As NBC Boston’s Brian Scalabrine said on a recent broadcast, “the Boston Celtics are embarrassing the NBA.”
They have won five games in a row in dominating fashion, beating their opponents by an average of 21.6 points a night. Three of those squads are playoff teams, too - the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, and Utah Jazz. This is more than just a recent fad, though. Boston has been dominating the NBA since the start of the new year.
The Celtics’ defense has been the most talked about reason behind their in-season turnaround, but it goes beyond that. Yes, their defense is elite, but it’s their versatility that makes this team so special. And that versatility extends to both sides of the floor.
Boston’s defense has held opponents to 100.7 points per game since the start of 2022, 2.5 points better than the second-best mark in the league. There are plenty of factors that go into this - Robert Williams’ role as a free safety, Marcus Smart’s point-of-attack-defense, Al Horford as a secondary shot-blocker - but the Celtics’ overall versatility is what makes their defensive engine purr.
Ime Udoka, for the most part, runs a seven-man rotation consisting of Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Horford, Robert Williams, Derrick White, and Grant Williams. Payton Pritchard and Daniel Theis are working their way into the rotation on a more consistent basis, too.
He was criticized for this early on in the season, but now after giving it some time, it’s clear that this was the plan all along. Boston runs a lineup where every single player is fully capable of guarding (*almost) every position.
(*The “almost” is reserved for Pritchard, who probably shouldn’t be guarding big men in the post.)
Basketball Index puts this versatility into statistical form with a stat that measures how often certain players guard each position on the court. They then take those percentages and boil them down into one number that represents how versatile of a defender each player is - positional versatility. Here’s how Boston’s top seven guys score:
- Grant Williams - 87.5
- Jayson Tatum - 84.4
- Jaylen Brown 83.6
- Marcus Smart - 79.3
- Derrick White - 75.3
- Robert Williams - 73.1
- Al Horford - 69.8
To put those numbers into perspective, Mikal Bridges scores a 78.8, Draymond Green scores a 75.5, Giannis Antetokounmpo scores a 69.4, and Bam Adebayo scores a 68.0 this season.
Now, Boston’s numbers are a bit inflated because of the style of defense they play, as Udoka has them switch almost everything. But the fact that the Celtics have the best defense in the league using a system that requires everyone to guard every other position shows how talented the cogs in the machine are.
While Boston’s defensive versatility stands out the most because of how dominant their defense has been, their offensive versatility has been impressive as well. Not only can each player in the lineup defend all five positions, but they can also do a little bit of everything on the offensive side of the floor.
The Celtics were heavily criticized for their lackluster offense at the start of the season, but since the start of 2022, they have a top-five offense in the NBA (116.7 ORtg). This includes the fourth-best field goal percentage (48.0 percent) and the fifth-best three-point percentage (36.9 percent). They’re even a top-ten team when it comes to assists (25.8).
Obviously, Tatum is the crux of the offense. His playmaking improvements have worked wonders for the Celtics. But everybody around him has begun making improvements in that regard as well.
Smart and White are the Celtics’ primary and secondary ball-handlers, but both Horford and Robert Williams are more than comfortable passing out of the post as well. Even Grant Williams has made improvements driving against closeouts and making the right reads.
As mentioned, the Celtics rank ninth in assists (25.8) since the start of the new year, as well as first in secondary assists (4.4) and ninth in assist points created (65.8). Everybody in their seven-man lineup is fully capable of making the right read, giving opposing teams headaches when trying to guard them. If they put too much pressure on any player, they are fully capable of passing out and finding the open man.
This versatility extends to beyond the three-point line, too. Outside of Robert Williams, everybody in Boston’s rotation can shoot it from deep. White has obviously struggled as of late, but he’s more than comfortable letting it fly, and before this season, he was a 35.7 percent shooter for his career.
Outside of White, Horford has been hot, Grant Williams is one of the most efficient shooters in the NBA, and Smart has shot 38.8 percent since the start of 2022. Pritchard’s shot is also starting to come around. He’s 19-of-30 (63.3 percent) from deep in his last five games. For a team that was knocked for their lack of shooters at the start of the season, they’ve been knock down shooters since the new year.
Boston’s core rotation is full of players who are more than capable of making the right read or pulling up from three themselves. That’s without even mentioning the eternal lob threat that is Robert Williams. There’s no weak link on the offensive side of the ball, a luxury that a lot of contending teams do not have.
The versatility that the Celtics possess on both sides of the ball is nightmare fuel for opponents. They have the defensive talent to switch everything, denying opposing players any space to work, and the offensive talent to work around the NBA’s top defenses, passing out of double teams and spacing the floor to perfection.
With only nine games left in the regular season, the Celtics have finally come into their own. Their versatility on defense is leading the charge, and their versatility on offense is quietly tearing through defenses. That’s been the key to their success.