, White, Tatum and Brown could all average more than four assists per game. Let’s say Brogdon (6), Smart (6), White (4), Tatum (4), Brown (4), Horford (3), Pritchard (3) and everyone else (3) do their part. Those are relatively conservative numbers, and that’s 33 right there. Even if some totals are a bit lower, they could easily hit 28 or 29 and lead the league.

The days taking out the trash or making a sandwich while Dennis Schröder dribbles aimlessly in circles are over. This Celtics team is playing some outstanding offense through three preseason games. Regardless of who's out there, the mindset is simple. Get out and run, and if it’s not there, work it around to find great shots.

The play below is a prime example. Brown knows conceptually that he shouldn’t try to do too much when the double comes, but sometimes last year he fell for the trap. Here, he makes the simple play and finds White. White draws a double himself and swings it over to Hauser, who makes the uncontested layup – sorry 3-pointer.

Sure, it’s not exactly inspiring defense, but the principle remains the same.

There will inevitably be times where the Celtics give the ball to Tatum and Brown and tell them to go get a bucket. The vast majority of the time, though, elite ball movement should be present.

Keep an eye on the assist number throughout the season. It may serve as a barometer for how the team is faring overall.

This is a remarkably unselfish, balanced and poised group. The Celtics are the best passing team in the NBA on paper, and it’s up to them to prove it.

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