With the trade for Malcolm Brogdon, the Boston Celtics formed one of the most talented bullpen of guards in the NBA. Behind Jaylen Brown, they have an elite group of four guards ready to step in at either backcourt position - Brogdon, Marcus Smart, and Derrick White.
And Payton Pritchard.
Most fans might assume that Pritchard will default to the back end of the rotation, as the Celtics have invested a lot of assets into acquiring White and Brogdon. However, Pritchard worked his way into the rotation last year after months of proving himself. By the end of the year, Udoka was using Pritchard as a sparkplug scorer off the bench.
In the last month of the regular season, Pritchard played nearly 20 minutes per game. This didn’t come close to Smart’s 30 or White’s 29, but it was a huge step up from what he was playing at the start of the year.
While Smart, Brogdon, and White are all great defenders who fit in perfectly with Udoka’s switching scheme, none are consistent three-point shooters. In fact, while most fans criticize Smart for his lackluster shooting from distance, he actually shot better than Brogdon last year from range. Smart shot 33.1% on 5.1 attempts per game, while Brogdon shot 31.2% on 5.2 attempts per game.
Both Brogdon and White have been able to put up above-average three-point numbers in the past, but neither come close to what Pritchard brings to the table. Throughout his two years in the league, Pritchard has shot an impressive 41.2% from distance on 3.6 shots per game. That ranks third in team history behind Marcus Thornton and Eddie House (based on an admittedly small sample size).
If anything, Pritchard might actually see a bump in minutes heading into next season. Sure, the guard spot is extremely crowded, but the Celtics lack wings. At 6’4 and 6’5, respectively, White and Brogdon might be asked to play up a position more than normal. Even Smart, who stands at 6’3, could potentially play up in some small-ball lineups. They’re all good enough defenders to handle the role, and considering Grant Williams is the only wing on the team behind Jayson Tatum and Brown, they may be forced to.
This leaves more opportunities for Pritchard. While he’ll earn minutes because of his lights-out shooting and unwavering confidence, his defense has actually been widely overlooked. He’s not a game-changing defender like Smart or Jrue Holiday, but according to BBall Index, his on-ball defense rating is on par with players like Alex Caruso and Bruce Brown - two guys heralded for their defensive impact.
“I just try to take pride in defense … I hear it all the time, like I can't defend or something. I got a chip on my shoulder in that aspect. I'm out to prove that I'm not somebody you can go at.“— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) March 24, 2022
Payton Pritchard on his Jordan Clarkson defense that had Marcus Smart fired up. pic.twitter.com/D0lvPw69OL
But back to his offensive importance. Despite adding some crucial depth pieces this summer, the Celtics still don’t have many designated shooters on the roster. Danilo Gallinari was supposed to help fill in the gaps in that area, but his season ended before it even began. That leaves Pritchard and Williams as the two best shooters in the rotation.
Williams and Pritchard were the only two players that finished the year in Boston shooting over 36% from distance (with at least 100 attempts), and both ended at over 41%. That’s a five percent gap between the high-end shooters and those next up in the category. Plus, the two players who came close to 36% were Tatum and Brown. After that, it was Horford at 33.6% and Smart at 33.1%.
But why is that number of 36% important?
Last season, the Celtics shot above 36% from deep in 39 games. They went 32-7 in those contests, including 17-3 when they shot above 40%. On the flip side, that means that in games where they shot below 36% from three-point range, they went 19-24. That included a 7-14 record when they shot below 30%.
When the Celtics shot above 36%, they won games at a 67-win pace. That would be the best record the NBA has seen since the 2017 Golden State Warriors, who also won 67 games. Meanwhile, below 36% paced at 36 wins. That would have put them on par with the New York Knicks, Washington Wizards, and San Antonio Spurs last season.
The common narrative is that in order to earn minutes in Udoka’s rotation, you have to be an above-average defender. But Pritchard earned his stripes last year. He proved to Udoka that he could play valuable minutes, and he earned playing time in the playoffs because of it.
What isn’t talked about enough is how much Udoka stresses the three-ball. His offensive system is built around drive-and-kick opportunities, and without shooters surrounding the perimeter, that won’t work. Pritchard will need to defend, but because of the three-point-heavy offense, he’ll inevitably get opportunities.