More than a month later, it’s still difficult to believe the Celtics snatched Malcolm Brogdon away from the Pacers without surrendering a key rotational piece.
Brad Stevens’ willingness to give up a first-round pick and other players who haven’t panned out, in exchange for someone who should provide exactly what they needed, is refreshing, bold and commendable.
The Celtics are already a balanced, talented and well-constructed team, but Brogdon has a chance to take them to the next level. He’s unselfish, versatile, tough, skilled and poised, and if he stays healthy, he just might be the missing piece.
Here’s a look at how he should make life easier for his new teammates. It all revolves around taking pressure off of ball-handlers and setting them up for success.
Perhaps the only question mark around the deal is what it means for Marcus Smart. Will Smart start at point guard, start at shooting guard or come off the bench? While Smart starting at point guard is the most likely outcome, it’s not a forgone conclusion.
Brogdon is an excellent passer who averaged 7.1 assists per game in 2019-20 and 5.9 each of the past two seasons. He’s a strong shooter as well, but he’s at his best when he’s getting into the lane and spraying the ball to snipers and cutters for uncontested looks.
With Brogdon in the fold, there’s simply less pressure on Smart as a facilitator and a scorer. Of course, Smart will still take the occasional “noooo, noooo....YES!!!” 3-pointer, but he shouldn’t have to take as many.
Both players are physical and tall for their position, so they can ride the hot hand and exploit mismatches. Having Brogdon around takes the onus off of Smart. It gives him the flexibility of feeling out a game and affecting it however he sees fit, rather than always having to both pass and shoot frequently. His stats may go down, but his efficiency will likely go up. They can absolutely play and thrive together, and it shouldn’t take long for them to mesh.
But wait. What about Derrick White? Is he the odd man out here? Well no, not really, but his role may change slightly. As is the case with Smart, having Brogdon nearby removes some of White’s responsibility – in a good way.
He, too, excels when he’s getting downhill and finding shooters. If the Celtics have either Brogdon and Smart or Brogdon and White on the court, the ability to play them just about interchangeably is a nightmare for opponents to defend.
White shot just 37.3 percent from the floor in March, then 36.4 percent in the playoffs. He had his moments, but he looked hesitant, out of sorts and one step off more often than not. Brogdon will help keep him fresh, and he’ll get easier looks with another elite ball-handler nearby. It will be exhausting for opposing teams that lack depth to try to guard all three of them and then remember, oh wait, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are even bigger threats.
Brown was terrific for the bulk of the playoffs, but it’s no secret that his handle needs some serious work. Much of the reason it got so much worse in the playoffs was almost certainly due to overuse and general fatigue. Having another player out there who can create his own shot puts less stress on Brown to do it himself.
Brown’s 3-point percentage dipped from 39.7 in 2020-21 to 35.8 in 2021-22, and a lot of those misses stemmed from when he tried to do too much in isolation. His 3-point attempt rate tied a career high at 38.1 percent, and more than 24 percent of his made 3’s last year were unassisted, by far the highest of his career. If he can choose more wisely, off pristine ball movement, that would go a long way in helping his efficiency.
Defensively, Brown and Brogdon can switch everything, as the Celtics often do. Brown has an inch or so on him, but Brogdon is sturdy and can hold his own on bigs and guards.
When looking at Tatum’s NBA Finals performance by the numbers, he actually fared decently well. He averaged 21.5 points, 7 assists, and 6.8 rebounds, and shot 45.5 percent from 3-point range, but that doesn’t tell the full story.
In reality, it was one of the worst series he’s played to date. When the Celtics needed him to deliver, he was inconsistent and disappeared at times. Much of the reason for that was because he had to do too much. The Celtics became one-dimensional and predictable, and it resulted in Tatum coughing it up 3.8 times a game. There’s no excuse for that number, and it will likely never get that high again – especially with Brogdon’s arrival.
Brogdon can help handle the ball in crunch time and make it so Tatum doesn’t command so much attention. That’s what Smart and White were supposed to do, but having another playmaker there should go a long way. Brogdon is the team’s best dribbler and uses his body well to shield off defenders with the game on the line, a skill he can help Tatum learn through osmosis.
Tatum’s passing has improved significantly, and the next step is dealing with well-timed doubles that the Warriors mastered and used to their advantage. Having Brogdon by his side, as a threat to shoot, drive or pass, gives him an easy option to give it up and potentially get it back.
Robert Williams and Al Horford
Robert Williams and Brogdon should be lethal in the pick and roll. If Williams sets a screen, and shooters are spread around the court, Brogdon will make the right read more often than not.
The same goes for Horford in the pick and pop. Defenses will have to worry about so much else that Horford will be open for that little robotic yet automatic set shot of his. Horford and Brogdon also just seem like two guys who would really get along, and having another veteran presence around never hurts.
Brogdon rebounds extremely well for a guard. He’s averaged at least 5 per game each of the past two seasons and can more than hold his own there if the Celtics elect to go small and put him at the 2 or even the 3. If they put him at the 1, there’s no drop-off whatsoever and size is on their side. They can roll out a rangy and skilled Brogdon-Brown-Tatum-Williams-Williams lineup if they so choose.
Defensively, a lineup of Smart-Brogdon-Brown-Tatum and either Horford or Williams is just absurd. Plug in Grant Williams or White and the output is just only slightly worse defensively but still elite. Collectively, they can help compensate for Danilo Gallinari and Payton Pritchard’s shortcomings in that area, with Brogdon at the crux of everything.
Perhaps his best asset of all is that he makes everyone around him better. His natural ability to read the situation perfectly, play with or without the ball and dominate defensively make him a truly outstanding fit. Not every game is going to be seamless, but this move was unequivocally the right one. They’re better than they were in June.