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Celtics lineups: the good, the bad, and the ugly

After an early December slump, Boston has posted a 10-2 stretch that might reveal its best combination of players

Milwaukee Bucks Vs Boston Celtics At TD Garden Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

At 33-12, it’s hard to have any complaints about the 2022-2023 season. Rotations have been good, players have been living up to potential or exceeding expectations across the board, and most of all, it’s an incredibly fun basketball team to watch.

But, as we do, we look for areas of improvement and thankfully, the Celtics had an ugly 1-5 stretch a few weeks ago to pick apart. They’ve accelerated since then to the tune of a 10-2 record over their last twelve games, but there is still a ton to learn from this season. Let’s dig into some lineup data from to see where some of the holes still lie.

LA Clippers v Boston Celtics Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

The bad and ugly

At first look, the Celtics 3-man lineups look fantastic. Any trio to play at least 300 minutes including Jayson Tatum has an net rating of at least 9, no surprise to anyone who has seen him play at all this year. Jaylen Brown has a similar set of lineup success with multiple high ranking trios, but there is one trio that catches the eye going the other way.

The Marcus Smart - Jaylen Brown- Macolm Brogdon trio has been pretty ugly, putting up a -15.4 net rating featuring an abysmal 54.3 eFG%. It’s been the worst trio they’ve had all season to play at least 90 minutes. The only trio that comes close is the G. Williams-Pritchard-Hauser combination at -14.9.

During the 1-5 stretch, they put up a -21.1 net rating, a startling figure considering they played 60 minutes together across five games. It’s a stunning number to look at, all three of those guys are among the best guards in the world, yet they have come across an unfortunate issue of too many repetitive skills. No trio with Marcus Smart should be allowing 120.9 points per 100 possessions in over 200 minutes of play time. That looks so bad, it feels like it should be illegal.

A closer look at their turnover numbers shows the true issue. The trio is sitting at a 1.49 AST/TO ratio while on the court together, and if one of them (or all 3 during the 1-5 stretch) is having a bad shooting stretch, the core idea of having them three on the floor together falls apart. Turnovers lead to easy transition buckets which can lead to overly aggressive offense leading to more turnovers leading to easy transition buckets again and again and again in a vicious and annoying cycle. Since all three are big time drivers to the basket, the other two need to be elite on the catch-and-shoot to match that skill and it just hasn’t happened yet this year.

Even adding Tatum or Horford doesn’t help. Both have way below average net rating at -13.0 and -17.7 respectively when playing with that trio. Add Grant Williams and it’s even worse (-28.1) on the back of an anemic 88.1 offensive rating. Slow pace, bad shooting stretches, a lot of repetitive skills in a lineup like this, so it’s not a surprise things muck up a bit.

One slice of good to come out of that lineup has been the inclusion of Robert Williams and Jayson Tatum — shocking, I’m sure. They’ve only played five minutes as a full lineup, but with a 28.2 net rating, I have to wonder if we see it used more and more as Rob gets healthier.

Speaking of Robert Williams…

Boston Celtics Practice Photo by Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images

The good

The best part about digging into analytics is when it matches what your eyes are telling you. Robert Williams incredible on-court skillset carries over across almost any lineup he is featured in. Basketball Reference says that he individually has already been worth 1.4 Win Shares in thirteen games and you can see it everywhere.

The starting lineup from last year has put up a 23.8 net rating, one of the best numbers for any team in the NBA over the last 12 games. His combination with Al Horford has returned to greatness as well; the duo have put up a 101.3 defensive rating already together; the only duo higher is Grant and Derrick White at 98.6. Oh, and Rob also saves the awful trio lineup! In 13 minutes together, they’ve put up a 21.4 net rating despite a 97.71 pace, way below the Celtics usual level, but hey, progress counts!

Another major positive during this recent 10-2 stretch has been Al Horford’s incredible return to form. He’s playing a lot of minutes, averaging nearly 30 a game during the stretch and the season as a whole, but his effectiveness at 36 years old is a pleasantly surprising: 44.1 3P% on 4.9 3PA, 3 turnovers to 33 assists, 16 steals + blocks to 17 fouls. What else can you really say at this point? We talk a lot about different trades and different guys who can “replace” Al Horford down the line. At this point, I’m starting to wonder if that player truly exists anywhere.

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