The Boston Celtics are the favorites to win the 2024 NBA championship. Adding Kristaps Porzingis and Jrue Holiday this summer has given Joe Mazzulla’s team the deepest six or seven-man rotation in the NBA.
Porzingis will give Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown a new type of player to work with, someone who can create from the post, stretch the floor and protect the rim at an elite level. Holiday’s impacts will be more nuanced. For the most part, what Holiday brings to the rotation won’t be prominent within the box score.
It's not because Holiday isn’t a valuable offensive player or because he can’t create for himself. Because he will walk into the Celtics rotation as the fourth option, thus allowing him to play with some freedom and impact the game with the focus of making things easier for his teammates.
“I think Jrue is a natural leader, a natural glue guy,” Paul Pierce said following an October 5 practice. “He’s a champion. He’s respected around the league...As far as fit, I feel like he was the missing piece.”
Holiday will likely undertake a Swiss Army knife role. He will impact plays in many ways, most directly empowering Tatum and Brown. Here’s a look at some of the more prominent areas Holiday is likely to make life easier for the Jays.
When looking at the advanced stats, it’s easy to assume that usage rate is indicative of playmaking and scoring. However, the more telling statistic for playmaking is touches. How often did a player touch the ball? How quickly did they move the rock? And how many passes led to potential assists?
Tatum’s touches aren’t going to dip. The All-NBA forward has shown consistent development in his passing ability and ability to attack double teams with smart vision and timely dimes. Brown’s, however, may trend downward, not because Brown can’t create opportunities for himself or others but because Holiday can ease that burden on him.
Instead, Brown could see his usage rate rise, primarily off the catch, rip-through, or dribble while Holiday acts as a hub or secondary offensive fulcrum.
Take the above play, for example. The initial action occurs on the left side of the court. The defense has shifted to contain Khris Middleton’s drive off the rip screen, leaving no one focused on the weakside corner. Holiday recognizes where the defensive focus is, and sinks to fill the empty side, making himself available for the outlet pass as the defense collapses on the drive.
Holiday is a career 37.1% shooter from the corners, so the Miami Heat defense has to close out, allowing the veteran guard to put the ball on the floor and force another defensive shift off his penetration. Grayson Allen sinks into the weak corner to open up a “third side” action. Holiday hits the nail and then fires off the pass.
You can quickly see how translatable possessions like that will be for the Celtics. In fact, Boston’s floor spacing will be higher than Milwaukee’s last season, creating even more space for players to sink, cut, flare, or fade. Tatum and Brown will feast off secondary actions like this and punish every inch of space the defense affords them.
As a primary initiator, Holiday likes to utilize a “drag dribble” when coming off screens in pick-and-roll situations. The clip above illustrates Holiday “dragging” the pick-and-roll, meaning he continues his dribble around the perimeter, pulling/dragging the defense with him and creating openings around the court. Sometimes, that opening will benefit the roller, other times a spot-up shooter or even a cutter coming off an off-ball screen or darting through the lane.
Holiday can spot a pass. He can find an open man and get them the ball in their shooting pocket. The All-Star guard also boasts high-level processing speed, meaning he can survey the floor and react accordingly at pace. Tatum, Brown, and Porzingis will thrive off this type of service, especially if it leads to a scrambled defense trying to close down on the shooter.
Here is another example of Holiday dragging the pick-and-roll before pitching the ball back to the screener for an open three. It’s easy to envision Tatum or Porzingis getting consistent open looks from these actions, whereas Brown could be a secondary screener in a stagger action before cutting to the basket and receiving the bullet pass from Holiday.
Holiday’s primary remit on the Celtics will be to spearhead their defense. Holiday is an elite point-of-attack defender who hounds ball-handlers, rotates precisely and can switch multiple positions. Throughout the offseason, we’ve heard how Brown, Tatum, Joe Mazzulla, and even the departed Malcolm Brogdon wanted the team to return to their defensive identity. When Smart was traded to the Memphis Grizzlies, it didn’t seem like the defense would be what we’ve become accustomed to.
With Holiday in the rotation, Brown and Tatum will be empowered to focus on excelling within their roles. Both stars have all the physical attributes to become lockdown defenders, both individually during isolation possession and within the team structure. Having a padlock guard will only help them raise their game.
Yes, Tatum and Brown are used to playing alongside an elite defensive guard in Smart. However, Holiday will bring a fresh voice, fresh ideas, and a new leadership style. Sometimes, it’s not about the skill difference. It’s about being different. As a new face in the locker room, with a championship ring in his possession and All-Star appearances on his resume, Holiday will likely bring some fresh perspective on how the Celtics can execute on the defensive end, and the players will listen.
Here is where I usually cite some statistics to support my point. However, I believe that defense is a team effort, and defensive stats are team-based. It’s all about who you’re sharing the floor with, the role within the system, and, of course, the talent you’re facing.
So, as I usually do, I went to the film instead.
One of Holiday’s best defensive qualities is his screen navigation, that is, his ability to navigate screens without being taken out of the possession or consistently being caught up on the screener.
The above clip is interesting, as Holiday uses his body to nullify the screen, allowing him to stay connected to the ball-handler without absorbing contact. Holiday uses his footwork to ensure his hip is above the screen angle and his body to minimize the effectiveness. When Jimmy Butler drives, Holiday can slide his feet and make it difficult for Miami’s star player to bully his way into the paint. Butler misses this shot.
Imagine this with the Celtics. Tatum or Brown are stunting on the drive to pressure Butler’s handle. Porzingis is in drop, waiting to defend the rim. And all the while, Holiday controls proceedings by dictating the driving angle.
Here is another example of Holiday’s screen navigation. The Brooklyn Nets run a “Zoom 77” action to get Kevin Durant an open jumper on the wing. Holiday recognizes the double screen and goes under, allowing him to get straight back into the play and contest the jumper.
Rip and run
Want to get the best out of Brown? Get him going downhill with nothing but the basket in sight. Holiday’s ability to “rip ‘n run” after pilfering the ball is an exciting wrinkle to his game and what it can do for Boston.
The best way to describe Holiday’s brand of defense is controlled chaos. Just watching the above clip is enough to get you excited for the extra opportunities he will create for Brown and Tatum, especially if they leak out and look to push the pace.
Active hands and a willingness to follow the rock when he’s disrupted the passing rhythm or clogged the lane make Holiday such a pesky defender and will ensure Tatum and Brown feel empowered to play with a new level of intensity and commitment on the defensive end. Holiday will lead by example.
Secondary or tertiary scoring
Holiday has spent the last few seasons operating as the second option in Milwaukee’s offense. Heading into Boston, the veteran guard will be further down the pecking order, which works in both his and the Jays’ favor. With Holiday operating as a release valve when the defense collapses, Boston will have a high-level offensive threat operating as a secondary or tertiary scorer.
When off-ball, Holiday’s scoring ability will ensure his defender doesn’t cheat off him, nor will they leave him open in favor of double-teaming. Porzingis will bring similar value here, too. As such, both Tatum and Brown will face more one-on-one situations or at least have elite options to kick out to if required.
Last season, Holiday shot 69% around the rim, 45% from mid-range, and 39% from deep. Having that sort of production as a backup to your primary scorers is a luxury most teams can only dream of.
Holiday’s ability to run the pick-and-roll, create his own shot, score off the dribble and off the catch, and marshal an offense will ensure the Celtics have versatility in initiating actions throughout a game.
Tatum and Brown have never had such an elite supporting cast around them, at least not while they’ve been the top two guys on the roster. Pierce is right: Holiday could be the missing piece, especially if he adapts to his new role and produces impactful performances in some key areas.
The Celtics have been busy this summer. Adding Porzingis and Holiday will mean they want to be busy for the next 100 or so games. They have every chance of making history. Holiday’s skillset will be a big part of that.